The metal rings in the huge walls took on a menacing aspect when my father pointed to them with the chilling words: “The slaves were chained to those before being sold”. This was the Goree warehouse near the Liverpool waterfront. I was little more than a toddler when we would explore its colonnades with the sinister rings. Later I learnt that the rings were probably for tying up horses rather than people and that comparatively few enslaved Africans came to Liverpool.
However, Liverpool was the European capital of the slave trade from the 1780s to British abolition in 1807. Mersey ships transported nearly 1.5 million Africans into slavery – more than 10% of all known slaves transported by Europeans to the Americas and Caribbean.
Liverpool was not involved in early English slaving. Merchants from London and Bristol were the first to be involved but from the 1740s Liverpool had overtaken them. Liverpool merchants were sharp and successfully undercut their rivals’ costs, reduced turnaround times and increased the flexibility of operations.
Trade goods on display at the International Slavery Museum, in the Merseyside Maritime Museum building, include horseshoe-shaped pieces of metal known as manillas. They were used as a source of metal for casting in Africa and also as currency, particularly on the Niger delta.
Colourful trade beads, like those shown here, were imported mainly from Venice, Prague and Silesia (Germany) and were much in demand for necklaces and bracelets. Among those displayed is a string of agate beads recovered from the wreck of a ship which sank off the Isles of Scilly.
Preparing a ship for a slave voyage was complex and expensive. Vessels had to be equipped and loaded with goods carefully chosen to appeal to African traders. Ships were usually fitted out by a single merchant on behalf of the owners – fellow merchants, bankers, politicians, landowners and other investors. The average cost of sending out a ship in 1790 was the colossal sum of about £10,000 – roughly £550,000 in today’s money.
Goods to buy enslaved Africans were selected to appeal to particular African traders. The trade was conducted formally at forts on the African coast run by Europeans. There were two such forts on the island of Goree, south of Cape Verde, West Africa. It gave its name to the huge vanished Liverpool warehouse still commemorated by a stretch of road called Goree which runs parallel to The Strand.
Elsewhere captains negotiated directly with Africans and generally had to pay customs and dues for trading rights. There's more on the history of slave trading on our main site.
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).