I was born and brought up in the house where my mother still lives in the city of Bristol in the UK. Bristol used to be a great port and until the mid 19th century the quays were right in the centre of the city. Then a bigger port was built downstream and the old docks covered over. Now, a statue of Neptune brandishing his trident remains to remind Bristolians of their maritime past. My father and other members of my family worked for a company called WD & HO Wills, a huge tobacco company sited close to the old docks. Although I grew up in a small house, Bristol has many fine civic buildings built during the times when the port brought great wealth to the city.
When I was about 12 years old, I went on a school trip to the centre of Bristol to learn about the city’s history. We were taken to the Cathedral, the Suspension Bridge and Neptune’s statue but I can only remember one thing clearly. We went to a church called St Mary Redcliffe, very close to where the old docks would have been. I was told that under the church was a Crypt where slaves being traded from Africa were “stored” whilst the ships took on water and food to continue their journey on to America. There, the slaves were sold to work on tobacco plantations. On the return journey to Bristol, the ships would be loaded with the tobacco, making the trade doubly profitable for the merchants of the city. My teacher told me that you could still see iron rings on the wall where the slaves were chained up. It was as if I woke up to something at that point: under this beautiful church was buried a very dark secret. I have no idea if this story is true or not but later I found out that the bells of St Mary Redcliffe Church rang out in 1771 when William Wilberforce’s bill to ban the slave trade was defeated in Parliament. The citizens of Bristol celebrated as the lucrative slave and tobacco trade on which the wealth of the city was founded were allowed to continue.
Over time I slowly became aware of the deep roots the slave and tobacco trade has in my life. The big civic buildings that I was so familiar with as a child were built with money from the slave trade. My father worked in the tobacco industry and so the house I lived in, the food on my plate, the clothes on my back, were paid for from an industry that was intimately entwined with slavery. The comfort I gain from knowing my mother is well provided for in her old age comes from the pension my father earned having worked for WD & HO Wills all his life. I myself spent the years aged 18 – 21 working in their laboratories in the building that now houses The Tobacco Factory Theatre.
The larger story of which this is only a small part has lived inside me for half a century since that moment in the church. I feel it stirring and uncoiling as I see the continuing struggle all over the world with the Black Lives Matter movement. May I have the courage and humility to both support and listen to the stories that need to be told and witnessed at this time. As Maya Angelou famously said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you” and there is so much agony right now.
Waiting for the Dawn- photo taken by Madhu Shukla