Joseph Birch

WAG 8978


This artwork has been identified as having links to a person connected with transatlantic slavery. This research is part of the Walker Art Gallery’s ongoing work to be more transparent about the collection’s relationship to Britain's colonial past. This is a portrait of Sir Joseph Birch (1755 - 1833). He was a Liverpool merchant, politician and ship-owner. He owned plantations in Jamaica and was a trader of enslaved African people. Linked to this, he was associated with nine voyages from Liverpool and had stocks in the East India Company. In 1786 he married Elizabeth Mary Heywood (1761 - 1825), the daughter of Benjamin Heywood (1723 - 1795), a prominent Liverpool merchant banker. The Heywood family are thought to have invested in at least 133 voyages trafficking enslaved African people between 1745 and 1789. Birch supported foreign secretary George Canning’s policy of 'amelioration' (1823), which advocated the improvement of conditions for enslaved people. It wasn’t unusual for planters to support such policies. However, they opposed other policies that could threaten their property or authority. Birch was also a member of the West India Planters and Merchants committee which looked after the interests of owners of enslaved African people. Birch voted in favour of abolition (1826 and 1830). Immediately following the uprising of enslaved people in Jamaica (1831 - 32), and the Slavery Abolition Act (1833), he revised his will. His only son, Thomas Bernard Birch (1791 - 1880), gained large compensation after his death. Thomas Birch was awarded £2722 in 1835 following the emancipation of 147 enslaved people on the Leogan estate, St James, Jamaica. He later became an MP for Liverpool.