Liverpool: European Capital of... the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Amsterdam, 3 November 2005

Conference paper given by David Fleming at the annual conference of International Association of City Museums, before the International Slavery Museum had opened.

Liverpool and the transatlantic slave trade

This short paper is a case study in representing the city. I have been asked to talk about how a museum might represent in an honest and intelligent fashion the difficult subject of the transatlantic slave trade.

First, some background on Liverpool and the transatlantic slave trade. Between about 1500 and 1870, millions of Africans were captured, enslaved and transported across the Atlantic Ocean by Europeans. The motivation for this traffic was that the European powers needed labour to work in their American colonies. It was in the middle of the 17th century that the English became regular participants in the trade in African people. By the end of the century the English were the largest traffickers in slaves in the western world, shipping on average some 6-8,000 enslaved Africans a year to the Americas. This figure grew to 30-45,000 a year after 1750. Between 1698 and 1807 almost 11,000 ships were fitted out in England alone for the slave trade. In the early days the English slave trade was dominated by merchants in London and Bristol. However, they were soon overtaken by Liverpool.

During the 18th century over 5000 slave ships departed from Liverpool, and by 1800 three quarters of all English ships involved in the slave trade were fitted out in the port. After 1780 Liverpool was the largest slave trade port in the Atlantic world. While slaving was not the city’s only trade, it was the corner stone of its economy, and the foundation of its wealth.

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

Until 1994 there was barely any acknowledgement in the city of Liverpool’s role in the slave trade. The Merseyside Maritime Museum, opened in 1987, had covered the history of the port, but had merely placed the slave trade in the context of trading in general. Moreover, this display, in the words of its curators, had been put together hurriedly and inadequately. A report by Lord Gifford into race relations in Liverpool in 1989 explicitly criticised the gallery, which could easily have been interpreted as a denial of Liverpool’s role in the slave trade, rather than as a fitting acknowledgement.

Then the museum was approached by the English football pools and retail tycoon Peter Moores, patron of the Peter Moores Foundation. Moores proposed that the museum should develop a display specifically about the slave trade. Moores himself was to write in 1994:

"During forty years of work and travel in Europe and America, it became increasingly clear to me that slavery was a taboo subject, both to white and black people. Forty years ago, most Europeans had managed to suppress any acknowledgement of their connection with the slave trade. It was something in the past. In the Unites States, where it was impossible to ignore the results of the slave trade, there was segregation, later bussing and recently something like integration, but never any mention of how black people came to be in America in the first place. We can come to terms with our past only by accepting it, and in order to be able to accept it we need knowledge of what actually happened. We need to make sense of our history. It seemed to me that the taboo should be exorcised." [1]

Moores provided the money to develop a 400 square metre gallery, and museum staff set about putting together the scheme. There were a number of key steps which the museum took in attempting to create an authoritative account of the slave trade. An advisory committee was set up which included black people from Liverpool, Britain and overseas. The role of the committee was to advise and guide the project team. Scholars who had expert knowledge of the slave trade were invited to a seminar, at which the view was expressed that it was impractical and impolitic to develop a slavery gallery at the Maritime Museum. Some of these scholars acted as guest curators and advised on both storyline and text.

Initial reactions to the project

A public launch of the project was held, and there was a great deal of suspicion and hostility. Why was the museum doing this? What were Peter Moores’ motives? What were local black people going to be getting out of the project in terms of work or jobs? Was the museum making a profit out of the project? The composition of both advisory committee and guest curators‘ group was criticised. The suspicion was rooted in the poor record of the museum service of addressing black issues. Why was it suddenly undertaking a project so central to the history of black people?

The project team tried to address these concerns through a number of means. They adopted a mission statement, which read,

“The aim of the gallery is to increase public understanding of the experience of Black People In Britain and the modern world through the examination of the Atlantic slave trade and the African diaspora”.

They took steps to explain how the gallery would be developed and how others could play a role in that process. Additions were made to both advisory committee and guest curators group specifically to meet objections that not enough women and not enough Africans were involved. All along the line people were consulted - over methods of approach and interpretation, over the name of the gallery. There were focus groups, questionnaires and newsletters. Contacts were made with other museums and with black community groups to locate objects and illustrative material. Events were organised in the museum and outside, such as a workshop on Women in Slavery, and a poetry reading on South Africa’s National Day. A major performance on the day prior to the gallery opening included a procession and memorial event for all those who suffered as a result of the slave trade.

Telling the story of a great human tragedy

Of course, the crucial element was the storyline. What was to be the approach? Should this be seen from a European point of view or an African one? White or black? Is African the same as Black? One of the members of the advisory committee and a guest curator wrote:

"To most white people, slavery and colonialism are just a part of a distant memory of nothing in particular. For whites, slavery did not last particularly long, its benefits accrued only to a tiny proportion of white people and the evils of slavery are overshadowed by the role played by British abolitionists. In any case, the rise of Western nations, Britain and the United States in particular, as the industrial supremos of the world, is explicable to them simply in terms of English innate genius. Poverty and penury in Africa, and racial inequality in the West, is explained in terms of black inability, incompetence or laziness.

To black people, though, slavery and colonialism reiterate themselves in our everyday lives, and evoke poignant and immediate memories of suffering, brutalisation and terror. For Black people, Western nations achieved their industrial growth and economic prosperity on the backs of blacks, abolished slavery primarily for economic reasons, have discriminated against Black people ever since, and are unrepentant about any of it. African underdevelopment and racial inequality in the West is understood primarily in terms of racism and racial hostility of whites." 2

A big danger was that it was easy to become preoccupied with the mechanisms of the slave trade - the ships, the methods of trading, the numbers, the economics - and thus to dehumanise a very great human tragedy. Indeed the initial title of the gallery - the Atlantic Slave Trade Gallery - was criticised and changed for this very reason to Against Human Dignity. This is a story about people, not trade. The gallery displays, similarly, begin not on-board a slave ship, but in Africa, with personal witness. It was seen as important that museum visitors get to know something of Africa and its people, to appreciate that Africans may have been enslaved, but first and foremost they were people, not slaves. Moreover, wherever possible, African images of Africans, not European images, were used in the gallery.

Bias can creep in in many ways, if the curators are unwary. For example, almost all display material connected with the abolition of slavery and the slave trade relates to European humanitarian and moral campaigns, whereas in fact the enslaved Africans themselves played a major part through their revolts, uprisings and other actions: this has to be reflected in the displays.

The gallery text, of course, provoked massive debate, and writing the final text was a difficult business. Not only did a long and complex story need to be reduced to a few thousand words, but there were fundamental considerations of language, approach and attitude. Even the use of a word such as ‘slave’ is controversial. The word carries a dehumanising message and its use can itself provoke vehement opposition.

The responsibility of ensuring the story is told

The making of Liverpool’s transatlantic slavery gallery is an object lesson in a number of ways. It is, in a city whose past wealth was in part created by its participation in the most invidious of all forms of trade, not so much a reminder, as a revelation. No young person growing up in modern Liverpool has any real knowledge of the slave trade. No English schoolchildren are well versed in the reasons for, processes or consequences, of transatlantic slavery. We are at risk not of forgetting, but of never even really knowing of the brutalisation of Africa. We see its legacy in modern Africa, in the Caribbean, in the USA, in South America, but we do not know enough to see cause and effect.

If we do not learn about the slave trade, we cannot grasp how the kidnapping, murder, rape and violation, on a massive, inhuman scale, has left its mark on the modern world, or in the minds of Black people. Five hundred years of exploitation, with the full sanction of European States and church, has left African nations in the worst economic conditions of any of the planet, even now, over 150 years after slavery was abolished. The millions now starving in Africa can trace their plight to slavery and colonialism. Political instability continues to plague states established within boundaries imposed by Europeans.

Modern Western governments, not 18th century ones, have established or propped up military dictatorships, usually in a covert fashion, and always motivated by their own advantage. Underdeveloped economies in South America and the Caribbean similarly can trace their predicament back to the slavery era. In the United States and across Europe the descendents of Africans continue to fight for respect and equality of opportunity, and against racial hostility. No one could ever doubt that slavery has been fundamental in shaping the modern world, and will continue to influence our development in future.

It is because of Liverpool’s role in the slave trade that National Museums Liverpool bears the responsibility of ensuring the story is one which is told, and never forgotten in the city. But we also believe that we must work with people, with institutions, which see the story from other perspectives, and we intend to develop stronger links around the theme of the transatlantic slave triangle. We must explore the issues together, our shared history, internationally.

In Liverpool, we continue to relate the story through our Transatlantic Slavery gallery, an installation which is now 10 years old. We run slavery trails around 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. We intend to set up an international Transatlantic Slavery Triangle network of museums. We are working with colleagues in London, Bristol and Hull to develop learning resources for schools through the Understanding Slavery project. We organize, every year, in partnership with Liverpool City Council, Slavery Remembrance Day events around 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 made a formal civic apology for the city’s role in the slave trade, recently passed a motion adopting 23 August as a civic occasion and calling on the UK Government to initiate a National Slavery Memorial Day, commending National Museums Liverpool for our work in this area. This is no small matter, because the UK Government’s official position on the slave trade has been that, while it was ‘barbaric and uncivilised’, and ‘shameful’, nevertheless, ‘belongs in the past’, and Government outraged campaigners at the 2001 World Conference Against Racism by claiming that slavery was not a crime against humanity because it was legal at the time.

Despite the fact that 2004 was UNESCO’s International Year to Commemorate the Struggle Against Slavery and its Abolition, and bicentenary of founding the independent Haitian republic, it took the UK Government until October 14 to initiate a House of Commons debate on the ‘Struggle Against Slavery’. During this landmark debate, Fiona MacTaggart, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, said:

“Slavery is a crime against humanity. Slavery and the slave trade were, and are, appalling tragedies in the history of humanity.”

Proposal for a new museum

National Museums Liverpool, meanwhile, is proposing to found a National Slavery Museum in 2007. The key messages of this institution will be that transatlantic slavery:

  • created a permanent injustice
  • changed the history of Africa, Europe and the Americas
  • was brutal and dehumanising
  • was resisted by the enslaved people at every opportunity
  • led to racism and racial hatred
  • requires a shared understanding of and a shared commitment to combat its consequences

The objectives of the museum are to:

  • inform and help visitors understand the history of transatlantic slavery and the wider issues of freedom and injustice involved
  • challenge preconceptions, prejudice and ignorance and to encourage visitors to regard transatlantic slavery and its consequences as a shared history with shared responsibility for addressing its legacy in the modern world
  • interpret, in an open and honest manner, Liverpool’s role in the transatlantic slave trade and its impact on the economic and cultural growth of the city
  • generate and capture a response from the visitor which makes the Museum a uniquely personal experience

This new institution will replace and expand upon the Against Human Dignity gallery, and will have a much stronger emphasis on contemporary issues arising out of the slave trade. We have learned from the issues which arose when the existing gallery was created and we shall endeavour not to repeat mistakes, though we believe that the credibility of our museum service has already been greatly enhanced through our consultative approach in this difficult area of activity.

It seems to me important, not that Liverpool’s work in slavery remembrance merely instructs modern Liverpudlians about, or chastises them for the practice of their ancestors, for I do not believe that modern Liverpudlians should feel any guilt. I do believe that they carry a heavy responsibility to ensure that the slave trade is not allowed to fade from view, and the gallery must perform a much more important function in alerting us to the inhumanity of our species. We must cultivate a ‘culture of memory’, of collective memory, of a distant age beyond living memory, which must never be forgotten. We must understand why the world is as it is in Liverpool, Africa, and in all countries inhabited by people of African descent. This is, of course, a value common to all history museums, and it is why they are such key cultural institutions.

Not everyone agrees with this. Here are some quotations from letters sent to newspapers in Liverpool about our proposals:

"The TUC’s call for a Day of Remembrance of the slave trade again brought out the politically correct, self-appointed interpreters of Liverpool’s historical connection with slave trading. As usual, they were afforded publicity for incorrect claims and emotive fantasy, despite the most recent revelations that this was a joint venture between Africans and Europeans.

We were once more treated to the views of the usual “rent-a-conscience” crowd, ever ready to disparage Liverpool’s past as a great trading city. Even at its height, the “African Trade” - as it was known - accounted for less than 10% of Liverpool’s overall trade.

It is time it was acknowledged that the originators of the slave trade and its main facilitators were African... The main buyers were Arabs, and today the trade persists; not in Liverpool, but in Africa, and those involved are still Arab traders and Africans." 3

"Is the proposed Transatlantic Slavery Centre... overkill? The Museum already has an extensive Slavery Gallery in its basement, so why does this section have to be expanded further?

While the debate on slavery and its historic significance for Liverpool is a subject that should not be shied from, isn’t this latest development by National Museums Liverpool getting out of proportion?

Having been down-trodden itself by so many over the last 30 years, the curators of Liverpool’s heritage seem determined to add to our poor self-esteem." 4

Such letters appear regularly, reflecting views that the image and reputation of Liverpool will suffer if the subject of the slave trade is aired too visibly.

Happily, the newspaper which publishes these letters takes a different view:

"Confronting our shameful past

Slavery always leaves behind a shameful blot wherever it was practised – and Liverpool, which grew rich on this barbaric trade, is no exception."

So it is praiseworthy that the city, far from sweeping this inconvenient fact under the carpet, is to be the location for the country’s biggest museum dedicated to the slave trade... slavery and its ramifications are not some distant historical subject, but are still of vital importance today. 5

National Museums Liverpool’s position is relatively straightforward. We intend to proceed with this project, because of its educational power. We believe the new museum will demonstrate that Liverpool is a grown up city with a mature view of itself and its history. We believe that the museum will make a positive contribution to interracial harmony, understanding and respect. The museum will not simply portray Africans as victims, and will consider all aspects of the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, including the extraordinary survival and transmission of African cultures into the modern, western world.

In terms of funding we have successfully approached some public sources, and are devising a private and corporate sector fundraising strategy, including targeting US sources. The museum is due to open in its first phase on August 23 2007, in the year in which the UK celebrates the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, and in which Liverpool celebrates its 800th anniversary.


1. Peter Moores in Anthony Tibbles (ed), Transatlantic Slavery, National Museums Liverpool (2005), p 11.
2. Stephen Small in ibid, p 120.
3. Letter, Liverpool Daily Post, August 30 2004, p12.
4. Letter, ibid, October 10 2005, p 12.
5. Editorial, ibid, October 6 2005, p 12.


  • Anthony Tibbles (ed), Transatlantic Slavery, National Museums Liverpool (2005)
  • Captive Passage, Smithsonian Institution Press (2002)

There are also some suggested sources of further information in our booklist and links to other websites.