Review of The International Slavery Museum, Liverpool

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A VISIT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SLAVERY MUSEUM, LIVERPOOL, UNITED KINGDOM, Written by Alison Wilson

This permanent exhibition situated at Albert Dock in Liverpool was the site where Africans were bought, branded, sold, and ‘picked up at grab-sales’ (*description taken from historic signage displayed at the Museum) and shipped like the cargo to unmeasurable cruelty, uncertainty, isolation, cultural estrangement, and possible death. The museum is a perpetual reminder of Liverpool’s place in history as a major Transatlantic slave port.

The act of ‘slaving’ and related trades is said to have occupied a third and possibly up to a half of Liverpool's shipping activity in the period of 1750 to 1807. The Museum also accounts that ‘Liverpool ships transported half of the 3 million Africans carried across the Atlantic by British slavers’.

This sort of culpability comes at a price. The varying groups and individuals visiting the museum shared similar reactions of shock and repulsion when confronted with images and stories of slavery.

Many of the local families stood silently in front of displays naming prominent local historical figures and families who benefitted from slavery, many of those named also have popular city streets christened after them.

Surprisingly, some even gave generously to poor houses in their home country with money made from slave labour and all of it’s associated abuses. Despite being denounced for their involvement in slavery, or the wonder of the trickle down process of their wealth to current relatives and status, they weren’t alone in their involvement. 

Just like their fellows in business and community and on a grander European scale, they were infact involved with the most popular business of their time. The very streets that are walked upon were funded and enhanced by the money made from slavery, the effects are felt everywhere.

What is so substantial about the exhibition at Liverpool, is it’s permanency. It is not a fleeting reminder or a passing piece of attention on this grossly disturbing piece of our global humanity. It is an educational and thorough account of all of the processes and effects of slavery.

It is a sobering experience for any mature adult.

There are various collections that enable you to witness the richness of the cultures in which the enslaved were stolen from and also the diversity of their way of life and lack of understanding from those who had come to steal and human traffic. 

What humanises this a little, is the sharing of the lived experiences by the former slaves. You can listen to audios and touch a map to gain insights from real life, like conversations in the slave quarters in Bermuda, the dinner table in Haiti, songs and stories, amazing narratives that were passed on and kept secret amongst the generations of slaves. The storytelling of experiences from former slaves, who remind us not only of their sufferings and sorrows, but their longings and dreams. These lived experiences, of course still impact our families and cultures today.

I was impressed by a portraiture wall featuring Liverpudlians largely of mixed race heritage. They expressed their experiences and stories with casual and extreme racism, discrimination and assault. These stories were recent. But, all of the members were proud of their mixed heritage and involved in activism and education. This modern form of storytelling opens up the conversation, and works towards eradicating racism. Another effective display featured a legacy wall with many famous and influential people from the global black diaspora while a Ku Klux Klan outfit, stood caged in the centre as an ugly reminder.

For me, the picture below was even grosser than the anonymously donated Ku Klux Klan Outfit. It is a Christmas Card, disgusting in all its possibilities and impossible to fathom in any space or time. Clearly, the faces of all of the slaves bare such pain being held to display and painted with a ‘Merry Christmas’ message. All in all, so this family could show off their ownership and ‘wealth’ to other families. The family possess bold looks on their faces and an opposite disposition to their enslaved, and were obviously prepped well in advance for the photograph. A local family, stopped and expressed their disgust, the female of the couple stated ‘I would be so ashamed to be a part of this family, they must still have family here, how awful,' her companion responded ‘Yeah, and I bet they are probably still living off the money’. Soon after, I watched a Zimbabwean family, who I later learned were visiting from Holland stand before the portrait. I had been listening to them earlier as the father had explained historical events and outcomes of slavery. His teenage son absorbed all of the information and watched and listened respectively. I stood before the large portrait with so many thoughts racing through my mind, largely disbelief, “How could this be OK in any time and era?” 

After some small talk with the family and receipt of a warm handshake when I asked if his children spoke Shona, we moved on to the next display, an interactive map of nations and their involvement in slavery in Africa. We debated inaccuracies on the map, some small islands off the coasts were missing and multiple or overlapping involvement by various countries were not represented. But, we concluded, that broadly the exhibition was great and seemed to be a fair representation of what occurred. We discussed in depth European collision in international slavery. Even though, despite the fact that Portugal lead the way and Great Britain closely followed in numbers and as then prime minister and abolitionist William Pitt the Younger told the House of Commons in 1792, "No nation in Europe, has plunged so deeply into this guilt as Great Britain."

BUT it was the practice and the creation of the business, of slavery, that was supported by governments, churches, charities, families and other groups throughout Europe and into other slaving domains that propagated the continuation and misery of slavery.

Despite, standing on the ground where slaves stood before their masters, the movement of the crowd, and general attitude in the museum and around Liverpool was intergrated and relaxed. Many mixed families, descendants from African nations were visiting the museum. It is hard to believe that this modern site was pivotal in the transatlantic slave movement. If only those waiting at the dock could speak now of their stories but feel at peace that their ancestors in the city and abroad now are equal members of society. Credit to the Liverpudlians for the permanent exhibition and owning their part in the business of slavery. Who is next?

If you want to know more, there is loads to read here. http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/collections/

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