Transatlantic slave trade - exploring the legacy

Dr David Fleming

AFRICOM conference, 5 October 2006

Transcript of the talk given by David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool, at the Africom conference, 5 October 2006 - the year before the opening of the International Slavery Museum.


May I begin by saying how honoured I am to be addressing this AFRICOM meeting? I am pleased to be here representing the National Museums Liverpool, whose Director I have been for 5 years. My aim in this short address is to consider the transatlantic slave trade for the 17th-19th centuries, a trade which, over an agonisingly long period, involved the greatest forced migration of people in history, to examine the role played in that trade by the citizens of Liverpool, and to consider how National Museums Liverpool explores the legacy of the trade. I am humbled to be speaking of this terrible trade in this great continent of Africa.

The story of Liverpool

The town was founded officially by King John, in the year 1207, and a castle was built there in 1237. Three hundred years later there were still fewer than 1000 people living in the town, but by the late 17th century Liverpool’s trade was expanding rapidly. The growth became an explosion during the 19th century until by 1850 the town’s trade was twice the size of London’s, and more than half that of the whole of the UK. Liverpool was the world marketplace for cotton and grain, led the world in insurance, was dominant in a number of manufacturing industries, and, between 1830 and 1930, was the gateway to the USA and Australia, with 9 million emigrants flooding through the port from Britain, Ireland and Europe.

By the beginning of the 20th century Liverpool was the second city of the British Empire - the greatest and richest empire the world has ever seen - its population having grown by 1000% during the 19th century, to stand at 750,000. Its dock system, seven miles of granite walling, was the envy of the world. It was one of the busiest ports in the world, conducting one third of the export trade and one quarter of the import trade of the whole of Britain.

Liverpool owned one third of British shipping, and one seventh of the total registered shipping in the world. The great shipping lines such as Cunard and White Star, owners of superships like Mauritania, Lusitania, Acquitania, and Titanic, were Liverpool companies.

After 200 years of uninterrupted growth which created architecture which is the envy of other British cities - the whole city centre is now a World Heritage Site - Liverpool’s prosperity was at its height in the 1930s. But then economic decline set in, especially after the Second World War. Liverpool achieved a new kind of fame in the 1960s when the Beatles took the world by storm, but only very recently have the city’s fortunes shown lasting signs of economic recovery.

During its 200 glory years, there were two aspects of Liverpool history which cast a shadow. The first was the chronic poverty of many of its citizens, a feature common to all urban societies in the England of the Industrial Revolution. The second was Liverpool’s true heart of darkness: the city was once the slaving capital of the world, raised to a stupendous level of prosperity through the profits of trading in enslaved African men, women and children.

Liverpool and the English Slave Trade

A few words about my institution. National Museums Liverpool is a national institution funded by the British government. We run eight museums and art galleries, and employ more than 600 staff. We welcome in excess of 1.6 million visitors per year, a number which is rising. We hold world-class collections of art, science, natural history, ethnography, archaeology and maritime history. We are unique among British national museums both in covering a vast range of subjects in our collections, and in not being based in a capital city.

It is currently within one of our museums, the Merseyside Maritime Museum, that we explore the city’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.

In the period between about 1500 and 1870, millions of Africans, no-one knows exactly how many, were enslaved and transported across the Atlantic Ocean by Europeans - Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, British, French and others - who needed a labour force to work in their American colonies. This labour force was put to work in the production of cocoa, grapes, olives, wheat, cotton and tobacco, in goldmines and in sugarcane fields. John Hawkins may have been the first Englishman to get involved in the African slave trade in the mid-sixteenth century – he carried off 1,200 Africans into slavery on voyages to Sierra Leone in 1562-79 - but it was not until the middle of the 17th century that the English became regular participants in the trade in African people. By the end of the 17th century the English were the largest traffickers in slaves in the western world, shipping on average 6-8000 enslaved Africans a year to the Americas. This figure grew to perhaps 45,000 a year after 1750. In the early days the English slave trade was dominated by merchants in London and Bristol. However, they were soon overtaken by Liverpool.

The first known Liverpool slaver was the Liverpool Merchant, which left the port on 3 October 1699 and carried 20 Africans to Barbados. Thereafter during the 18th century, over 5,000 slave ships departed from Liverpool. By 1800 the city controlled 80% of the British slave trade, and over 40% of the European slave trade, with the largest fleet of slave ships in the history of the trade. Between 1795 and 1804 alone, Liverpool port authorities cleared nearly 1,100 ships for the triangular trade.

In order to reflect these important chapters in Liverpool’s history, National Museums Liverpool created the Transatlantic Slavery gallery in 1994, still the world’s only permanent museum gallery devoted to the transatlantic slave trade.

When the British campaign to abolish the slave trade began in the 1780s, opposition in the town was strong, though there were some local abolitionists, notably William Roscoe, a great benefactor of Liverpool’s museums and art galleries. Even after the abolition of the English slave trade in 1807 Liverpool merchants continued to supply trade goods to Spanish and Portuguese slavers. They also continued to import West Indian sugar and rum and American tobacco and, especially, raw cotton from the southern states, the production of which was dependent on enslaved black labour until 1865. The importance to Liverpool’s economy of cotton explains why the city’s support for the Confederate cause in the American Civil War was so strong. Moreover, Liverpool came to dominate all British trade with West Africa, a dominance which endured until after the Second World War.

Learning activities

In Liverpool, in addition to the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery, National Museums Liverpool run slave trail tours of the city, to see where the slave ships were built and repaired, to see the hundreds of clues in the architecture, the sculpture and the street names. We run a sustained programme of public and learning activities, including drama workshops, demonstrations, handling collection sessions, lectures and exhibitions; we advise other museums.

‘Make the Link, Break the Chain’

I want briefly to describe one of these projects, which we will deliver in 2007, entitled ‘Make the Link, Break the Chain’. This is one of the projects under the auspices of our Liverpool Slavery Remembrance Initiative, a partnership between the museum service and local Black individuals and organisations.

Our aim is to involve children from across the world in a cross-arts media project that will encourage them to talk to each other, to ask questions and to examine critically the whole concept and legacy of the slave trade. Young people from 8 different schools in 5 different countries; UK (Liverpool), Brazil, Haiti, Senegal and Sierra Leone, will work together to explore the legacy of the slave trade and its abolition, what it meant then and what it means now. Through conversation, creative writing, film, music, dance and the use of the internet they will explore their separate and common history to create an understanding of the present and a united vision for the future.

The initiative will connect young people from diverse social settings and cultures to create materials that enable them to develop deeper insights into their own and one another’s lives.

‘Make the Link, Break the Chain’ seeks to foster a greater understanding of our global community for young people, focusing on real life issues of racism and discrimination. Our aim is broaden young people’s awareness of their cities and communities, to stimulate discussion of the contemporary issues that they face in their classrooms, schools, locality and the wider global community.

The approach to this project is relatively straightforward; pupils in Liverpool, Haiti, Brazil, Sierra Leone and Senegal will be asked to focus on and respond to three broad questions:

  • What is slavery?
  • What does it mean to be free?
  • How do we safeguard liberty?

They will explore and share their thoughts using participatory learning techniques developed in the classroom and community. They will then identify the themes and local issues that are connected with the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. This will be collated through films, artefacts, photographic records, music, art, stories and collaborative research produced by the students themselves.

From the discussion and materials produced the young people will form an internet forum to discuss their thoughts on the legacy of slavery within their different communities, and to share ideas as to how they intend to represent this experience.


  • The artwork and materials will be edited to create a rich resource of information, films, music, poems and sculptures. This will be exhibited locally in schools, libraries and communities to form a global commemoration of the bicentenary. A virtual archive (photographic diary) will track the development of the project and will produce live recordings of all the creative activity.
  • A wide range of education resources and teaching resources will be produced and made available on-line to the wider Liverpool schools community, will be distributed regionally and nationally within the UK and with our international partners to develop a greater understanding of the impact of slavery
  • All of the work produced, will be collated into an archive to be included within the legacy section of the International Slavery Museum, opening in August 2007.
  • A virtual ‘coming together event’ will be produced through a live link to the Slavery Remembrance event held in Liverpool on the 23 August 2007

The project will extend beyond the eight link schools; around 300 students will be involved in the sharing of materials. In addition to this we estimate close to 2000 schools making use of the resource in the UK (and a similar number working with resources in Haiti, Brazil, Senegal and Sierra Leone over a 3-year period).

The International Slavery Museum will also be able to exhibit the children’s work and this will be enjoyed by approximately 245,000 visitors who are expected to visit in the first year of operation.

Another responsibility of our Slavery Remembrance Initiative is:

Slavery Remembrance Day in Liverpool

We organise, every year, Slavery Remembrance Day events around the 23 August. This is the date when, on the island of San Domingo (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) an uprising of enslaved Africans began, a revolt which was crucial in the fight against slavery, and the date chosen by UNESCO as a reminder that enslaved Africans were the main agents of their own liberation.

Our activities around Slavery Remembrance Day have expanded, and we are involved in campaigns to achieve proper acknowledgement and recognition of the slave trade. Liverpool City Council, which a few years ago mad a formal civic apology for the city’s role in the slave trade, has recently passed a motion adopting 23 August as a civic occasion and calling on the UK Government to initiate a National Memorial Slavery Day. Other steps have moved the agenda of remembrance forward, including a motion in the House of Commons calling for a national education initiative, and for the official recognition by the UK Government that the slave trade was a crime against humanity; and a major debate on the ‘Struggle Against Slavery’.

And so we come to our most ambitious project:

The International Slavery Museum

It is now time to develop the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery. It has done its job, but it is elderly and dated. It is largely about the past 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, crucially, its enduring impact. This is to be a museum of dialogue and debate.

  • 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. The museum deals with Liverpool history, African history, Caribbean history and other histories, and profound legacies in all these places.

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 in recognition of the museum’s status and significance, Government has agreed to meet some of the running costs.

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

Public display galleries

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 African and slavery collections to help 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. To me, these issues are the true core of what we call ‘intangible heritage’. We wish to consider issues of freedom – what does freedom mean to us? How can we protect freedom? What does the future hold? There can surely be no more significant questions than these in the world today.

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.

Resource centre

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.

Research institute

Housed alongside the Resource Centre, the third element of the museum is the Research Institute 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 Institute will become a centre for excellence in slavery studies, encouraging research and publication on an international basis. Through the Research Institute 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 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.

If you are interested in this project do please give me a business card, or contact address, because only through international collaboration will the full value of this project be realised.

In 1937 William Prescott, a former slave, gave a bleak prediction:

"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."

To a huge degree, this whole conference is about memory. We must prove William Prescott wrong. Through our work, and that of our collaborators, people will remember the selling and the buying.

But they will also remember the strength and the bravery.