Constructing pasts, contesting futures

Head of International Slavery Museum Dr. Richard P. Benjamin on Liverpool’s slavery legacy

20 September 2019

When we think of Britain’s involvement in slavery, we often prefer to focus on the heroes of the abolition movement. But our history has its darker sides.

By the 1780s, Liverpool was the European capital of the transatlantic slave trade. Vast profits from the trade transformed Liverpool into one of Britain’s most important and wealthy cities. Other European ports were heavily involved too, but more than 4,000 slaver ships left Liverpool, which carried perhaps 1.5 million enslaved Africans into slavery.

This did not mean that Liverpool did not have an active abolition movement – figures like William Roscoe (lawyer, poet, botanist) stand out in the city’s history. Several Liverpudlians were involved with the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, but by and large it was a powerhouse for the pro-slavery lobby.

It was important to draw attention to those in Liverpool who were abolitionists, but the International Slavery Museum (ISM) was conscious not to suggest that the abolition movement was solely a European battle. Enslaved Africans themselves played a significant part, through revolts on board ship, uprisings in the Americas, and lobbying by figures such as Olaudah Equiano.

This is why Liverpool was an ideal place for the International Slavery Museum to open on 23 August 2007 during the Bicentenary of an Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. It is the only national museum of its kind and has welcomed over 4 million visitors.

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The Museum not only tells the untold stories of enslaved people in the historical slavery, but also engages with contemporary human rights issues, addressing ignorance, challenging intolerance, and building partnerships with communities and organisations that share our vision.

The Museum currently has three galleries. Life in West Africa explores the story of Africa and its rich history and culture before the arrival of Europeans; Enslavement and the Middle Passage reveals the brutality and trauma suffered by enslaved Africans on the voyage across the Atlantic, plantation life and resistance. Legacy details contemporary forms of enslavement, racism, hate crime, discrimination and the achievements of the African Diaspora.

The Campaign Zone hosts exhibitions highlighting contemporary campaigns, including Anti-Slavery International’s Home Alone: End Domestic Slavery campaign to protect the rights of domestic workers in 2010. Others include a campaign highlighting labour rights abuses in Uzbekistan with the Environmental Justice Foundation in 2011 and a partnership with the Dalit Freedom Network on Broken lives: Slavery in Modern India campaign in 2015.

An example of our commitment to bridging the past and present is our collaboration with Anti-Slavery International, which recently transferred its archive and library over to the Museum. We are currently working through over 180 years’ worth of archives to prepare it for the public and researchers to able to access it and learn lessons about slavery then and now.

Museums play a major role in enhancing social cohesion and promoting social justice. As ISM develops, so do opportunities to tackle the legacies of transatlantic slavery and contemporary forms of exploitation.

Find out more about the International Slavery Museum, including how to visit (entry is free) on www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism

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