In 2008, Liverpool became the European Capital of Culture, but a
speech delivered in 2005 by David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool, reminds us that the wealth of this once great port was built on the backs of slaves.
The International Slavery Museum, the first of its kind in the world, is housed on the third floor of the Maritime Museum a short distance from the dry docks where eighteenth century slave trading ships were repaired and outfitted. In naming it one of the top museums in England, The Independent newspaper wrote: "The fascinating thing about the museum is that it tells the history of the transatlantic
slave trade through a narrative of resilience, survival and resistance ... And it continues the fight for equality by actively campaigning against racism, discrimination and contemporary slavery."
Until its abolition in 1807, the slave trade triangle brought great prosperity to Liverpool. From the Merseyside docks trading ships set sail to Africa's west coast carrying goods to exchange for
slaves who were off-loaded in the Americas and the Caribbean. Then the ships returned to England laden with products of slave labour: coffee, tobacco, rice and, of course, the "white gold" crops, sugar and cotton.
The International Slavery Museum addresses directly the taboo subject of "chattel slavery", the commodification and trafficking of humans like objects or animals, and analyzes the long term cultural and social effects of the transatlantic slave trade. Visitors pass through three galleries: Life in West Africa where visitors enter part of a re-created Igbo family compound with its carved wooden items and furnishings; Enslavement and the Middle Passage which describes the horrendous voyage across the Atlantic on the slave ships and the brutal life on the plantations in the Americas; Legacies of Slavery that examines the continuing fight for freedom and equality; the long term impact of transatlantic slavery; the achievements of the African Diaspora as well as twentieth century slavery.
This is a demanding and disturbing museum to visit, especially for a Liverpudlian who had grown up quite unaware that many familiar city streets had been named for prosperous Liverpool slave traders. Penny Lane, for example, made famous in the Beatles' song, is named after
James Penny, proud slave ship owner and anti-abolitionist, who insisted that the improved design of his ships allowed the slaves to "sleep better than the gentlemen do on shore" and that he found himself "impelled, both by humanity and interest, to pay every possible attention both to the preservation of the crew and the slaves."
Despite such reassuring assertions, the graphic audio-visual re-creation of the Middle Passage, a horrifying ten-week voyage aboard a Liverpool slave ship that some did not survive, is harrowing to watch and makes the
Irish "coffin" ships that brought to Canada those fleeing the Great Famine, look comfortable by comparison.
The final gallery celebrates the achievements of
Martin Luther King Jr.,
Kofi Annan, and
Mohammad Ali among others, but exhibits such as the one with the "black gold" of the Niger Delta remind us that
millions of people around the globe are still in some form of slavery.
The International Slavery Museum, a campaigning museum committed to human rights both nationally and internationally, has received funding for ambitious plans to establish an Education and Exhibition centre in the adjacent Martin Luther King Jr. building.
Nora Quinn is a recently retired teacher. Her time spent working in Jamaica in the 1970s and her more recent visits to visit her son in Virginia and learn about plantation life and the Civil War have given her a wider understanding of the transatlantic slave trade and its legacies
International Slavery Museum