BRISTOL:  Radical, Reflective, Resilient

Published On: 14 October 2022Categories: Insights, Social

Each year the Blue Earth Summit brings together makers and mavericks, founders and futurists, adventurers and investors, for three days in one of the most radical cities in the world.   This October was Bristol’s turn. So, what makes the city radical?


History of Radicalism

The toppling of the Edward Colston statue in June 2020 is just a recent incident in a long history of radicalism in Bristol that goes back almost two centuries.

In October 1831, the “Bristol Reform Riots’ protested against the lack of voting rights for about 90 per cent of the population.  Over a hundred years later, in 1963, the Bristol Bus Boycott opposed the Bristol Omnibus Company’s refusal to employ black or Asian bus crews in the city. These uprisings influenced future laws: universal suffrage in the Reform Act 1832 and the Race Relations Act 1965.

Dr James Watt, who is researching Bristol’s protest history at the University of Bristol told Aida Amako that ” the legacy of events like the riots, boycotts and protests has added to the image of Bristol as a radical city and not only are many Bristolians aware of it but it is also an important part of [their] self-identity.”


History of Prosperity

Bristol’s motto, Virtute et Industria – by Virtue and Industry, was probably incorporated in the early eighteenth century, the birth of the first industrial revolution and a time when Britain was the world’s biggest slave-trading nation.

Bristol is one apex of the triangular trading route and owes its historic prosperity to slavery, sugar, and technology. The River Severn rises in the Cambrian Mountains in Wales and flows into the Bristol Channel.  It streams through Coalbrookdale, where Abraham Darby pioneered an innovative method of iron smelting, and under Brunel’s iron bridge.  Iron goods were barged along the river to Bristol and shipped to Africa, where they were exchanged for enslaved people, who were forcibly transported to the West Indies and North America to toil on plantations, the main crop, sugar, was imported in Bristol.


City of Action and Reflection

I visited Bristol the week before the summit and discovered a city of action, dialogue, and reflection. Everywhere I looked from busses to lamp posts there were adverts for the `Clean Air Zone.  DPD vans were 100% electric.  Cycle routes linked the districts without feeling like an afterthought.   Near nightspots, eye-catching placards listed the 6 Bristol Rulesthis is how we do a great night out – promoting safety and well-being. Thought-provoking exhibitions at M Shed and the Cathedral are exploring Bristol’s role in creating some of today’s challenges and asking citizens how to design a better future.


Think Global:  Act Bristol

Bristol has declared climate and ecological emergencies. Think Global:  Act Bristol asks, “How did we get here?  What is our city’s role in it?  And how can we get out of it?  What does a just, green future look like?” Using historical objects from the museum’s collections, the exhibition helps citizens to think through “how the industry and growth of the city are built on has contributed to the problems and led to the changes that we’re experiencing right now.” The rallying cry is for people to add their voices and join the discussion.


Cathedral and the Slave Trade

At the Cathedral, the All God’s Children exhibition is part of its work to understand its links with the transatlantic trade of enslaved people.  Approximately 200 people who were buried or memorialised in the Cathedral between 1670 and 1900 had a close connection to the slavery-based economy.

Whilst several prominent references to Edward Colston in the stained glass windows have already been removed, other windows and monuments donated by wealthy merchants and plantation owners remain. The significant West Rose window is a memorial to the Daniel family, donated by their children with funds derived from the “wealth, prestige and influence” of the slave trade.

Thomas Daniel was referred to as the “King of Bristol”, one of Bristol’s richest and most influential men, who dominated the city’s political, mercantile, and manufacturing life from the 1780s to the 1830s. He and his descendants prospered as one of the city’s biggest sugar importers and owned plantations in Barbados. His sons continued to expand the family business and were awarded £130,000 (millions in today’s money) in compensation for the loss of “their property” under the parliamentary Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833.

Enslaved people were often given the name of their owner.  The living and recent descendants of John Issac Daniels have asked Bristol Cathedral to allow them to erect a monument in honour of John Issac and at least 4,424 African Caribbean people owned by Thomas Daniels and his brother John.

At the end of the Exhibition, everyone is invited to comment, reflect, and feedback about what the Cathedral should do next: “Should the Cathedral have a permanent exhibition explaining its links to the slave trade?  Should the cathedral remove some of all its monuments with a connection to the slave trade?  Should a monument be commissioned that remembers those who were trafficked, suffered, or died as a result of the Transatlantic slave trade?  What is the Cathedral’s role in countering racism in the church and our community today?”


Resilient City

The reflective approach of Bristol’s cultural institutions aligns with the principles of societal resilience:  having active citizens’ networks in communities, an inclusive and cohesive society, a safe neighbourhood and healthy lives enjoyed by citizens.

Perhaps less well-known is the city’s Resilience Strategy.  A document that sets out the 50-year vision and shares examples of learning from its radical past across diversity, infrastructure, innovation, sustainable food, culture, health, and well-being.

Bristol is one of five UK cities in the 100 Resilient Cities network.  Others are London, Greater Manchester, Glasgow, and Belfast.   Resilient Cities are defined as cities that can absorb, recover, and prepare for future shocks (economic, environmental, social, and institutional).

2022, has been a year of uncertainty and challenge:  extreme weather, war, political unrest, cost of living rises, financial market volatility, and social discourse.    This decade will be pivotal for deciding our future.   Bristol’s resilience brings optimism through radicalism, reflection, discovery, and dialogue.   The Blue Earth Summit was right.  Bristol is one of the most radical cities in the world.

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