The English were late to the game, Portugal and Spain had an impressive headstart on them in the Age of Discovery and were reporting back to their respective kings of foreign lands in faraway places. Portugal was the first in the game, with reporting of amazing discoveries just off European shores of near paradises, island chains called the Azores and Madeira, in 1498 the biggest discovery came with the discovery of a sea route to India, the exotic land of spices that Europeans so craved. Spain was not far off, led by an Italian Christopher Columbus had already reported about the finding of a new India – America. The Portuguese and Spanish were bringing back such strange and new goods and people to their shores to be traded freely that they were getting extremely rich.
[The best documentary on this is actually from China, CCTV’s Rise of Great Powers to be exact. Unfortunately there are no English subtitles].
England because the United Kingdom had not yet formed) wanted in on the game so in 1497, King Henry VIII commissioned a Venetian John Cabot to discover the coasts of North America. Cabot’s voyages were a relative success with discovery of a new part of North America (modern day Canada and northeast United States) first landing in what is either Nova Scotia or Newfoundland in Canada today.
These voyages set off not from London, but from Bristol, a harbour city in the southwest of England.
Bristol is an old town, it was already known to be in existence right back in 1000, and by 1020 was known all over the British Isles for minting silver pennies bearing their name. It’s location at the coast of England meant that is was one of the entreports of England with the world, so important was Bristol that by the 14th century it had one of the largest populations in the country outside of London. Trade was initially conducted between Bristol and Iceland, Ireland and Gascony in present day France. After the successful ventures of John Cabot, Bristol was subsequently used as a point of departure for British trade with the Spanish Empire and its colonies in America. A significant portion of Bristol’s activities then were illegal, since England and Spain were at war – not that it stopped merchants from getting rich.
Bristol has had a dark history with slavery, England’s role in the slave trade increased in the 18th century and Bristol was an important distribution centre for slaves to be sold from Africa to the Americas. It was a business that was obviously lucrative since it lasted for more than a century, this despite a case called Somerset v Stewart which declared slavery illegal on the British Isles (leaving the legality of slavery ambiguous in the colonies). This ended in 1807 after heroic work by Thomas Clarkson who campaigned tirelessly to see an end to slavery. Clarkson was himself awakened to slavery through an essay competition he took part in as an undergraduate at Cambridge University and carried on his mission for the remainder part of his life.
Technology caused the seafaring lifeblood of Bristol’s old town to be sucked out of its tributary veins. Ship-building technology had progressed to such a level that the meandering route of the River Avon became a challenge. The flow of ships slowed to a trickle and to combat that the harbour of the city was moved closer to the coast. Development in transportation meant that cargo did not always have to go through Bristol before being moved elsewhere in the country.
This meant that the city proper had to reinvent itself.
And it has, Bristol in the last decade has transformed from a trading outpost into a techology and services haven, being home to significant financial services, engineering, tech start up and aerospace sectors. It says a lot that this is the second-richest big city in the UK (more than half a million people), after London.
You can see it by how the once rough neighbourhood of Bedminster has been reinvented into a street art paradise, and is now how to many ‘creative’ industries,
and the once busy wharf is now a relaxing stroll for people on a relaxing weekend.
Join me over the next few days, as I pop by Bristol to sample a taster of what Bristol is today.
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