Pero’s Bridge. A rather odd looking fellow with his elephantine bugles blasting into the sky (These actually have a practical purpose – no nothing musical – but rather they act as counterweights when the bridge raises to allow vessels through. I’ve seen this happen once, anyone else?).
Architecture aside, Pero’s bridge has a charisma; where the holographic facades of Millennium Square bounce off the renovated sheds and warehouses along the waterfront and reflect the bricks and ghosts of Queen Square. The air is full of the syncopated rhythms of buskers and street artists playing to the pedestrian traffic …..
…… or sometimes the air is just thick with fog.
It is a pretty soulful place and fast becoming Bristol’s equivalent of Paris’ Pont Des Arts.
And with a view like that who wouldn’t fall head over heels for the nearest passer by.
So with your senses aroused with quiet murmurings of excitement, optimism and freedom it is all the more poignant to draw in a breath to remember the eponymous character of this bridge , whose own story stands in stark contrast – William ‘Pero’ Jones.
Pero was a slave, born in 1753 in the Caribbean island of Nevis. Aged 12 he, along with his sisters Nancy and Sheeba, was bought by John Pinney to work on his Montravers plantation.* Escaping the relentless thick canes of the field and he the stickly heat of the crude sugar industry Pero became Pinney’s personal servant, in 1776 trained as a barber (which meant pulling teeth as well as cutting hair and maybe meaning he could earn himself some money) and entrusted to run errands carrying large amounts of cash.
When John Pinney decided to move his family back to England he took with him Pero and a ‘freed’ slave Fanny Coker to be his Lady’s maid. Once in Bristol Pero became one of the 1000’s of ‘slave servants’ that resided in England.** As a slave Pero was cheaper than a servant but also displayed Pinney’s wealth.
Although a proudly displayed ornament, at this point Pero became a more invisible character. In a British society that was far more coldly formal that that of the West Indies Pero became increasingly omitted from the written records. However we do know is that the Pinney family rented 5 Park Street until 1791 when they moved into their new house designed by William Paty, a family responsible for so much of Bristol’s – slightly off kilter – Georgian houses. Over-looking the Cathedral, catching glimpses of the masts of ships it still acts as a window to this by gone age as the Georgian House museum.
We also know that Pero returned to Nevis twice, first in 1791 and again in 1794. The second time it was a complicated affair getting there and on the way back to Bristol (all the while being ordered to pay special attention to turtle Pinney had bought) it was a severely tempestuous crossing. A rather pathetic fallacy of things to come as after this Pero rebelled against his role as a slave and turned to alcohol, Pinney claiming he was,
“a great lover of liquor and connected with such abandoned characters that we could not depend on him a moment”. (1)
Frustrated and embittered by his situation having served Pinney for 29 years at this point? Literate and bright he would have been acutely aware of the abolitionist movement. Heartbroken perhaps? Over the daughters he had been forced to l leave in the West Indies.***
Whatever the cause, sick with it all the Pinney family sent Pero to Ashton, in the country outside Bristol for fresh air (and to be hidden away). Although they visited often he was never given that last right of freedom and died in 1798.
“After being almost useless caused by drunkenness and dissipation…….though it was of great relief to himself and for us”. (2)
Pero’s story is a tragedy and we can empathise with his plight, an emotional sluice into the horrors of slavery and the slave trade, but is it enough? Pero’s life as a slave in Bristol, though not uncommon, does not reflect the lives of the millions this bridge is supposed to commemorate. Completed in 1999 its naming has been described as an ‘afterthought’ and ‘gesture politics’. 2007 and the bicentenary of the abolition of the Slave Trade bought renewed interest and a push for memorials, though this is something that Bristol still seems to mince around and is rather lacking. One tactic has been to push for the changing of names connected with Slave Traders, but rather than focusing on the villianising of deceased figureheads, surely there should be a focus on actually respecting the lives of all of those who suffered by the hand of slavery? The dedication to their memories standing out all the more by being juxtaposed against the backdrop of a city which slavery helped shape.
Will the proposed Transatlantic Slave Trade Memorial help achieve this? Why not go and scope out their plans on display at the Engine Shed until the end of the month?
*The Pinney family themselves also had a rather colourful history and reasons for being established in Nevis. After being involved in the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685 Azariah Pinney was bailed out of a death sentence by his sister and instead was transported to the West Indies for a 15 year sentence. Once there he acted as an agent for his London based merchant brother and imported his Somerset family’s lace before eventually obtaining land and a plantation and well the rest is history. Funny how things turn out….
Shortly after the abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807 the Pinney’s sold their plantation reluctantly to Edward Huggins, a man whose cruelty to his slaves gave an extra impetus to the case for abolition of slavery.
** The majority of slave servants were resident in London, the rest largely in the port cities of Liverpool and Bristol. Though a few came straight from Africa – ‘Privilege’ slaves, usually a form of part payment to a ships captain – the majority were a symbol of wealth and status, though it is unlikely Pero had a padlocked collar.
*** Though not entirely confirmed it is likely that Pero had two daughters, by two different women, Princess and Nanny.
(1) Christine and Small. Davide, Pero: The Life of a Slave in Eighteenth Century Bristol, (2004),p. 55
(2) Ibid., p.58
WANT MORE? VISIT THE:
The Georgian House Museum, Charlotte Street – Step back in time and learn more about Pero, Pinney and their worlds. Reopen Sat 4th April, Free Entry http://www.bristolmuseums.org.uk/georgian-house-museum/
Mshed – Learn more about Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade. Open Tues – Sun, Free Entry (donations appreciated). http://www.bristolmuseums.org.uk/m-shed/
The Engine Shed – See the TSTM’s proposed Transatlantic Slave Trade Memorial, until the end of March. Visit the Severn Beach Site on March 25th 2015. http://tstmbristol.wix.com/tstm-bristol
INFORMATION AND THINGS TO READ
Madge Dresser – (Where to start), brilliant historian, speaker and lady with her finger on the pulse. Pretty much any of her publications.
Eickleman. Christine and Small. Davide, Pero: The Life of a Slave in Eighteenth Century Bristol (2004)
Coules. Victoria, The Trade: Bristol and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (2007)