Beneath a perfectly clear blue sky and watched by a silent crowds, Chief Angus Chukwuemaka performs a libation ceremony in memory of enslaved Africans.
The place is the Liverpool waterfront where slave ships began and ended their gruesome triangular journey.,
The time is August 23, Slavery Remembrance Day, in commemoration of victims of the 18th century trade that transformed Liverpool from an obscure fishing port into one of the richest mercantile centres in Europe.
Solemnly Chukwuemaka repeats ‘This is your drink’ to those who were sold into bondage, to those who resisted and to those who fought for the trade’s abolition.
The final libation is poured into the shimmering waters of the River Mersey that glisten in the sunlight.
‘It is both an act of remembrance and celebration,’ explains Chukwuemaka afterwards, dressed in traditional attire of his native Igboland in eastern Nigeria. ‘We remember the sufferings of our enslaved brothers and sisters but at the same time celebrate their efforts to free themselves.’
He has been performing the ceremony since 1999 in an event organised by the Merseyside Maritime Museum and Liverpool City Council following the latter’s formal apology for the city’s part in the slave trade.
August 23 is chosen because that is the day on 1804 that Haiti threw off the shackles of slavery to become an independent republic.
But this year’s event is all the more symbolic because it takes place in the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade.
Guests from America including xxxxx nephew of civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King and xxx of the Smithsonian institute joined the moving riverside gathering.
‘Words cannot convey the emotion I felt when performing this year’s ceremony,’ he says. The horrors and consequences of slavery are all too apparent. But after 200 years we now have the opportunity of a dialogue to confront inequality in all its forms.’
Now one of Liverpool’s most well known characters, Chukwuemaka arrived in Liverpool in the 1968 as a wide-eyed but ambitious youth to study electronics.
A city whose fortunes had spiralled into spectacular decline along with those of the British empire, Liverpool nevertheless seemed a good port of call.
For one it was home to a sizeable number of West Africans, mostly merchant seamen who had decided to put down roots there. They settled in a district not far from the docks known as Toxteth.
An area of elegant boulevards and grand 19th century housing that had clearly seen better days, it was a far cry from the small town where Chukuemaka was raised. But he felt immediately at home.
‘You could never feel alone in Toxteth,’ he recalls fondly. ‘It was such a multiracial area and people were very welcoming. I first lodged with a Greek family and was made to feel very comfortable.’
West African food came in regularly on the ships and a well-established network of social clubs provided ready company and entertainment.
‘Everyone was welcome, including white people, and you would be guaranteed a good time out. It was really beautiful,’ he adds, clearly relishing the memory.
Chukwuemaka enjoyed the place so much he decided to stay put, eventually raising a family of five with his wife, Christine.
Toxteth, often referred to loosely as Liverpool 8, the local postcode, is also home to black people whose ancestors had settled in the city as far back as the 18th century. Some were the descendants of slaves brought over on ships for domestic servitude in the homes of wealthy city merchants.
Others could trace their family tree back to the black US independence war soldiers who, loyal to the Union Jack, decided to flee to England. Liverpool, then the biggest port on the other side of the Atlantic, became a natural refuge.
They were joined by the children of African rulers who had been sent to England to be educated and decided to stay on. This makes Liverpool’s black community the oldest not only in England but in Europe, with some people able to trace their city roots back three centuries.
But the tight knit community that Chukwuemaka so fondly remembers was as much a response to how the rest of Liverpool felt about Toxteth as how Toxteth residents felt about each other.
Although they may have been Liverpool born and bred for several generations, they were never considered ‘one of us’, an attitude that was direct fallout of the slave trade.
Liverpool was the dominant English slave trading port, overtaking its main rival Bristol by the mid 18th century. According to the Merseyside Maritime Museum, 120-130 ships a year were leaving the port for Africa in the two decades before the abolition of the trade in 1807 compared with around 15 ships in the 1730s .
Slavery is a brooding presence in Liverpool, in the grand gothic sweep of its city centre buildings, in the African faces carved on the Town Hall frieze and in streets named after prominent slave traders like Foster Cunliffe, a former mayor, and John Newton, who penned in the hymn Amazing Grace. Goree Piazza, once part of the dockside area, recalls the gruesome island of Goree off the Senegal Coast, which was used as a slave holding centre by mainly by the French.
On his early visits to the city centre, a mere 10 minutes away from where he lived, Chukwuemaka was struck by the sea of white faces. ‘You just couldn’t see any black people there, either walking about or working and this was down to outright discrimination by employers.’
He quickly discovered that going for a night out to sample Liverpool’s legendary wit and warmth was also not on the cards. ‘It was difficult for a black man to enter a white club easily. They put up all sorts of entry restrictions, like members only, and this was the reason why we began to set up so many of our own associations.’
Denied good jobs and decent housing over the decades and discouraged from leaving the confines of their area, the people of Toxteth became effectively ghettoised. White women who set up home with black men were regarded as little more than prostitutes, while a Liverpool 8 address proved to be an early warning system for employers whatever the colour of the bearer.
In the ‘70s, government fears about the effects of black immigration intensified the racism, personified by a local police force which routinely targeted black youngsters with pernicious stop and search laws.
For almost two weeks in 1981, mounting resentment against this state of affairs turned Toxteth into a war zone as local youngsters, both black and white, entered into pitched battles with the police, armed with petrol bombs and bricks.
A horrified Home Secretary William Whitelaw spoke of ‘violence of extraordinary ferocity’ and the police only regained control of the streets after rubber bullets were used for the first time in the UK outside Northern Ireland, resulting in a number of serious injuries. Up to 140 buildings were razed and one man was killed after being hit by a police Land Rover.
But like most locals, Chukuemaka was not surprised by the violence. By now busily involved in community politics, he was at the time vice-chair of the Merseyside Racial Equality Council: ‘In its 1979 annual report I warned that this would happen because of three things – the poor relations between police and young people, the unemployment, and poor schooling.’
The riots, the most serious of a wave of civil disturbances that took place in Britain’s inner city areas that year, drew an immediate response from Westminster. Environment minister Michael Heseltine famously went on a three-week fact finding tour of Liverpool to find out what had gone wrong. He set up the Merseyside Development Corporation. This oversaw the redevelopment of the dockside area known as Albert Dock, where the Maritime Museum is now based, and the establishment of an International Garden Festival in 1984 to regenerate derelict land and create local jobs.
Chukwuemaka notes that as neither of these prestige projects were in Toxteth itself, their benefits were limited. Residents were dismayed at the city authorities’ discussion to demolish streets of run down housing in Liverpool 8 rather than refurbish them, and to move people to other areas. ‘This has resulted in the break up of our community,’ asserts Chukwuemaka sadly. The place has become a ghost town.’
Though retired, Chukwuemaka gives no indication that he is about to hang up his boots, He wears several civic hats including chairmanship of the Merseyside African Representative Council and sits at the helm of the Crawford House ~Business and Social Enterprise Centre.
Built with the help of the European Fund and comprising of office, lecturing venue and shop space it it takes the notion of self-help to another level.
‘By renting out rooms we aim to become self-sustaining rather than relying on handouts,’ he explains.
‘Despite apologies, despite Slavery Remembrance Day, we must not forget that discrimination in Liverpool is alive and kicking and we must do all that we can to overcome it.’
Setting the truth free
As the first city to formally apologise for its role in slavery, Liverpool scored another first with the opening of International Slavery Museum in August.
The inauguration took place on Slavery Remembrance Day, August 23, and was attended by VIPS from around the world, including the singer Harry Belafonte.
He said, “It is a good thing that Liverpool, a city central in one of the greatest evils the world has have seen, slavery, has chosen to provide a facility that has global significance in educating people about it.’
Based at the Mersey Maritime Museum and an expansion of the smaller Transatlantic Slavery Gallery, it examines both the historical and contemporary aspects of slavery, using multimedia presentations.
Highlights include the Middle Passage audio-visual installation recreating the dark and oppressive transpiration suffered by slaves, and an interativce music desk, charting the African roots of today’s popular music.
Museum staff also travelled to eastern Nigeria to help them reproduce an Igbo family compound, the type many captives had lived in before being kidnapped and sold into bondage.
The new museum also includes a learning facility dedicated to Liverpool teenager Anthony Walker who was murdered with an axe two years ago in a racist attack.
BHM365’s Mia Morris said, ‘We would like to pay tribute to all those who dared to dream a big dream and turn this museum a jewel in the crown internationally. It certainly lives up to its claim to set the truth free.’
Black History 365/October 2007/ www.black-history-month.co.uk