On 26 April I wrote about my visit to Woolton Village, in Liverpool and the nearby woods (see http://kevin-morris.co.uk/2011/04/26/returning-to-my-roots/). While in Liverpool I also visited the International Slavery Museum (see http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/) which is located at the Albert Dock, a leisure complex situated on the banks of the River Mersey.
It is often said that slavery made Liverpool and this is, unfortunately the case. Prior to it’s participation in the slave trade Liverpool was an insignificant place which barely figured in the UK’s economy. However the involvement of Liverpool merchants in the transatlantic slave trade brought great wealth to both the merchants and to the city of Liverpool as a whole. Merchants built fine houses or used their wealth to augment already existing residences. For example Richard Watt, a leading merchant purchased Speke Hall, in Liverpool in 1795 through the proceeds of his involvement in the sugar and slave trades (see http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-vh/w-visits/w-findaplace/w-spekehall/w-spekehall-history/w-spekehall-history-watts.htm). Speke Hall is a beautiful wattle and daube Tudor building surrounded by pleasant woods and gardens. I’ve fond memories of visiting the house with my grandfather and it is sobering to reflect on the contrast of the lives of it’s owners as compared to those of the slaves from which they derived a significant portion of their income.
Many merchants contributed funds towards the construction of fine buildings, for instance Liverpool Town Hall was constructed from monies gained from the city’s participation in the slave trade. Again the Bluecoat School which was founded to assist poor children owes it’s existence to funds provided by a Liverpool merchant, Bryan Blundell who had substancial interests in the transatlantic slave trade (see http://www.ihbc.org.uk/context_archive/108/slavery/one.html). It is interesting to note how individuals could be indifferent to the cruelties of slavery (and indeed profit from them) while, at the same time displaying a social conscience as regards their fellow countrymen. On the one hand this could be regarded as hypocrisy, however others might argue that we must judge the actions of individuals in context. According to this line of thought support for slavery was widespread at the time that institutions such as the Bluecoat where being created, consequently we should not judge men like Blundell by the standards of the 21st century. However others would argue that Britain led the way in abolishing the transatlantic slave trade (it was abolished by an act of Parliament in 1807), therefore it is wrong to view pro-slavery attitudes as being entrenched in British society.
One of the most interesting aspects of the exhibits in the International Slavery Museum is the manner in which slavery is portrayed as an institution which persists to this day. Besides the portrayal of slavery in past centuries visitors are also confronted by depictions of modern day slavery. For example one story relates to a young boy who was brought over from Bangladesh at the age of 12. He was forced to work in a restaurant (sometimes being compelled to sleep on the street) until he was liberated, at the age of 28 from slavery. Another true story relates to a girl who, at the age of 15 was trafficked into the UK and forced to work as a prostitute.
One is left feeling uncomfortable after having walked round the museum. It is well worth a visit if you are living in Liverpool or have the opportunity to visit the city.