Lecturer at the University of Bristol on slavery and the dark past of two more prominent names
The overthrow of the statue of slave trader and philanthropist Edward Colston last June, and the subsequent trial and acquittal of Colston 4, sparked a push for change within many institutions.
University of Bristol lecturer and historian Richard Stone, who specializes in the history of the transatlantic slave economy, believes it is crucial to examine the broader role of charity and slavery in Bristol.
On January 13, Dr Stone will host a talk at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery exploring the Wills and Fry families’ tobacco and chocolate trade, respectively, and how they established their fortunes in real life.
READ MORE: Mayor says Bristol needs to move on from Colston ‘drama’
Prior to the conference, Dr Stone spoke to Bristol Live on the role of families in using slavery to produce ingredients, despite their philanthropic work in the abolition of slavery.
He said: “My work began by researching the links between slavery and my own institution, the University of Bristol, which led me to the two families, the Wills and Fry families.
“They were major donors to the University but also to other institutions across the city, including the museum among them. So I wanted to talk about them because of their links to slavery and their impact in the city.
Dr Stone’s attention turned to both families in 2017, when an online petition was created by students at the University to rename the Wills Memorial Building due to the benefactor’s ties to slavery.
This prompted him to expand his research, with the goal of examining not only the money that was offered, but more importantly, how that money was earned.
Dr Stone said, “We can discuss the technical details of the reasoning that they made a lot of money from slavery, but ultimately they made the majority of the money after slavery was abolished.
“But the other thing is that slavery and other exploitative practices like slavery continued well beyond what we consider to be the date of abolition, in 1833 or 1863 in the United States. .
“For example, in the case of the Fry family, where some would call indentured servitude – but I would certainly call it slavery.”
He referred to “frankly horrible labor practices” which he said were identified by the research.
Dr Stone said: “In Portuguese São Tomé, it turns out that at the end of 1909 itself, the Fry family were sourcing their cocoa beans from São Tomé, a Portuguese island off the African coast.
“Slavery was abolished there in 1873, but when you read the labor practices there and the roots of ‘indentured servants’ were bought off the coast of Nigeria and shipped to São Tomé.
“The corpses, irons, chains seen along the road, do you think – in fact, a century after the abolition of the slave trade, that hasn’t changed much.”
Dr Stone pointed out that such practices not only benefit families’ businesses, but also the institutions they heavily fund, including the University of Bristol.
He explained: “The big problem is that the sums of money that went into these institutions. For example, the Wills family contributed more than 60 percent of donations to the university in its first 50 years.
“It’s very difficult to convert to modern sums of money, but we’re talking about £ 600million and up, so it’s really a huge importance that these families have in the city today.
“I don’t think I even realized how big a role they played – how much to think about it, being part of the college that made my career and my life in so many ways, how I in turn gone through this, i am a beneficiary of slavery.
Dr Stone hopes his next lecture can help enlighten others to understand Bristol’s history in order to advance the city and its institutions.
He adds that by taking responsibility for the past, there is an opportunity to become an effective champion of diversity and inclusion.
Dr Stone said: “A lot of people care about this as we saw with the Colston 4 trial and it’s a big deal in the city, with people on both sides engaging on what’s good and bad in terms of remembering the past.
“For me, it’s really important to talk about these things so that we don’t deepen the divisions in our society today.
“We really need to get all the information out there, have an informed discussion about it, and then hopefully that means we can move forward being more united than a less fractured society.”
More information about the free online lecture can be found on the Bristol Museum website.
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