Tony Coverdale, Chair of the Saltford Brass Mill Project, meeting with Miles Chambers, the Poet Laureate of Bristol, during the making of the BBC documentary 'Civilisations - The Remains of Slavery' at Saltford Brass Mill in 2018.
Export of Copper and Brass to Africa

The plot below shows the quantities of copper and brass exported to West Africa from England in the C18th. The points to note are: the initial import and re-export of copper and brass from mainland Europe; the rise of indigenous production; and the rapid decline of the industry following the abolition of slavery in 1807.
A cargo manifest of 1785, valued at £1,226 and expected to purchase 250 slaves, contained:
5 cwt Neptunes, 22" bottom. (70 Pans) £40
15 cwt Manillas (6,600 Manillas) £56 5s
1000 Copper Rods £50
A slave could be bought for £5 in West Africa and sold for £20 in the Caribbean.
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Africa Trade

Bristol - West Africa - Caribbean

In 2018, the BBC commissioned a documentary entitled "Civilisations - The Remains of Slavery". The documentary featured Miles Chambers, the Poet Laureate of Bristol, who examined artifacts from museums and galleries relating to the slave trade whilst visiting key locations across the region.  He interviewed curators, experts and academics and posed the question: should such controversial objects still be on display.  Miles followed the trade triangle, considering: goods that were manufactured in the West Country to barter for slaves in West Africa; the Merchant Venturers who invested in the voyages; the plantation owners in the Caribbean; the absentee plantation owners in Bath; and the abolitionists.  The brass mill featured in the documentary as a place where goods were manufactured that were bought by Merchant Venturers to trade for slaves.

Miles composed the following poem on his journey:

The Remains of Slavery

What shall we do with these West Country
Artifacts, shameful aspects of our history.

Pummelled brass indentations
on callous basins, bartered for innocent souls.
Wrists weighted with currency
made from unsympathetic bowls.
Arrogant Bristolian ships heavy with the
blood of African vitality.
An eclectic tower boasting a view of sweet
opulence as far as the eye can see.
Offensive, submissive figurines why are you called a Moor?
Bright white grave for a dark, black boy, made pure.
A Medallion of abolition begging for liberty.
A slave empire run from a house in Bath.
With an unusual Viceroy given to a black Master
when he was just a boy.

Show them, but don't celebrate them
To remind us of what we did in the past.
How we treated each other, in pursuit of wealth.
Lest we forget, lest history repeat itself.

 

Bristol Brass Company

The Bristol Brass Company, the operators of Saltford Brass Mill, was established in 1702 to provide brassware for Bristol based Merchant Venturers engaged in the burgeoning slave trade between Bristol, West Africa and the Caribbean.

Merchant Venturers raised money from investors to finance trading voyages, the investment paying for the charter of a ship and its crew plus a cargo of goods to be bartered for slaves at the end of the first leg of the voyage.  A typical West African cargo included linens, guns, gunpower and metals: copper, brass, lead and iron.  The investor’s letters of instruction to ship’s masters stipulated the cargo to be embarking in Bristol and where to obtain it, the destination in West Africa and the number of slaves to be bought, and the destination in the Caribbean with the expected selling price of the slaves.  Thomas Phillips, a ship’s master engaged in the triangular trade, wrote of his experiences in ‘A Voyage from England to Africa and forward to Barbados’, in which he stated:

“Cowries were essential, the smaller the more esteem’d. The next in demand are brass neptunes or basons, very large, thin and flat.  Certain textiles were also acceptable, but only to a limited extent; near half the cargo value must be cowries and brass basons to set off the other goods”.

Neptunes were a type of brass pan made in battery mills like Saltford Mill and the Bristol Brass Company was a major supplier into this market.

Bristol was a late-comer to the Africa Trade.  Portuguese merchants first opened up trade routes to Africa in the 1440s, trading brass manillas for pepper, ivory and slaves.  Dutch merchants entered the trade in the early 1600s, which they dominated throughout the seventeenth century.  The Portuguese and Dutch merchants obtained their brassware from the Meuse Basin where the brass industry was centred on the cities of Aachen, Liege and Namur.

Britain’s entry into the triangular trade came in 1562 when the privateer John Hawkins formed a syndicate of merchants to finance a voyage from Plymouth to the Caribbean via Sierra Leone.  Hawkins, with a flotilla of three ships, hijacked a Portuguese ship carrying 301 slaves which he traded in the West Indies.  Britain’s involvement in the trade increased after the English Civil War with trade being centred on London.  The Royal Africa Company, was established with Royal patronage in 1660, whose charter stated that it 'had the whole, entire and only trade for buying and selling bartering and exchanging of for or with any negroes, slaves, goods, wares, merchandise whatsoever'.  This excluded Bristol Merchants from the trade.

The Royal Africa Company lost its monopoly in 1689 with abdication of King James II, the supersession of William and Mary and the Bill of Rights.  The Bill repealed two royal monopolies relating to brass: the 1568 Society of Mines Royal and 1565 Company of Mineral and Battery Works.  The Bill of Rights therefore allowed Bristol Merchant Venturers to enter into the Africa Trade and permitted new companies to engage in the manufacture of copper and brassware.  The Bristol Brass Company was one such organisation.

The goods made by the Bristol Brass Company included Neptunes, Guinea Kettles, Lisbon Pans and Manillas, described at the links opposite.

As well as having utility as basins and pans, European brassware was also used in West Africa as a raw material for creating sculptures, known generically as Benin Bronzes.  The sculptures, created between the 1500s and 1800s, are in fact brass and were created by melting down brass objects obtained from European traders and re-casting the metal using the lost wax method. A number of Benin Bronzes are in the collection of the Bristol City Council Museum.  More information is provided on the link opposite.

Benin Bronzes