Neglected legacies of the slave trade need more research

This is a guest article by Laurence Westgaph. Laurence, a writer and broadcaster, is currently writing a book about Liverpool's 18th century Black population.

The former Transatlantic Slavery gallery which opened in 1994 in the Merseyside Maritime Museum was the first permanent exhibition in the country to highlight the importance of the transatlantic slave trade to world history. The development of the International Slavery Museum and the growth in interest of the study of slavery has meant that much has been written recently about the legacies of slavery; yet much still remains to be documented.

Of the little research into the Black presence in Britain during the slave trade period most has focused solely on London, yet Liverpool had a considerable Black population during the 18th and 19th centuries, many of whom were slaves. Although there seems to be no evidence of large scale slave auctions taking place here, slaves can be found advertised for sale in the early Liverpool newspapers. Merchants would also place 'WANTED' advertisements in the press, demonstrating their eagerness to purchase an African servant.

As well as slave sales, there were also advertisements for runaways, showing that Black people did not accept their enslavement in Britain passively. The newspapers also show the reality of life for Black people in Britain's most important slave trading port after the lauded Mansfield Decision of 1772. The last slave sale advertised in a Liverpool newspaper took place in 1779, seven years after Mansfield had ruled in the case of James Somersett.

Church records of the time also give us a great insight into the African presence in the town and show many Black people being baptised and buried in Liverpool churchyards. From these records and others, we know there were many free Black people living in Liverpool during the latter part of the 18th century, including students and craftsmen, as well as soldiers and sailors who fought with honour during the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic Wars.

Although the Black community has contributed as much as any group to Liverpool life over the centuries, its legacy has been almost totally neglected in the history books.