Sweet History landmark (photo)

The Triangular Trade and Bristol

The city of Bristol grew during the 18th century and it was a wealthy city. The wealth came from the city’s involvement in the triangular trades (see above). The city also traded directly with European-owned colonies in the Americas, as well as with Europe itself. The profits created from these trading activities helped to fund the building of grand houses and public institutions, like the library and theatre.

The merchants involved in the African, Caribbean and American triangular trade were the people who were living in the grand houses and supporting the public buildings of Bristol during the 18th century. The Sweet History? trail around Central Bristol demonstrates this, showing some of the buildings and houses that can be linked to the slave trade.

During the 18th century, Bristol grew very quickly (the population in 1701 was about 20,000 but by the end of the century it had risen to about 64,000). The increase of the population was probably partly because there was lots of new work available in the city, created by the triangular trade and its industries. Merchants in Bristol were importing large amounts of sugar and tobacco from the European-owned slave plantations in the Americas. These raw goods had to be processed before they could be sold. The growth of new industries in Bristol to process the goods meant new jobs, and so people moved into the city to find work.

The city also grew because a lot of wealth was being generated from the triangular trade. This meant that there was lots of money to invest in new buildings. Many new houses were built in streets and squares. Men that had grown rich from the slave or sugar trades were able to build themselves comfortable new town houses or grand country houses. The Georgian House, Royal York Crescent and many of the houses in Bristol’s grand Queen Square (built between 1700 and 1718) were owned by people involved in the slave linked trades. Clifton was a popular retirement haven for former West India plantation owners.

It wasn’t just housing that developed in Bristol because of the triangular trade. Early maps of the city show that buildings linked to industry were also growing in number. By 1742 there were a number of glass cones (the buildings which produced glass) and sugar houses (the buildings that processed sugar). Both the glass production and sugar refining industries were linked to the slave trade. Glass bottles were needed to hold the brandy that was traded to West Africa in exchange for slaves and the beer, wine and cider that was traded to the Caribbean plantations in exchange for sugar and cotton. Glass bottles were also needed for the rum which was brought back from the Caribbean (it was made as a by-product of the sugar processing which was done on the islands).

Sugar houses began to develop in Bristol as the trade in raw sugar from the Caribbean islands grew. A number of Bristol merchant families grew rich from the sugar trade and used their wealth to buy, build or extend large country houses and estates around Bristol (including Redland Court, Henbury Manor and Kingsweston House).

Many of the trading ships used in the triangular trade had to be financed and insured and this meant the growth of the banking, insurance and trading institutions in Bristol. Buildings built for these purposes (including coffee houses that were often used by the merchants for doing business) grew during the 18th century and many still exist on Corn Street today.

Back to: The Transatlantic Slave Trade