Journey into Liverpool’s past

Home to Britain’s oldest black community and once Europe’s biggest slave trading port, Liverpool is an apt location for Slavery Remembrance Day

‘I’m going to take you on a journey,’ announced Barbara Tasker dramatically to the small crowd gathered round the museum display.

‘We are going on a journey on ship across the Atlantic. The year is 1820 and we are going to Bermuda where my great-great-great grandfather, Peter Thomas, a seaman, was born.

‘His son, Joseph Henry Thomas, was also a seaman and in 1861 he married Grace Hamilton, whose family had settled in Liverpool from Glasgow 20 years earlier.’

Barbara then took her audience on a dizzying trip down the decades, gesturing every now and again to aged sepia and monochrome photographs to put faces to a family tree whose roots seemed crisscross the ocean in several directions.

‘My mum Florence met a Liverpool man, Harry Williams, whose dad came here from Liberia on the Elder Dempster shipping line.  Her own father, Alex Aubrey Flatts, came from British Guiana.’

It was a kind of live presentation of Who Do You Think You Are? and the crowd hung on to her every word, fascinated by this tale of migration and settlement in a city once referred to as the ‘gateway to the world’.

But in Liverpool Barbara’s is not a particularly unusual story. The city is said to be the home of Britain’s oldest black community, both a direct and indirect result of the slave trade, which turned it from insignificant seaport in the north west of England into one of the wealthiest trading centres in Europe.

It is a message that the International Slavery Museum, where Barbara gave her talk, is trying to get across. Although devoted to telling the story of the slave trade and Liverpool’s dominant role in it, the museum also explores its many legacies.

Slavery is a brooding presence in the city, in the grand gothic sweep of its city centre buildings, in the African faces carved on the Town Hall friezes and in streets named after prominent slave traders like Foster Cunliffe, a former mayor, and John Newton, who penned the hymn Amazing Grace in a fit of repentance.

Lying a stone’s throw away from the Museum’s dockside premises is St James Church, which contains the baptismal records of numerous black adults dating back to 1775, when it was first consecrated. Some may have been slaves and servants, others the sons of African rulers sent overseas to be educated. Others were black loyalists who had come to Britain following its defeat in the American War of Independence.

The church lies in Toxteth, where the majority of black Liverpudlians eventually settled, their numbers swollen by the arrival of black sailors like Barbara Tasker’s great-great grandfather, who is buried in the churchyard along with his wife, and later by black seamen working for shipping lines like Elder Dempster.

But slavery, though long abolished, continued to cast its shadow over the city’s black population. In his book Black Liverpool, historian Ray Costello, whose earliest black relatives also hailed from 19th century Bermuda, says, ‘The Liverpool black community is an example of a distinct people having the appearance of almost complete invisibility for more than 200 hundred years… scant evidence being found by the causal visitor of [its] existence in terms of either records or physical presence in the city’s central business district.’

In 1981, Toxteth suddenly burst into visibility  when it exploded into two weeks of rioting as youngsters battled it out on the streets with police, fed up with the routine discrimination  they were subjected to in every quarter. Police only regained control after rubber bullets were used for the first time in the UK outside Northern Ireland. Up to 140 buildings were burned to the ground and one man was killed after being hit by a police car.

Horrified by the scale of the violence, the then Thatcher government launched a number of regeneration projects, including the redevelopment of the Albert Dock, which lies close to the dry docks where the 18th century slave ships were repaired and fitted out. Thousands set sail from Liverpool and by 1795, the city was responsible for 80 per cent of the British trade and 40 per cent of the European.

In 1999, Liverpool City Council formally apologised for the city’s involvement in the trade. That same year also saw Liverpool’s first Slavery Remembrance Day commemoration – attended by the late Bernie Grant MP – and it has been held annually every August 23rd ever since.

The event has certainly grown in significance since the opening of the International Slavery Museum in 2007 and now runs into a long weekend. This year’s highlight was a memorial lecture given by 1960s US civil rights leader Diane Nash, in which she described her role in helping to end the segregation of lunch counters and restaurants.

There was also a play about Charles Wootton, the 24-year-old black seaman who drowned after being chased into the Mersey by a mob of 300 white men in 1919.

But the climax of the commemoration was, as always, a traditional African libation ceremony led by Chief Angus Chukwuemaka, a Nigerian who has lived in Liverpool since coming here as a student in the 1960s.

As he opened the proceedings by presenting a kola nut to each of the fellow elders at his side, as is the tradition in Nigeria, a hush descended on assembled crowd. After summoning up the spirits of the ancestors –  those who suffered under slavery but also fought against it – he poured the libation, first on the ground and then into the murky waters of the Mersey itself.

Later Chief Angus took a party of visitors to the International Slavery Museum nearby, arriving at the start of Barbara Tasker’s impassioned talk. There was another kind of hush. It was a fitting end to a day of remembrances.

Black History 365/October 2010/www.black-history-month.co.uk

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