A while ago we had a look at Liverpool not long before I was born, and 1953 looked like a strange and long ago place. Today we’re going well back before any of us were born, to an apparently idyllic Liverpool of 1775.
Where we now have the Cathedral and Upper Duke Street, the harvest is being brought in. So close to the docks and the river, we are well outside the town. The line of trees on the right of this picture is Mount Pleasant, where a few years earlier, William Roscoe, son of a market gardener, has been born, in 1753. We, and the town will be hearing a lot more from this rural neighbour.
Because of course this Liverpool place is not at all as rural or idyllic as these two pictures make it appear. Though overland travel is both arduous and dangerous still, the town is now firmly connected with London.
Because the wide river, so cleverly exploited by the creation of the ‘Old Dock’ between 1709 and 1715, is where the town’s money flows in.
And the money has been flowing in more and more lucratively this whole century, as the town of Liverpool has gradually come to dominate the Trans Atlantic trade in slaves. Liverpool is particularly well situated, on the western coast of Europe, for this triangular trade.
First, manufactured goods, including arms and ammunition, are exported to Africa, and used to pay for people captured in ‘slave raids’ within Africa. Second is the ‘middle passage’, where the captured people are taken across the Atlantic, in the same ships, and sold as slaves. Finally the ships return to Liverpool with the produce of earlier slaves. Cotton, sugar, rum, tobacco and more.
So Liverpool itself never actually sees the slaves?
“Small numbers of slaves, of both sexes and all ages, were brought to Liverpool and were occasionally sold at local auctions. Others became house slaves for the more wealthy families in the Town: Black domestic servants in great houses were seen as a conspicuous sign of wealth at that time and, whilst some were paid wages and could leave their employers, others were treated as property or as ‘fashion statements’.” Ken Pye, Liverpool Historian
Some Liverpool numbers from the triangular trade, quoted from ‘John Moss of Otterspool, Railway Pioneer, Slave Owner, Banker’ by Graham Trust (We’ll be hearing more about John Moss another day):
“By the later half of the 18th century, Liverpool had become the most important centre in the world for the organisation of the slave trade. So integral was it to the town’s prosperity, that by 1787, thirty seven of the forty one members of Liverpool City Council were involved in it in one way or another. By 1795 twenty five per cent of the ships belonging to the town were employed in the trade. That year, 134 ships were sent from Liverpool to Africa, and Liverpool conducted sixty three per cent of Great Britain’s trade in slaves. By the time it was abolished in 1807 an estimated 1,360,000 Africans had been transported in more than 5,000 voyages of ships based in Liverpool.”
(Numbers are of course very hard to be certain about. This BBC History site has 1.5 million. To this must be added numbers of people who died during the slave raids within Africa and those who died during transportation. Total numbers transported to the Americas by Europeans are now generally thought to be about 11 million.)
The Year 1775 actually witnesses the first interruption to this growing trade and prosperity, as the American War of Independence has begun. 3,000 of Liverpool’s seamen are consequently unemployed because of this interruption to trade. They revolt when the shipowners take this opportunity to reduce wages. Some are killed and some are forced into the navy.
But nearly everyone in Liverpool in 1775 is involved in some way in its most lucrative trade.
Not William Roscoe, though he is connected with many who are. At twenty two he is already a poet of some national repute and just at the beginning of his career as a lawyer and later a banker (so money from the slave trade will pass through his hands). Soon to be married, he will later set up house, again just outside the city, in the leafy glades of The Dingle.
But still here in 1775, just to the left of the illustration at the top, a rather splendid church is being completed.
Involving one of the first uses of cast iron columns in church construction, this precious place will reach the twenty first century, and still be remembered by some Liverpool people as ‘The Slave Church.’ And be about to be celebrated for itself, and also remembered for its associations with the Slave Trade. In 2012 as part of a new Liverpool 8 Heritage trail the church gains a future from its past:
“The Graveyard surrounding the Church of St James is the final resting place for more than 9,000 people. Here slave traders, captains of slave ships, slavery abolitionists and emancipated victims rest side by side.
With the re-opening of the church, the Bishop of Liverpool was concerned to see this act of renewal playing a major role in the regeneration of Toxteth. The site of the church has been selected as the natural place for an international Memorial to the Victims of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade and the ground around the church to become designed as an African Garden of Remembrance.”
So, maybe, nearly 240 years after the lovely picture at the top of this post, a new kind of beauty will be created on this hill just outside the town?
But before we leave 1775, let’s walk down the hill and into the town for a look at one more thing.
Where there is wealth there always seems to be poverty too. And here we find the Charity School, opened since 1718:This too will make it through to the 21st century. The Bluecoat, partly paid for by Bryan Blundell, sea captain and slave trader.
So even now, back here in Liverpool 2013, though the triangular Trans Atlantic Slave Trade is long over, we unknowingly walk through its gates.
We’ll be back soon to see how the slaves themselves and abolitionists like William Roscoe eventually brought the trade to an end, in ‘It’s Liverpool, in 1820.’
Most of the above illustrations, and accompanying poetry, taken from ‘William Roscoe of Liverpool’ by George Chandler, City Librarian, in 1953, the bi-centenary of Roscoe’s birth. I found my copy in Allerton Library.