Preferred Citation: Sacks, David Harris. The Widening Gate: Bristol and the Atlantic Economy, 1450-1700. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.

Registering the Pilgrimage

After reviewing this dismal narrative, we can hardly be surprised to find intolerance contributing in some measure to emigration from England. Between 1659 and 1662, attacks on the dissenters must have added considerably to the pressures already produced by poor conditions in the English economy. Yet no simple explanation is possible. During this same period, religious oppression also grew in the colonies, although in Virginia the persecution of the sects in 1659–1660 abated somewhat just after the Restoration, and broke forth anew only in 1663. Until that year, Virginia may have remained reasonably attractive to the sectaries as a possible place of safety; afterward it could no longer have seemed very secure. This change in the practices of persecution in the colonies, taken together with improvements at the same time in English grain prices and real wages, may help explain the decline in servant enrollments at Bristol after the peaks reached in the late 1650s and early 1660s. Nevertheless, the whole story cannot turn on these two considerations alone, if only because sectarian migrations continued to Virginia itself and to other colonies throughout the Restoration period.[81] If religious persecution played a significant role in driving Englishmen to the colonies before 1663, we must wonder why, according to the Bristol Register, its effects diminished so dramatically just as the attacks grew to their most intense. Nothing in the history of intolerance in the colonies could have outweighed the oppressions in England in the mid-1660s.

To see what mechanisms were at work in determining the rate of servant enrollments in Bristol we need to return to England once again. Unfortunately, we can say little about whether events outside the city played a decisive role in limiting the registration of servants there. It might be, for example, that West Country justices of the peace, apprehensive about insurrection in 1663 and 1664, used the Act of Settlement to turn back migrants before they reached the city, especially at fair time, when large numbers of indentures were usually drawn. But no evidence has come to light to confirm such actions. An examination of Bristol’s own Restoration politics, however, can show us something of the way noneconomic events governed the administration of the servant Register during this period. Even though the policy of persecution followed by Sir John Knight and his allies had considerable support within the city, there was also much opposition to it from moderate members of the Restoration Common Council, as well as from the larger body of citizens. As the Quakers said with only slight exaggeration, Knight’s zeal “set-up to counter-buff the stability of the City, and to overturn…the well poized Government of unity and peace into disunion and troubles.”[82]

Bristol’s politics in these years are difficult to unravel, for a number of rivalries were at work both inside and outside the government.[83] For example, Richard Ellsworth, the Customer for Bristol who during the last days of the Commonwealth had played a major role in organizing Royalist efforts in the city, looked upon Knight as “disaffectious to the interest Royall” and used his connections in Westminster to advocate an even more vigilant and extreme policy against the sects.[84] On the other side, a number of officials had close ties to the sectaries. Many were engaged in the colonial trades, which regularly brought them in contact with the sectarian community. Of the twenty-seven Bristolians who petitioned the Crown for a convoy to Virginia in September 1665, eleven were members of the Common Council, and one a recently retired member. Yet along with them were James Wathen and Thomas Ellis, whom we have already met, and Gabriel Deane, who voted for John Haggatt in the parliamentary election of 1654 and who was purged from the council in 1661.[85] With such shared business interests, councillors and sectaries sometimes entered into partnership. In the Commonwealth period, Robert Cann, mayor in 1662–63, had invested in ventures with Thomas Speed, with whom his relations remained good even after the Restoration, when Cann became a planter in Barbados.[86] In 1661 William Willett, another councillor, owned the ship Resolution with Speed, Gabriel Deane, and five others.[87]

At about the same time, Sir Humphrey Hooke, a man with important family and political ties in Bristol, Gloucestershire, and Barbados who was deputy lieutenant for the city in 1664, received from the king an extensive grant of land in Virginia which he held jointly with Robert Vickris, whose wife and children were Quakers.[88] Kinship ties also affected the relations of the civic authorities to the sectaries. Richard Streamer, sheriff in 1663–64 and sometimes a colonial trader himself, was George Bishop’s brother-in-law, and Sir Robert Yeamans, sheriff in 1662–63 and a former Royalist officer, was a kinsman of Thomas Speed’s wife, who was a prominent Quaker in her own right.[89] As George Bishop reminded Knight, the Bristol sectaries were

a considerable body of people in this City, we, our families, our relations, our estates; we are of the City, and in the City, and inhabitants thereof, and enterwoven we are therein, and with the people thereof, as a mans flesh is in his body, and his spirit in his flesh.[90]

Business and kinship connections, of course, could not always counteract the power of religious conviction or political principle among the Bristolians. Sir John Knight, whose zealous hatred of sectarian and republican ideas went back to the 1640s, did not alter policy because of his own close family ties to the dissenters.[91] Nor did the rather similar family relations of Sheriff Streamer prevent his conscientious, though reluctant, performance of duty.[92] But they made full enforcement exceedingly difficult, because many Bristolians did not share Knight’s bloody-mindedness. Though prepared to resist public outrages by sectarian incendiaries, they preferred to ignore those dissenters who lived peaceably in the city. For example, juries at the Sessions in January 1664 would not find the Quakers guilty of unlawful assembly as charged: one group of defendants was acquitted, and a second convicted, after considerable debate, by special verdict covering only a part of the indictment.[93] Later in the same year, when the authorities attempted to transport three Quakers for their third conviction under the Conventicle Act, the crew of the Mary Fortune refused to take them, saying that “their Cry, and the Cry of their Family and Friends, are entered into the Ears of the Lord, and he hath smitten us even to the very Heart, saying, Cursed is he that parteth Man and Wife.[94] Many others were moved to acts of compassion as well. Sir Robert Cann, by now a baronet, and Sir Robert Yeamans visited the arrested Quakers in jail, and Robert Yate and John Knight, of the Sugar House on St. Augustine’s Back, both of whom had extensive business connections with Speed and other Quakers, offered to stand surety for the jailed sectaries.[95]

These events illustrate the degree to which Bristol was torn by political division in the 1660s. Sir John Knight, Senior, was among the leaders of a significant group of Cavaliers in the city. His principal allies were men like Nathaniel Cale, soapmaker, who had been purged from the city government as a Delinquent in 1645, and John Locke, merchant, who had left in 1656 because of his Royalist views.[96] These men and a few others like them, including several prominent members of the local gentry, served as deputy lieutenants for the city. Although in law, as some of them said, they had “no Authoritie to exercise any Ciuil power as magistrates in the Citty agaynst any man for delinquency,” their military office gave them considerable ability to control events, especially when the mayor was in sympathy with their cause, as in Sir John Knight’s term. When necessary, a large body of citizens under their command could be relied upon for political aid.[97] For most of the period, however, only a handful of leading aldermen held the office of deputy lieutenant concurrently. In any case, the Common Council did not consist entirely of men of similar background. At the outset of Knight’s mayoralty in 1663, only five aldermen and three common councillors were old Royalists, either having been ousted for their political views in the 1640s or 1650s or, like Knight himself, having refused to swear the oath of office until the Restoration.[98] By contrast, four aldermen and five common councillors had served in the civic body during the Interregnum and thus had worked closely at times with the members of the sects. Furthermore, a number of those elected to the council after the Restoration served only with great reluctance, in some instances caused by their unwillingness to enforce harsh government policy against friends and kinfolk. Among the latter may have been John Knight, the sugar refiner, who though elected in 1661 would not be sworn until September 1664, and then only under the Privy Council’s threat of a stiff fine.[99]

Under these conditions, it should come as no surprise to find the city government rent by fierce battles for political primacy in this period. During Sir John Knight’s term, the conflict took the form of a challenge to the precedence of the local leadership, in which Sir Robert Cann, Baronet, and Sir Robert Yeamans were in the vanguard. Cann and Yeamans claimed on behalf of those titled members of the council that they should have precedence before all others regardless of their seniority. In large measure the issue was a symbolic one that served to draw political support for Cann and Yeamans from aldermen who possessed knighthoods. But more was at stake than mere symbolism, since nominations and votes in the civic body proceeded by order of precedence. In effect, Sir Robert Cann was seeking to use his baronetcy to oust the mayor from his privileged place in directing the affairs of the city. For Yeamans, who was not yet an alderman, the issue also had special importance; had he won his point, he would have gained precedence over all but those aldermen who had received knighthoods before him. It is no wonder, therefore, that the issue created an explosion of antagonism in the city that quickly evinced itself in challenges to Knight’s actions against the dissenters.[100]

To a large degree, the rate of servant enrollments in Bristol depended upon which faction controlled the civic administration at the time. After Sir John Knight’s year of terror, no other mayor before the 1670s undertook an all-out attack on the dissenters.[101] John Lawford, Knight’s immediate successor, aided by Knight himself, vigorously enforced the Conventicle Act; yet he did not make mass arrests or attempt to impose the penalty of banishment.[102] During 1667–68, peace and quiet were said to have reigned in Bristol, and in 1669 little was done to suppress the sects, even after the issuance of a royal proclamation against conventicles.[103] The mayors during these years were Alderman Edward Morgan, father of John Morgan, upholsterer, one of Bristol’s great exporters of servants to the colonies, and Alderman Thomas Stevens, a grocer much of whose business must have been in colonial products. Both of these men had joined the Common Council in the Interregnum, and, interestingly, both had resisted accepting high office in the 1660s until forced by threats of confiscatory fines.[104]

In addition to Lawford, Sir Thomas Langton, mayor in 1666–67, and Sir Robert Yeamans, mayor in 1669–70, receive mention as prominent persecutors in these years. But neither man was hellbent on routing the sects. Langton acted only on direct evidence of apparent seditious activity, to which he was especially alert because of the threat of a Dutch attack during his term.[105] Yeamans, for his part, had the misfortune to hold office when the Second Conventicle Act came into force. Thus he found it his duty to execute a policy his enemy Sir John Knight had helped create.[106] This act gave substantial authority to the deputy lieutenants to aid in enforcement and subjected the justices of the peace and the chief magistrates of the towns to stiff fines for each failure to respond to informations duly presented them.[107] Even so, Yeamans acted only reluctantly, prodded by the bishop of Bristol, whose informers made it impossible to disregard the dissenters’ meetings. Furthermore, many of his colleagues, assistants, and fellow citizens refrained from supporting his efforts. Statutory fines were imposed; but when the cases arose, numerous aldermen absented themselves from the bench, and the goods distrained to pay the fines often found no buyers. With the aid of the Trained Bands, Yeamans managed to close the meetinghouses for a time, but the Baptists and the Quakers took to the streets to hold their services. For two months, in fact, Yeamans’s persecution amounted to little more than halfhearted threats against the sectaries put forth in combination with plaintive letters of apology to the Privy Council for failing to do better. Yeamans confined himself to his duty narrowly construed; he attacked sectarian religion according to law, but had no interest in abusing the dissenters in their businesses or everyday lives. Perhaps to indicate his distaste even for this task, he ended his term by nominating as his successor the moderate-minded sugar refiner Mr. John Knight, although the king had previously ordered that only aldermen were eligible for the office.[108]

The years following Sir John Knight’s mayoralty brought with them a moderation of religious persecution in Bristol. These same years also saw the beginning of an era of more favorable material conditions for English labor. As population growth ceased and agricultural production diversified, England no longer suffered periodic subsistence crises and real wages improved, with the result that everywhere in the country the rate of emigration to America fell to levels significantly below those reached in the 1650s. In a general way the decline in the number of indentured servants enrolled at Bristol after 1662 parallels the development nationally. Had the registrations for these years recovered their earlier peaks, we would have every reason to be surprised. From the beginning of 1663, however, a number of factors other than wages and prices intervened to affect the flow of servants through Bristol. War in colonial waters and the plague in London, though not the fire, appear to have played a short-term role. Religion and politics, in both England and the colonies, seem more significant, sometimes stirring religious discontent at home and at other times threatening equal danger abroad.

But Bristol itself is where the most important intervening factors can be found. As we have seen, the city was at times an exceedingly dangerous place for sectaries. In 1663–64, many of the leading colonial traders found themselves in jail for their religious beliefs and no doubt were unable to attend to their businesses. In other years, religious persecutions must have thoroughly distracted them, even though they did not result in long imprisonment. When persecutions raged in Bristol, emigrating dissenters may have avoided the city on their way abroad, using other and safer ports instead. However, the greatest effect was probably administrative, rather than economic. The system of registration could not be enforced for long without cooperation from the traders. The city’s administrative resources simply were far too small to do the work day in and day out. In July 1662, when Mayor Nathaniel Cale was maintaining his vigilance against impending insurrection, the whole registration scheme had come under challenge. Periodically during the previous two years, city officials had boarded ships to assure themselves that all servants were properly registered. But resistance by the ships’ captains and traders seems to have halted this practice, causing Cale to petition the Privy Council for authority to make these inquiries.[109]

No such grant was forthcoming, and the practice of boarding ships did not begin again until August 1670, at the very end of Yeamans’s mayoral term.[110] Thus for most of the 1660s the city seems to have employed no effective means of checking the indentures of servants. During periods of persecution it was easy enough for servants to embark on Bristol ships far from the scrutiny of the city authorities, boarding, as Farwell Meredith had done in 1654, at Kingroad at the mouth of the Avon, rather than nearer to the sources of trouble. In other words, persecution served to increase underregistration. Only when the city was relatively free of attacks on the sects or when those attacks were accompanied by vigilant searches for unindentured servants, as was the case from 1660 to 1662 and again during Ralph Olliffe’s troubled mayoralty in 1674–75, can the Bristol Register give us a reasonably accurate picture of the servant trade.[111]

Registering the Pilgrimage

Preferred Citation: Sacks, David Harris. The Widening Gate: Bristol and the Atlantic Economy, 1450-1700. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.