Maritime Tales - slave traders

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an oil painting of a sailing ship with the coast in the distance

A Liverpool Slave ship about 1780

There are several streets in Liverpool named after slave traders along which I, Stephen Guy, walked many times before discovering the connections.

During the 18th century many of Liverpool’s leading families were actively involved in the trade, including mayors and MPs. Around the city centre today you will see streets named after citizens who owed much of their fortunes to enslaved Africans. A display at Merseyside Maritime Museum highlights these places which are still a part of modern Liverpool.

The Tarletons were one of the most vigorous slaving families in Liverpool over three generations. They were politically active locally and at Westminster. John Tarleton left a personal fortune of £80,000 in 1773 – the equivalent of many millions today. Three of Tarleton’s sons were involved in the slave trade. The fourth son, Banastre, served in the army and later as an MP was a major opponent of abolition. Tarleton Street links Church Street and Richmond Street.

Richard Gildart was Mayor of Liverpool three times and MP for Liverpool from 1734 to 1754. Gildart Street is off Islington.

Cunliffe Street, off Tithebarn Street, is named after Foster Cunliffe, another Mayor of Liverpool.

Although Admiral Lord Rodney (1719-92) was not a slave trader, he spoke against abolition in the House of Lords. Famous for his victories against the Spanish and French, Rodney Street is named after him.

The Transatlantic Slavery Gallery at the museum has several exhibits showing the terrible conditions in which captive Africans were taken across the Atlantic – including a part-replica of a slave ship hold. This shows the cramped conditions in which the slaves were chained closely together below decks, often in stifling temperatures.

A plan of the Liverpool slave ship The Brooks shows 482 figures fitted in the hold. However, on one voyage in 1782 she had an astonishing 646 Africans on board, while in 1786 she carried 609 slaves and 45 crew.  A model based on The Brooks shows in great detail how all these people were accommodated. A thatched partition – or barricado – reaches across the ship to divide the sexes.

A painting of a Liverpool slave ship about 1780 (above) has few clues that she is carrying hundreds of captives. One is a series of ventilation holes below the gun deck.  At some stage three small boats approaching from the coast with Africans on board were painted out – perhaps following abolition.

Details of the records our archives department holds on the subject of Liverpool and slavery can be found on our main site. There is also an online tour of the slavery-related sights of Liverpool, including Tarleton and Cunliffe Streets.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.