So: Bristol, 1924. The setting for this little drama was the Floating Harbour – the Float, as we knew it – really a piece of the old Avon which the city snipped off for itself in the early eighteen-hundreds, to get rid of the nuisance of tides coming and going. They sealed it up, and connected the loose ends of the dismayed river with a ditch they called the New Cut, a surgical bypass which nowadays ambles through the city traffic and looks as if it had always been there. The Float was less a place of masts and sails then, but rather funnels, smoke and steam, vast concrete box warehouses and bristling crane jibs along the quays. It was my playground and my life. I spent half of all my early days there, in the endless detachments of my imagination.
1788: Pietro, Phillip Rossetti's father
So the Admiral went over it all once more. Even in their hybrid language the message got through, as it had the first time. He talked again of great wealth from the West Indies just waiting, waiting, for anyone who cared to make the long journey across. He knew that Pietro would not carry slaves, so spoke instead of the shorter trip, across to Jamaica or Barbados and back again. The wealth he spoke of was sugar, or it could be rum, or molasses, tobacco or cotton, spices, dyes, even precious timbers – it was all there. Forty days across, he said, and thirty back if you were lucky and the winds were kind, but even if you lost time it was a small problem because of the value of the cargo. So forty there and thirty back, that’s about ten weeks at sea plus a couple of months loading and unloading, and you can do that twice a year. And it’s a two-way trade – you make money both ways... the colonies were also consumers. His journal is full of questioning at this point, full of uncertainties and doubts, but my father (who also read the journal) had none – Pietro would see the sense of coming to England, and not have doubts.
The outbreak of war with France in 1793 was the beginning of the end for Bristol’s slave trade, but Phillip’s father Pietro still brought home the sugar the slaves produced. During his early years there he’d watched the slaver Pilgrim leaving on the tide, described by my father: ‘So Pietro watched in Admiration as the Worthy Pilgrim sailed from the Harbour, intent on another Voyage of Excellent Profit.’ He’d seen her being loaded in the days before with glassware, woollen cloth, brandy and allsorts made of iron, brass and tin, all to pay the native slave traders. Unbeknown to him at the time (or to my unbothered father ever, I wonder, in vain) she was to take four hundred and twelve Africans away from the island town of Bonny, and come home five months later packed with sugar and molasses: that’s real history, and a fine use of the name Pilgrim.
Sometimes these days, when it’s sunny, I drive to Brockweir and park in front of The Wondrous Gift. My daughter Elena is somewhere inside, and Alice, and there is movement behind the windows facing me – unknown people going about their business. The hill rises at the back, steep to the top, and trees overhang the patch of garden and the winding paths to right and left. This is the place I’m writing about – Phillip’s doomed wish for Janet, his refuge during his lonely years, and later his family home. It looks across to Brockweir village, still with the old buildings but long since closed down from industry and unrest, the village now quiet and welcoming, the newer houses spreading along the bank across from the Inn.