Black presence

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Black and white photo of a Black woman at a market stall in a town

A street trader at St George's Dock, Liverpool in 1895. Courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo.

When I was young, slavery was rarely mentioned either at home or in school – it was rather a taboo subject. Grown-ups would point out parts of Liverpool, saying things like “That’s where the slaves were sold”. In reality very few enslaved Africans were sold in the port although merchants, traders and ship owners grew rich on the trade.

Liverpool was the leading European slave trade port in the later decades of the 18th century and people of African descent were living in the town from at least that time. A number of merchants brought slaves from the West Indies to work as servants in their homes.

Some African chiefs sent their sons to be educated in Britain. In the 1790s more than 50 of these children were at school in Liverpool.

With the development of the palm oil business after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, African seafarers were increasingly employed to crew the ships. Many of these seafarers settled on the outskirts of the town in the area now known as Liverpool 8.

There were significant numbers of Black people in Britain in the 18th century. By 1800 London may have had a Black population of around 10,000. Although they had a variety of jobs including serving as soldiers and sailors, most were domestic servants to the rich.

This is illustrated on a coffee pot among the displays at the International Slavery Museum in the Merseyside Maritime Museum building. Other exhibits include a print showing a dock and sailing ships which also features the first known images of Black people in Liverpool – two youngsters near the dock side.

An 1895 photograph, shown here, taken by Charles Frederick Inston, shows a Black street trader at St George’s Dock. An item from a 1756 edition of Williamsons Liverpool Advertiser announces  the sale in a shop of “three negro men, two negro women, two negro boys and one negro girl” along with quantities of raisin wine, cider and flour.

A notice of the sale of “11 negroes” at the town’s Exchange Coffee House appeared in the same newspaper in 1766. For wealthy English families, a servant was an asset to be shown off as evidence of wealth and status. These notices show how enslaved Africans were part of the consumerism of the time. Africans were exotic accessories and would often be exquisitely dressed to reflect the riches of their masters.This hid the reality that Black servants were often brutalised in their daily lives.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).