Liverpool, England: Former Hub of the Slave Trade
By George E. Curry, Keynote Speaker
LIVERPOOL, England – The Beatles are credited with putting this city on the map. But long before Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison conquered the music world in the mid-1960s, the city of their birth was prominent on another map as one of the largest slave trading centers in the world. “The estimate is that on Liverpool ships alone, there were more than 1.5 million enslaved Africans – that’s a low estimate,” Richard Benjamin, director of the International Slavery Museum, told a delegation accompanying Jesse L. Jackson to England.
The museum, said to be the largest slave museum outside of North America, is impressive. Many visitors find themselves on the verge of tears as it recreates the horrors of slavery. To put 1.5 million enslaved Africans into perspective, that’s larger than the African-American population of every U.S. city except New York. That’s more than the combined number of Blacks in Los Angeles and Chicago. “What made Liverpool the most successful slave-trading city was it had dry docks, it had infrastructure to build the ships, the people to command the ships and to make the goods that were sold – it had everything. It was the ultimate business for Liverpool merchants. And it took it to a different level than London and Bristol and that’s why Liverpool became capital of the slave trade,” Benjamin said as he showed visitors around the museum.
A museum brochure notes that the first known slave ship to sail from Liverpool was “Liverpool Merchant,” which left the port on Oct. 3 1699 with 220 Africans bound for Barbados. “By 1750 Liverpool was sending more ships to Africa than the other main slaving ports of Bristol and London put together and the town’s ships dominated the trade until abolition in 1807,” the brochure says. By the time the trade was abolished, Liverpool controlled 80 percent of the British and more than 40 percent of the European slave trade. One section of the museum seeks to simulate conditions on a packed Trans-Atlantic voyage, with strong visuals, beatings, and even captured Africans throwing up. Through it all, the exhibits make clear that enslaved Africans resisted.
Posted prominently in the museum is a quote from William Prescott, a former slave: “They will remember that we were sold, but not that we were strong. They will remember that we were bought, but not that we were brave.”
The museum also covers the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in great detail, down to the sounds of barking dogs in Birmingham through the Black Power Movement of the late 1960s.There is one video clip of a White supremacist saying, “They all look at the White man as being the master and the (n-word) as being the slave.” Immediately following that clip is an audio visual of Dr. King saying, “A new Negro came into being with a new determination to suffer, struggle, to sacrifice and even to die, if necessary, in order to be free.”
Posted on one wall is a poignant quote from Jesse Owens, the star of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He said: “I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President either.” Most of the major streets in Liverpool, including Abbey Road, popularized by the Beatles, were named after famous slave traders. The museum has a display of most of the street names with their connection to slavery. It is estimated that between a third and one-half of Liverpool’s slave trade between 1750 and 1807 was to Africa and the West Indies. Approximately 40 percent of Liverpool’s wealth was derived from either dealing in enslaved people or the goods they produced. At least 20 mayors of the city were directly involved. Benjamin, the director of the museum, said there was some resistance to the establishment of the museum in 2007. It was opened on Aug. 23, observed each year as Slavery Remembrance Day.
“Don’t be under the illusion that everyone in the city thought it was a good idea,” Benjamin stated. “A lot of people were saying, ‘Okay, the past is the past. Let’s move on.’ But the museum made the decision, ‘No, we need to tell the story.’”