Banksy Bristol

Bristol, England: From Slave Trading to Activism

I would wager that prior to June 2020, most Americans had never heard of Bristol, England. Bristol has come a long way from its slave trading past. According to the BBC: "Bristol merchants were granted the right to trade in slaves in 1698 and it did not take them long to turn the business opportunity into profit. From 1698, to the end of the Slave Trade in Britain in 1807, just over 2,100 Bristol ships set sail on slaving voyages." The city of Bristol was a wealthy merchants' city and many of these merchants got their wealth from the buying and selling of human beings.

Fast forward to 2020 and Bristol was the site of many protests that stemmed from the murder of George Floyd. For years people had grumbled about the statue of slave trader Edward Colston, because Bristol had evolved into a gritty, progressive university town that birthed the likes of Banksy and Massive Attack. Bristol had been the site of historic progressive protests and activism that included the 1831 reform riots, the 1963 bus boycott, and the 1980 St. Pauls riots. I even randomly stumbled upon a statue of Henrietta Lacks at the University of Bristol. Her descendants were there for its unveiling. Bristol had therefore become incongruous to a statue that celebrated a slave trader.

In the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Edward Colston's statue was toppled and rolled into the city harbor. The statue is now displayed at M Shed Museum. A statue of a local activist had temporarily been placed at the site of the Colston statue, but was removed by the city because it was not officially sanctioned. The locals I spoke to said they had no idea what will permanently replace the Colston statue.

Me at the base of the infamous statue of slave trader Edward Colston that was torn down and rolled into the harbor in 2020.

One thing that struck me about Bristol was the music scene and street art. Just walking down the street, I heard several dance parties. There was even a rave at an abandoned church. The city was gritty and youthful, but didn't feel dangerous and sketchy. While walking down the street near the university, I saw a young man with green hair wearing a long pink tutu-like skirt and a black shirt with silver spikes. Also, there were many Banksy pieces scattered throughout the city. My favorite is near an amazing Sri Lankan restaurant called Nadu on Stokes Croft street, which featured a teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail with the inscription: "Mild Mild West."

Bristol street art

Aside from its history of progressivism, Bristol is home to engineers who were way ahead of their time. One of my colleagues lived in Bristol and suggested that I visit the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which is one of the oldest surviving iron suspension bridges in the world. The design of the bridge is based on an earlier design by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the engineer who designed the SS Great Britain (more on that later). The bridge has a free visitor center, but sadly, I went during a public holiday, so it was closed.

Clifton Suspension Bridge

There were so many things that I wanted to see in Bristol, but I only had a few days. Given its rave reviews, I decided to make the SS Great Britain a priority on my to do list. The SS Great Britain is a former passenger steamship turned museum that was advanced for its time, and was the largest passenger ship in the world from 1845 to 1853. Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed the ship for the Great Western Steamship Company's transatlantic service between Bristol and New York City. The SS Great Britain was the first large, steal ocean-going ship with a screw propeller and, in 1845, was the first iron steam ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean in 14 days. The SS Great Britain later carried thousands of emigrants to Australia. In 1884, the ship was retired to the Falkland Islands and was used as a warehouse, quarantine ship, and coal hulk. In 1970, after the SS Great Britain had been abandoned for 33 years, it was returned to the same Bristol dry dock where it had been built 127 years earlier. It has been fully restored, including the first class and steerage cabins. The museum had many interactive exhibits including one where guests could learn more about actual passengers and crew. It is definitely worth visiting.

 Isambard Kingdom Brunel

SS Great Britain

First class cabin

I definitely want to return to Bristol. The food and music scenes are amazing, and I'd like to see the permanent exhibition about the toppling of the Colston statue at M Shed. I arrived in Bristol by train from London, dropped off my suitcase and walked to Nadu restaurant. I took in the street art and drum & bass music bellowing out from various venues and thought to myself: "I like the vibe."

Clifton Suspension Bridge
SS Great Britain
M Shed
Bristol Museum & Art Gallery
Palestinian Cultural Centre

Caribbean Croft
Marmo Restaurant & Wine Bar.

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