“What does a man want more than a pocket full of gold and a mermaid”, Peter Martin.
Peter Martin, otherwise known as Pirate Pete, is equipped with a thick local accent and years of hobbyist knowledge to undergo his job, which entails sharing his insight into the pirate and smugglers history of his hometown, Bristol. He leads groups of intrigued individuals, both tourists and locals, around unsuspected sites of interest that allude to Bristol’s fascinating history. For Pete this is much more than a job, this is an outlet for his passion project and his extensive internal database that he has been meticulously sculpting for the best part of his life. His melodic tone and ease of speech offers trust in what he describes, but he concedes that there has been a convergence of fact and fiction over the years. Despite perhaps being slightly romanticised he affirms that what he says is based upon truths.
Peter, once an interior designer, has quite a history of his own. He was born and grew up in the Norman Abbey gatehouse of the Bristol Cathedral; a proud monument within Bristol’s city centre sat a stones throw from the harbour side. His interest into the city’s history stems back to his childhood; one that was not initiated by crude Jolly Rogers or glorified preconceptions, but by a set of Peruvian silver candle sticks originally brought into the country as pirate loot (now to be found in the Elder Lady Chapel). Through a joyful recount of his childhood and how his imagination had ran wild in the scandalous doings of seafaring ancestors, it could evidently be seen that he was still caught up in the stories that had absorbed him as a child, so much so that he had continued to explore the histories as an adult.
Until recently, it had been external to his career that Pete explored the questionably fantastical history of centuries full of smugglers and pirates. After years of research he now relays his findings and the city’s pirate history through walks, with the philosophy that, “Every 50 metres there’s a different story to be told.” He begins by proudly explaining that Bristol was the home of pirates, and that every British colony was formed from ships that sailed out of Bristol harbour; a fact that he repeats numerous times. Pete claims that North America had in actuality been discovered nearly 200 years prior to its official discovery, and had been used for secret trading of fish, condoned by the King as an expedition to explore to the regions past Iceland. He reiterates that, “It wasn’t Columbus that discovered America, and it wasn’t Captain Cooke that discovered Australia, to the Australians’ disarray it was a Bristolian pirate.” He is full of energetic conspiracies.
We dodged and weaved through Bristol’s busy pedestrian traffic; this being a probable contributing reason why many Bristolians walk blind to the history that surrounds them. I walked with Pete over Pero’s bridge, a modern piece of infrastructure draped in a history that dates back to the slave trade. From the bridge, the evidence of a man-made inlet can be seen; cobbled walls that line the water discreetly disappear beneath the city, definitely not nature’s work. St Augustine’s reach (the name of the inlet) brings the waters edge into the city centre, and it was an important part of Bristol’s harbour in the days of industry. For those who are familiar with the quayside this feels quite a natural sight, but to the inquisitive eye it leads to intrigue. Through the illusive black doors at the seeming-to-be end of the reach, Pete explains, the water continues for another 3 miles with over a dozen mills between here and the endpoint, of which is underneath the M32. The clandestine caverns were the havens of the tobacco smuggling and tax dodging. This starts the imaginative stories that Pete begins to describe.
Pero, whom the bridge was named after, was a black slave boy who was sold for twenty pounds to John Pinney, who was the owner of many sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean. Despite Bristol’s involvement within the slave trade only 88 black slaves landed in Bristol Harbour. This is not to say that Bristolian seafarers did not have their hand in the slave business. In a city of sandstone, famous for their glass making, traders would travel to the Caribbean with Bristol-made bottles of rum, to be used as trade currency. According to Pete, one bottle of rum would get you one slave from the Caribbean (RRP £9- seen only as a product of business and not as a human being). The slave would then be shipped to North America and sold for up to £200. A tasty profit for those involved and for the covert financiers of the aristocracy sat back at home in the comforts of their stately homes.
Arguably Black Boy Hill, at the top of White Ladies Road (that according to the Post Office does not actually exist) Pete suggests was named after Pero as well. Other suggestions include that it was named after a pub that has previously resided there called Blackboy’s Tavern (and before this, Blackamoor’s Head), been said to have no affiliation to Bristol’s slave trade. In evidence against this, it is interesting to discover that the pub now carrying the Blackboy name was previously called Elephant and Castle, referring to the logo for the Royal Africa Company, which made its fortune through slave trading.
Pete and I take back to the cobbled streets and the waterfront to walk past replica boats, and discreet landmarks; evidence of the tales that Pete assures me to be true. We cross the water to discover the remnants of another underground system: a vast seven mile network of caves. They are called caves but in actuality they are quarries, man-made dugouts; an impressive thought that our 17th century predecessors were able to dig out such distances underground. The cave system runs underneath Redcliffe, linking the places of interest for smugglers, pirates, captains and alike. These included, pubs, houses and places of trade, but the caves were also used as storage for booty and contraband. Amongst what the caves were used to store was 140 French prisoners, who were held there during the years at war with France. The caves also ensured the naval captain’s safe passage home from the pubs, from which the landlord (or lady) would instruct a young boy with an oil lamp to escort the inebriated individual through the red sand stone passages.
These caves are far from fiction, and can be explored for one day a year on what is called Open Doors Day, when the caves are open to the public. The rest of the year the entrances can be seen in various furtive locations in Bristol which, bared off, ignite an added air of mystery.
The city’s contemporary haunts and watering holes are key places in the stories of crocks and sea merchants, both fact and fictional. The Ostrich, named after the market that used to take place out the front of the pub that solely sold Ostrich feathers (a trending fashion in the 18th century), holds one of the entrances to the caves, and lies just beneath the cliff top where a coloured row of terraces sit; the Captains houses. The Captains houses, aptly named, overlook the harbourside and show their naval stature.
The Hole in the Wall, situated between Mud Dock, Welsh back, and Queens Square, was named after the spy-hole within the public house “that enabled 18th century sailors and smugglers to keep watch for customs men and press gangs. The Coach and Horses, as it was know in the 18th century, was prime recruitment territory for the Navy”.(Quote from The Hole in Wall website.) As well as press gangs from naval officers, The Hole in the Wall was used by the pirate Captains to entice seamen to the pub under the guise of free alcohol. Drinkers would wake up after an inebriated night to find themselves half way across the Atlantic, perhaps never to return.
The Hole in the Wall also, according to Pete, is where Treasure Island was written, with inspiration stemming from the proprietor with a peg leg and pet parrot; a character that went on to be the face of ‘the pirate.’ Pete illuminates a less known Bristol; a smugglers and pirates city. Even those familiar find something new or discover something in a new light, from the metal rings (used to drown foreign pirates or un-welcome guests to the city’s harbour; a torturous 3 hour death that relied on the quay’s water rising 30ft) along the cobbled banks in the harbour, to the clues of the cave networks that run for 7 miles underneath the city. If truth be told, there is too much history to be summed up, and like Pete says, everything is cloaked in a past built of stories upon stories. It was, and is, a fast paced city of industry that has a lot of memories and histories.
This is not just romanticised fiction, this was a culture; a real way of living. A sin city built upon its waterways that saw its wealth from the trade at sea and surrounding industries. Evidence of a world that once was.
Words and Illustrations by Rachel Maria Taylor: www.rachelmariataylor.co.uk (@illustratorRach)
Photography by Jody Daunton: www.jodydaunton.co.uk (@jodydaunton)