Liverpool and the Slave Trade – a city coming to terms with its past

Tom Paver, author of The Sanctuary Stone

Stand on Liverpool’s monumental Pier Head with the river Mersey behind you and a brisk wind whipping off the Irish Sea, and the scale and grandeur hints at the psyche of the place.  It’s not a civic panorama – the city’s merchant princes would never have ceded such prime land to public hands – but rather a statement by the private sector that this was their fiefdom. Liverpool was a provincial city that believed itself to be Britain’s commercial capital and it built palaces of commerce to reflect its assumed status and its sense of itself.

For visitors with a passing knowledge of the city, two things will strike them on a cursory stroll around its historic core: the relative absence of any hoo-ha about The Beatles and n’er a mention of slavery.  But to comment on that is to misunderstand the city’s mindset. This is a place built on huge achievement and glorious failure, where solemn tragedy and stunning victory are met with insouciance, DNA markers for a place that ventured across dangerous seas in search of huge wealth.  ‘It’s what great cities do’, goes the unspoken line.

And great it was.  At the height of its powers one seventh of all the ships in the world were owned, managed, crewed and supplied from Liverpool. One port, on a planet full of ports, controlling almost fifteen per cent of global shipping.  And when you bear in mind that ninety five per cent of global trade by volume is still carried by sea, you get a sense of the quite staggering wealth that was concentrated in Liverpool’s hands.  And the evidence, as you wander its streets, is all around you.

The Pier Head group of buildings dominate the Liverpool waterfront: Photo credit

This was a city that was obsessed with making money and, in the way of capitalist honey-pots, it drew in the ambitious from all corners keen to earn their fortune.  A competitive energy coursed through the place and when the city decided to do things, it only ever did them on a grand scale. And so when it entered the trade in enslaved Africans in the winter of 1699, its merchants realised they had time to make up – the ports of London and Bristol had established a valuable lead. It was not to last: using innovations in ship design, better lines of credit and a rapacious drive, Liverpool merchants had captured forty per cent of the market in that particular brand of misery by its abolition in 1807.

More than 5,100 slaving voyages were funded by the city’s ship owners – its nearest rival, London, launched just 3,000, by comparison.  Liverpool vessels carried more than 1.5m Africans to a life of servitude in the colonies and as a school child I was taught about my home town’s role in the triangular trade: trinkets, pottery and weapons to West Africa to exchange for slaves; human cargo transported across the Atlantic on the infamous ‘middle passage’ to the colonies; then rum, sugar and cotton on the return leg to Liverpool.  But the cursory knowledge acquired in those tender years is about all your average Liverpudlian knows about the city’s remarkable role in one of mankind’s saddest chapters, yet our dominance of the trade went to the very top of society: 35 of the city’s Lord Mayors were involved in the slave trade in some way.

Researching all this for my novel The Sanctuary Stone at least showed me that Liverpool has latterly come to acknowledge its role in the trade.  It has an excellent International Museum of Slavery at the Albert Dock and its research archives were hugely helpful as I sought to base my story and its protagonists on fact.  What I found made for sobering reading.  Who gets up in the morning looking forward to reading tales of rape, sodomy, brutality and murder?  Not me, thanks. And yet there it was, laid bare: the city I love borne of misery and base exploitation. Worse, I was to find that it continued because, of course, whilst the slave trade was abolished in 1807, the ownership of slaves didn’t come to an end until 1834, and even then there was a six year period of grace to allow plantation owners to find a new class of worker. Indentured servitude, they called it.  That would be wage slaves in modern parlance.

Liverpool merchants, of course, had huge shareholdings in tobacco, cotton and sugar plantations, as well as all manner of related trades and so the profits from slavery continued to flow until 1840 – and the lead it gave us in terms of capital formation, market penetration, brand development, trade, diplomatic and social links continued to fuel Liverpool’s remarkable growth long after that.

We know that now, but for much of my life (I’m now 44) it was just ignored.  But should present day Liverpudlians apologise for what went on more than two hundred years ago?  Of course not: it was not our doing and is for the conscience of those who perpetrated such brutality. But it’s right that Liverpool acknowledges its role and uses it as a platform for educating people – not least about present day slavery and human exploitation. This Liverpool does very well. My local parish church, St. James’s, was built in 1774 by slave traders and is now, fittingly, being refurbished at a cost of £45m (US$70m) as a memorial to the victims of slavery, a number of who are actually buried in its church yard, having been brought to the city by ships’ captains, ship owners and plantation grandees. On the cover of my book I talk about ‘a city built by slaves’ – only figuratively, of course; it would be more accurate to describe it as ‘a city built on the back of slaves’, but I think the point is well made.

Still, amidst the misery I unearthed there were tales of great dignity and courage. The constant uprisings and the peaceable protests and acts of disobedience reminded me of the fall of communism, which I witnessed, agog, in the late eighties via wall-to-wall TV coverage. Even the most tyrannical of regimes can be overthrown and it all starts with individual acts of bravery and defiance. They’re particularly well-charted in the International Slavery Museum.

Liverpool celebrates Slavery Remembrance Day on August 23rd each year with a range of symbolic civic events and the University of Liverpool’s department of history now has a lively Centre for the Study of International Slavery as part of a five star research department. But what of my original contention, that if you walk around the city you’d be hard-pressed to spot the city’s association with slavery? True enough, in my view. If you know what you’re looking for you can spot the buildings and street names associated with the trade, but if you’re looking for statues of enslaved Africans or public monuments illustrating our contrition you’ll struggle. That is, perhaps, until the refurbishment of St. James’s church is complete.

My novel uses these buildings and places as their backdrop and they’re still very current: one of the city’s largest office blocks is called West Africa House, and one of its most prestigious residential addresses is called Goree Piazza after the island off Senegal which was a slave-trading post. Its most famous road – Penny Lane, immortalised by the Beatles – is named after James Penny, one of the city’s most prominent slave traders who lobbied parliament hard to try and persuade it not to abolish slavery.  He failed, of course.

For academics keen to research Liverpool’s role in slavery there’s an open door. For tourists keen to see firsthand the city which, above all others, shaped the colonies and the Americas through its exploitation of enslaved Africans there’s an emerging infrastructure that will fascinate and inform them in equal measure.  Come and see for yourself – and look me up if you’re in town.

Tom Paver is from the English seaport of Liverpool, the fabric of which is woven through his novels, including his latest, The Sanctuary Stone. It’s the fourth in the six novel Redemption series. The previous titles in the series are Put Right, The Colony and The Blood Puzzle. The fifth title, Take the Soup, will be published November 1, with the final instalment, The Enigma Oath, scheduled for release February 1, 2013. Paver has enjoyed an award-winning career in the media industries and divides his week between London and Liverpool.  Check out his website


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