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History explorer: the British slave trade

Ellie Cawthorne and James Walvin uncover the dark history of Liverpool's connection to the transatlantic slave trade, at the International Slavery Museum

Shackles that were used to tether slaves, on display at the International Slavery Museum. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Published: March 17, 2018 at 1:19 pm
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Looking north across the waterfront from Liverpool’s Albert Dock makes for a dramatic view. On the banks of the Mersey, topped by two wide-winged Liver birds, symbols of the city, stand the Three Graces. Majestic and iconic, these three imposing buildings are a grand reminder of the city’s former dominance in shipping and trade, and the prosperity it once reaped from these industries.


However, looking out from a window in the International Slavery Museum (ISM), I’m given a different perspective on this impressive landscape. A small, unobtrusive black plaque informs me that the Three Graces stand on the site of the former George’s Dock. It was here that ships bound for Africa were loaded with produce to trade for slaves.

George’s Dock has long since disappeared, and the city’s waterfront has been transformed. But, as the ISM, which opened in 2007 and has welcomed almost 4 million visitors, highlights, Liverpool is still grappling with the legacy of slavery. Through a succession of moving and engaging galleries, the museum unflinchingly examines the difficult history and tangled inheritance of the transatlantic slave trade, both in Liverpool and across the globe.

Today the robust red brick dock on the Mersey bustles with tourists rather than traders. The storerooms once packed with cotton and tobacco are gone, replaced by museums, art galleries and independent shops. Amid today’s ice-cream vans and busking musicians, it’s difficult to picture ships departing on slaving voyages.

A city built on slavery

In October 1699, one such ship – the Liverpool Merchant – left the city’s docks. Setting sail on a voyage that saw 220 captured Africans transported into slavery in Barbados, the Merchant was the first known slaver to depart from Liverpool, marking the beginning of a massive and pervasive industry that would endure for more than a century.

European towns such as Liverpool marked the first port of call in what would become known as the ‘triangular trade’. From there, cargos such as textiles, firearms and cowrie shells were shipped to west Africa to be traded for slaves. These Africans would then be shipped across the ‘middle passage’, bound for a life of enslavement, most frequently as plantation labourers, in the Caribbean or North America. There, they would be traded once more for slave-produced goods wanted back in Europe, such as cotton, rice, sugar and coffee.

British involvement in slave trading began in the 1560s, and “by the late 18th century, the British had come to dominate the industry”, says Professor James Walvin, a historian who has published widely on transatlantic slavery. “It was around that time that Liverpool was at its peak as a slave trading city port.” Indeed, by the second half of the 18th century, Liverpool slavers had undercut their competitors in Bristol and London to streak ahead and dominate the British industry. Over the course of the 18th century, the city saw a mammoth 5,300 ships leaving on slave trading voyages, peaking at around 100 a year in the 1770s. In total, it is estimated that a staggering 1.5 million enslaved Africans were transported across the Atlantic in ships from Liverpool.

Profits from slaving transformed the city from a small port with connections to Ireland and Britain’s west coast into a major international trading hub. An economic boom soon followed. “You cannot understand the history of Liverpool without understanding its relation to the people of Africa,” Walvin tells me. “Slavery is part of the warp and weft of the city’s history.” Sure enough, if you look for it, the legacy of the slave trade is still visible in the fabric of the city. A 10 minute walk away from the ISM stands Liverpool’s imposing town hall, the construction of which began in 1795. Look carefully, and you’ll spot African faces carved into its friezes.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll uncover that even Penny Lane, now famous because of the Beatles song, takes its name from James Penny, a prosperous slave-ship owner who, in 1792, was given an award for condemning abolition in parliament. Penny Lane is one of a wall of Liverpool street signs that visitors to the ISM can turn over to reveal the slavers they take their names from. Meanwhile, no fewer than 20 successive mayors in the late 18th century were invested in slaving. By 1787, 37 of the city’s 41 council members were enjoying rich financial rewards from the trade.

Involvement was not only limited to wealthy shipping magnates and influential politicians. “Let’s not forget that thousands of sailors and ordinary Liverpudlians working in ancillary industries were also needed to keep the slaving system going,” says Walvin, “from shipbuilders, carpenters, coopers and sailmakers, right down to the people who made the sailors’ provisions and the goods taken to west Africa to exchange for slaves.” A display case filled with small luxuries and commonplace items – a cotton shawl, coffee, glass, and a sparkling loaf of slave-grown sugar – provides a neat reminder of how the products created by slaves were staples of everyday life in Europe. “The slaving system permeated the entire city,” says Walvin, “as it did all the major ports of Europe.”

A barbarous trade

As the horrors of slavery happened more than 4,000 miles across the ocean, Walvin explains, the trade “is often seen as only marginally linked to the British. The British have always seen slavery as an American institution, but in reality, all the Africans that became American slaves were taken to the continent by British ships. The British were absolutely central and seminal to the entire system.” Yet although many back in Europe may have turned a blind eye to the brutal realities of slavery, the cruelties of the system were painfully real.

Throughout the ISM, horrific reminders of the brutal dehumanisation of those transported – both during the gruelling journey across the middle passage and in the life of bondage that awaited – are all around. Architectural plans show slaves cramped together in dire conditions on ships, while on one wall, images of the violence endured by slaves stretch from floor to ceiling.

Elsewhere, a roughly carved wooden statue of an African wrestling to wrench himself free of his chains is exhibited alongside rusted shackles, leather whips, metal muzzles and branding irons. These tools of torture sit uneasily alongside ledgers and receipts, highlighting that those transported were not only dehumanised using chains and shackles, but also by a vast, profit-driven bureaucratic system.

One of the most unnerving exhibits is the Davenport papers – a collection of correspondence from wealthy slave trader William Davenport dating from the late 1740s and 1750s. In logbooks issued at Liverpool counting houses, countless columns of enslaved Africans are listed like any other profitable commodity – reduced to only their gender, age and the price they fetched. Deaths are recorded no differently to the loss or destruction of any other cargo.

The ISM is keen to emphasise the humanity and agency of those who were enslaved, and there is a strong focus on personal stories throughout. Video installations give a voice to those whose experiences are absent from the historical record. Life back in west Africa is celebrated through Igbo wall paintings, cowrie-covered masks and the dynamic sounds of Ghanaian drumming. This riot of colour and sound reminds visitors that all those enslaved were individuals with their own histories, forced to leave behind rich cultures.

Meanwhile, portrayals of enslaved Africans simply as passive, submissive victims are continually undercut by the stories of black figures who fought tooth and nail for freedom. These range from black abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano to rebelling slaves and ‘maroons’ – those who escaped from slavery to set up independent communities.

Beyond abolition

In July 1807, the Kitty’s Amelia departed Liverpool for Bunce Island on the coast of Sierra Leone, on Britain’s last legal slaving voyage. Four months earlier, following a long and contentious campaign, parliament had passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, which outlawed slave trading (but not slavery itself) in the British empire.

Although Britain’s involvement in the slave trade had formally come to an end, Liverpool continued to be shaped by it. Throughout much of the 19th century, slave-grown cotton from America continued to land in Liverpool’s docks, destined for the large Lancashire textile mills powering Britain’s industrial revolution. Trade and industry were not the only areas in which the fallout from slavery continued to be felt. “Once there was a major movement of African people taking place across the Atlantic, with regular ships back and forth, black people were landing in Britain in small but noticeable numbers, settling down and marrying locally,” says James Walvin.

Keen to explore this aspect of slavery’s legacy, the ISM examines the experiences of black people in Liverpool’s more recent history. Alongside portraits of black Liverpudlians are quotes sharing their experiences of racism, from verbal abuse in the workplace to black babies being spat at in the streets. However, there is also a celebration of the city’s myriad of influential black figures, from politician John Archer to swimmer and community activist James Clarke, the first black man to have a Liverpool street named after him.

“Over the last 25 years, Liverpool has become one of the great leaders in how to deal with a dark past,” says Walvin. “In the space of a generation, the city has gone from having virtually no mention of the slave trade to being home to a museum that is globally recognised, and the city is now fizzing with interest in its history. It’s a sensitive topic, but one that’s important to discuss, and places such as the International Slavery Museum can have an extraordinary impact.”

British slave trade: five more places to explore


M Shed, Bristol

A major slaving port

Bristol has been grappling with its slaving history recently – in 2017, concert venue Colston Hall announced it would change its name to escape connections to slaver Edward Colston. In its accessible and engaging galleries, the M Shed museum addresses some of the tangled issues connected to the city’s shadowy past.

Visit bristolmuseums.org.uk


Wilberforce House, Hull

Birthplace of a famous abolitionist

William Wilberforce, one of the most celebrated advocates of the anti-slavery movement, was born at this red-brick house in Hull in 1759. Several of Wilberforce’s personal items are on display, along with a small exhibition on slavery, abolition and life in west Africa.

Visit www.hull.gov.uk


Museum of London, Docklands, East London

Where slave produce was stored

Housed in a warehouse once used to store slave-grown sugar, this riverside museum in Canary Wharf explores the history of the Thames. The capital’s involvement in the slave trade is an intrinsic part of this story, as examined in the museum’s ‘London, Sugar and Slavery’ gallery.

Visit museumoflondon.org.uk


The Georgian House Museum, Bristol

Home of a plantation owner

This lavishly furnished house was built in 1790 for the sugar merchant and slave owner John Pinney. Pero Jones, an enslaved African who served as Pinney’s personal valet, also lived at the address, and now has a bridge named after him at Bristol’s harbourside.

Visit bristolmuseums.org.uk


National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

A gallery on slavery’s global impact

In a permanent exhibition on the history of the Atlantic, the NMM explores how the triangular trade shaped the future of three continents. Exhibits include the logbook of a slave schooner and a portrait of abolitionist Olaudah Equiano.

Visit rmg.co.uk

Words: Ellie Cawthorne. Historical advisor: Professor James Walvin, author of Slavery: The History and Legacy of One of the World’s Most Brutal Institutions (Connell, 2018).

To find out more about the International Slavery Museum, visit liverpoolmuseums.org.uk


This article was first published in the April 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine


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