Presentation to the British Embassy in New York

New York, 9 May 2006

Transcript of the speech given by David Fleming at an event he attended with Loyd Grossman, chairman of National Museums Liverpool, to promote the International Slavery Museum in America, the year before the museum itself opened.

A shared history

Good evening everyone. It’s a great honour to be here to share with you a remarkable and very important project. Loyd spoke about Liverpool’s many connections with America, and I would like to focus in on one of these, the one that is by far the most invidious.

Now, notwithstanding the extraordinary transatlantic crossing over of influences that created the Beatles, who changed popular music and popular culture over the entire world, there is another connection that has had an even greater global impact.

That connection is the transatlantic slave trade, the history and legacies of which can only be comprehended as a shared history, a shared story, an international story.

The story of the transatlantic slave trade is a key to understanding the modern world. We cannot begin to comprehend why Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Western Europe and the United States are as they are, without an understanding of this trade.

And yet, knowledge of this trade, and its profound consequences, is very poor.

Too few children in any of these countries, on any of these continents, know anything of the trade, of its role in creating our modern nations, in creating our modern cultures, in creating a dark legacy of racism and racial hostility, in creating an enduring inequality of opportunity, in creating a deep and endemic poverty in many parts of the world.

A combination of denial, shame, embarrassment and political indifference - added to the very poverty and lack of educational opportunity which are among the long term consequences of the slave trade - have conspired to create this widespread ignorance.

And so, we are at risk of failing to fulfil even the bleak prediction of William Prescott, a former slave, who wrote in 1937:

"They will remember that we were sold
But they won’t remember that we were strong
They will remember that we were bought,
But not that we were brave."

We are at risk of remembering none of this - not the strength or the bravery, not even the selling and the buying.

Liverpool's involvement in the slave trade

The port of Liverpool played a pivotal role in the slave trade, and while Britain entered the trade relatively late, during the 18th century Britain came to dominate the trade, and Liverpool entrepreneurs - a species whose success has rarely been matched in the annals of world commerce - overtook their counterparts in London and Bristol to dominate the British trade.

Liverpool was responsible for almost half of all British slaving voyages in the 18th century, when more than 5000 slave ships left the port. Liverpool ships transported about 1.5 million enslaved Africans in all. In the last two decades of the 18th century, Liverpool ships transported more Africans than the ships of any other port. During the period 1750-1800, the trade in enslaved Africans and the trade in goods produced by slaves (sugar, rum, coffee, cotton, and mahogany) constituted between a third and a half of all Liverpool’s trade.

Between 1698 and 1774 Liverpool merchants organised about 300 slave voyages to the Carolinas, to Virginia and to Maryland.

The slave trade helped transform Liverpool into a world port, the second city, and at its peak the greatest port, in the greatest Empire the world had ever seen.

And, even after the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807, Liverpool continued to trade with two sides of the great slave triangle - with Africa, particularly in palm oil, and with the US and the Caribbean in goods such as cotton and sugar, produced, of course, by slave labour.

The Transatlantic Slavery gallery at Merseyside Maritime Museum (now closed)

You will understand, I hope, why we at National Museums Liverpool place such an emphasis upon explaining to our visiting public about the transatlantic slave trade. Quite simply, no one can understand the rise of Liverpool without knowing of the role in that rise of the slave trade.

More importantly, we in Liverpool believe we have a duty to do all we can to help ensure that the reasons for, and the reality and consequences of the slave trade, are never again neglected, never again forgotten. This is, for us, an absolute imperative.

Because of this, my museum service created, 12 years ago now, the world’s first, the world’s leading, and, we believe, still the world’s only permanent museum gallery devoted to the transatlantic slave trade. This gallery, entitled Against Human Dignity and opened by Dr Maya Angelou, has done sterling service in the cause of education since its inauguration, and has been visited by millions of people.

In recognition of the international nature of the slave trade, the gallery was developed with the help of an international advisory board, and one of its members, albeit a Liverpool-based one, is here with us this evening - Dorothy Kuya, a great lady and a source of inspiration for all those of us who have the responsibility of building upon those foundations.

On a visit last month to the Transatlantic Slavery gallery, Secretary of State Dr Condoleezza Rice said to us:

"Thank you for the tour of this extraordinary museum. Your efforts help us both to remember and to overcome our past. All the best for the opening of the new museum."

Plans for the International Slavery Museum

It is indeed now time to develop the Transatlantic Slavery gallery. It has done its job, but it is elderly and dated, and we must move the story on. We must tell a bigger story. Our vision is to replace the existing modest scale gallery with a brand new museum - the International Slavery Museum - to more fully promote the understanding of transatlantic slavery and its enduring impact.

  • This will be a bona fide British national museum in terms of its legal status. The significance of this cannot be exaggerated. The museum will join an elite number of museums with this rare status, and will thus immediately be elevated onto a world stage.
  • It will be an international museum because it deals with a truly international, intercontinental story that not only deserves, but demands to be explored in an appropriately prestigious setting.
  • It will be a world-class museum, one of very few, operating in the field of human rights.

We intend to open the first phase of this museum in August 2007, which is the bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade. The museum will be the centrepiece of nationwide celebrations and commemorations of the abolition and, I am delighted to say, in recognition of the museum’s status and significance, Her Majesty’s Government has agreed to meet some of the running costs, in perpetuity.

The total initial capital costs of this new museum are $17 million. So far we have available over $4 million, and have a grants and donations fundraising campaign under way which aims to secure the balance over the next 4 years.

The International Slavery Museum project will be delivered in three parts:

  • First we will open the public display galleries in August 2007, occupying an entire floor in our hugely popular and historic Maritime Museum. In these we will use our extensive and important slavery collections to examine the slave trade itself, including assessing the vitality and complexity of West Africa prior to the coming of European slavers, the horrors of the Middle Passage, the fate of the enslaved people in the Americas, and, of course, the never-ending fight for freedom.
  • We want to go beyond the history, though, to consider the many modern legacies of the slave trade - diversity, brotherhood, creativity, vitality, endurance, new international demographics, as well as racism, hostility, discrimination and human rights, and the economic condition of Africa, and of the Caribbean. We wish to consider issues of freedom - what does freedom mean to us? How can we protect freedom? What does the future hold?
  • We will challenge our visitors, and no one will leave our galleries without a greater understanding of, and a heightened sensitivity to the functioning of contemporary society, and to global relations. Our hope is that the galleries will help create new feelings of tolerance, of respect, and perhaps of healing and reconciliation.
  • After the galleries comes the museum’s Resource Centre, sited in a newly-acquired adjacent historic building, linked to the galleries by an overhead glass walkway. The Resource Centre will play a unique role in supporting the training of teachers in this neglected subject, dealing with both historic and contemporary slavery issues, delivering learning sessions to schools, colleges and other groups.
  • We are already developing study packs about the slave trade and its contemporary relevance in terms of citizenship, racism, diversity and culture. We intend to develop international work, connecting with young people across the world, discussing global issues to do with human rights and social justice, building an international community of teachers and youth networks, relating especially to those countries most affected by transatlantic slavery. We believe the international educational potential of this project is enormous.
  • The Resource Centre will be a venue for a diverse programme of public events, performances, lectures, debate and dialogue, activities and exhibitions. There will be a very strong community focus to the Resource Centre, so that it becomes a democratic place, owned by all Liverpool communities. It will provide the opportunity for immediate response to the display galleries, and provide new ways of learning.
  • Housed alongside the Resource Centre, the third element of the museum is the Research Centre for the Study of International Slavery, which will be developed in partnership with the University of Liverpool, one of Britain’s major higher education institutions, and one that is eminent in the related fields of slavery, African history and culture, colonialism, Caribbean history and culture, and Latin American Studies.
  • We intend that in the long term the Research Centre will become a centre for excellence in slavery studies, encouraging research and publication on an international basis. Through the Research Centre we wish to build our national and international networks, in all the countries affected by the transatlantic trade, to create research programmes, vigorous exhibition exchanges and international education and publication programmes.

These are our next steps on an important journey. We believe this project is world-class, and that it has huge potential as an engine of research and international public understanding in a field that has not been explored anywhere near as much as it should.

I believe we can prove William Prescott wrong – that through our work, and that of our collaborators, people will remember the selling and the buying, but also they will remember the strength, and the bravery.

We are grateful for your attendance and your attention. We would welcome any comments you might have on what we have said, and any advice you may have on how we may best proceed. Indeed, we are here to begin a dialogue.

It is now my pleasure to introduce David Lammy MP, who is the British Government Minister for Culture, and therefore the sponsoring Minister for National Museums Liverpool and all other great British national museums.

My colleagues in the other British national museums will be green with envy when they discover - and I shall personally ensure that they do! - that the Minister has joined us here in New York to lend his support to our project.

David Fleming, director, National Museums Liverpool, 9 May 2006