Thursday, 12 February 2009

Liverpool International Slavery Museum

So, now I'm going to tell you all about what I saw at the museum. Why did I find this so fascinating? There are probably several reasons. One is that over the years, a few Brits have taken pleasure in telling me "Britain never had slaves like the US did, wasn’t it terrible what you did to the Red Indians, etc., etc., etc." Perhaps I wanted to get some dirt I could dish back in defense. I do agree that the plight of the African slaves and of Native Americans was grim, but I dislike a pompous attitude anytime I meet it.
Whatever I thought the museum would be, it was somehow different. It was a little frustrating in that I couldn't figure out where to start; the layout didn't facilitate a systematic approach (I'm still a control freak, OK?). However, I think I managed to see nearly all of it.

There were bits that addressed the misery of the slaves as people, the conditions on the ships, the selling, etc. but -- not to be dismissive -- I’ve heard about that all my life. In my early 20's, when I took some of my first ever vacations, I loved visiting the grand plantation houses of the Deep South. It was a guilty pleasure knowing how they were originally built and maintained. When one considers the personal experiences of any one who lost their life into slavery, it is deeply disturbing; but I didn't want the emotional side of the issue at this point, I was looking for facts.

What really grabbed me at the Liverpool museum was information about how Europe and also South America, particularly Brazil (the last to formally end slavery in 1888), changed the history of Africa beginning in the 1500’s when they began taking people from that continent to use for their own purposes. Just looking at one kind of impact, I could vaguely make comparisons to when one reads about the American Civil War and about WWI where the number of casualties among young men altered the demographics of the
population. This left far fewer marriageable men, hence there were more spinsters, and it created a subsequent dearth in population growth. I read somewhere that France’s population has never really recovered from her losses in the two world wars and hence the social policies and tax promoting and encouraging families; one sees those in many developed countries. Of course the birth rate in Africa is much higher and so this is probably a foolish comparison; it was the only similarity I could think of at the time where a group of people have just disappeared/been removed. (Also, it is no longer appropriate to talk about Africa as a single place, given the economic growth of a number of her countries, but I assume I may be safe in doing so historically).

In 300-400 years over 12 million people – mainly young men – were stolen from Africa. Basically, one can just empty out the current residents of Oklahoma, Kansas, Utah and Colorado; no wait, just take the really young healthy ones, so we could add a few states to the list if we weren't too lazy to look up the specific age group info. Remember, healthy young adults weren't that easy to come by back when infant and maternal mortality rates were ridiculously high even in rich white societies. Oh, but we'll empty out those states slowly, taking the prime candidates generation after generation. What changes might that have made to US history (putting aside any views about the significant contributions of those particular states, chosen only because they are contiguous and I used to live in two of them). A comparable number of missing persons would constitute 20% of the current UK population. It's just my way of trying to comprehend what 12 million means; I still don't think I do. I took a picture of the plaque because I wanted to remember and understand this better:

"The transatlantic slave trade operated for almost 400 years. At least 12 million Africans were forcibly transported, but many millions more were profoundly affected. ...The transatlantic slave trade distorted African societies, stealing from them their young people; two thirds of enslaved people were males aged between 15 and 25. Arms and ammunition brought to Africa by European traders helped perpetuate conflict and political instability. Robbing the workforce of young and healthy individuals caused industrial and economic stagnation. Successful trade routes that existed before European intervention were disrupted. The development of African communities and cultures was severely stunted. Agriculture suffered as communities abandoned fertile land while fleeing the long reach of the European slavers. The labour and inventiveness of enslaved peoples shaped the Americas and enriched Western Europe, rather than their African homelands."

So, let’s be right about this slavery thing. It was Western Europeans who stole people from Africa and, later after that form of slavery was outlawed, I read somewhere previously, the crowned heads of Europe virtually sat down at the table and carved up Africa. France and Britain did rather well for themselves.

(Britain's portion is the dark red bits; a bit of typical vandalism here).

Somewhere else (frustrating not to be able to remember where) I read that Britain did better out of this than France because they chose areas that were predominantly Muslim, where the people understood hierarchy better than the wild, independent tribes in the areas that France got. This made the British colonies easier to rule than other areas. Not being able to remember the source and knowing that my reading isn't always on the highest of intellectual planes, I'm not certain how reliable that information is. It is true however, that the European divisions did not relate to the tribal allegiances or differences, and so the resulting administrative boundaries that exist today are still problematic: y
et another way in which Europe has altered African history.

Why does this interest me so much? I think of it as attempting to fill one of the many embarrassing gaps in my knowledge of the world. I grew up hearing about places like Rhodesia and French Guiana but it was so far away and so little to do with me I didn’t think about it much. I have since been to The Gambia, admittedly only to a very rich portion of it, staying at the President’s Hotel, a tourist resort owned literally by the President. We did wonder out of the compound a couple of nights; it was a different world, not at all like I expected. I'll have to find those pictures and write about it sometime.

I remember meeting a man from Nigeria once in Oklahoma City sometime in the 1970s. He may as well have been from a different planet, I was so astounded. Working in public health improved my chances of meeting foreigners and of course living abroad has further widened my encounters. Had I remained in OKC it might not have been so obvious to me, but living here I'm more aware of how much I don't know about the world and about history.

I was wide-eyed to learn that Liverpool’s (and Bristol's) vast wealth wasn’t just established on “shipping”, it was built on shipping
slaves. The "slave triangle" was created when

(a) trade goods, ie weapons and printed cotton, from Europe and South America went to various coastal parts of Africa (there was a great little video that showed how the shipping patterns shifted over the centuries) and were swapped for people;
(b) those people were sent to places like Brazil, Jamaica and the American colonies/southern US; apparently not directly into Britain, which is why some people think they can take the moral high ground;
(c) goods like coffee, cotton and sugar – grown with slave labour – were brought back to Europe.

Not surprisingly
a ship called Alabama was built by Liverpool to support the Confederacy during the Civil War.

"The profits from slavery helped changed the industrial and economic landscape of Britain and other parts of Western Europe. As the transatlantic slave trade was growing, Britain was undergoing a transformation into the First Industrial Nation....Successful slave owners were able to amass vast personal fortunes. This wealth was in turn used to build grand houses and as an investment in other enterprises, such as iron, coal and banking....Britain's economy was changed by the increased demand for plantation produce like sugar and cotton. The working classes began to consume sugar on a regular basis; it was no longer a luxury. The cotton industry powered technological innovation and industrial development, speeding up the process of turning this raw material into finished goods...As the demand for plantation produce increased, so did the demand for enslaved Africans to produce it. In order to purchase more Africans, traders needed more guns, textiles and luxury goods. To cope with the increased flow of goods across Britain, rivers were made more navigable and canals and roads constructed."

Awesome to be surrounded by history, to look straight at it, but not know too much about what created it. There was a useful interactive exhibit that showed the many buildings, parks, charities and businesses created by the wealth built from slave trade. One of the examples was Harewood House, one of many stately homes in Britain now open to the public. They probably weren't all built from slave trade, but now I can't help but wonder how many coal magnates around Newcastle got their foot in that door through another route.

One has the impression that the wealth of the Confederate States was lost in the Civil War and subsequent events. There may have been the odd plantation owner smart enough to invest in the industrial North, but it's not a major theme in the history books. One hears more about 'genteel poverty' amongst the Southern 'aristocracy'. [Come to think of it, wasn't that why Rhett Butler still had money?]

In any case, the British looked after their own; the wealthy were in politics after all. In 1833, when Britain sort of, selectively abolished slavery, they spent £20 million pounds compensating those whose business interests would suffer through loss of their slaves. In the early 19th Century, £20 million was an enormouse amount! For example, the then Bishop of Exeter was given £12,700 for his 665 slaves. According to one source (which also works in US$ if you want to play), that £12,700 would be -- using the much more conservative retail price index estimate -- worth £990,185 in current money. More than enough to save you from genteel poverty or any other kind.

Liverpool touts itself as The City of Britain second only to London, a claim which may even be justified for all I know. One of their notable natives, born in Rodney Street, was William Gladstone who rose to be (four-time) Prime Minister. Although he was a Liberal, he supported the Confederacy in the American Civil War (in a speech he made when visiting Newcastle in 1862). His father's wealth came from plantations in the West Indies. I'm certain Gladstone's biography would have been a complete yawn for me at any other time, but I found it -- the abbreviated version in Wikipedia anyhow -- fairly interesting just now.

Finally, when I first came across I remember being intrigued that some people here referred to virtually anyone of colour as being 'black'. When I mentioned this in conversation, Bill didn't believe me. Well,

"The early Black community in Liverpool mainly comprised of seamen working for shipping lines...Because of bomb damage during World War II, the Black community moved from the south docks to the Granby Toxteth area. During the 1970s and 1980s ... 'Black' became a political term that also embraced Asians, Chinese and Arabs."

I love it when I get to be right.

There was a lot more at the museum about the definition of slavery and racism and I didn't quite follow all the argument, so I won't try to discuss that here. There was also a display that explained some of the problems with current trade policies that I would like to better understand, but I think that may take me a while.

In the mean time, whilst the US certainly wasn’t above reproach in all this, I think the next fat, pretentious Brit that wants to have a go at me about our role in slavery is going to get a little more than he might have bargained for.

I can hardly wait…

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