Wed | Jul 24, 2019

Anthony Gambrill | Liverpool the metropolis of slavery

Published:Sunday | December 2, 2018 | 12:00 AM
A maquette of a statue at City Hall, London, which stands as a permanent slavery memorial.

During the era of the slave trade, Liverpool delivered two and a half million slaves to the Caribbean and North America. The port was responsible for nearly 400,000 slaves arriving in Jamaica alone, more than London and Bristol combined in the years 1741 to 1800. It is no wonder that Liverpool was described by one observer as "the metropolis of slavery".

Situated at the mouth of the Mersey River, Liverpool already enjoyed the advantage of its location on the west coast of Britain in respect of trade with Ireland, the Baltic, and the New World. But it was the enterprise of the merchants that contributed to its unequalled success dealing in slavery. In addition, after 1740, the slave trade was making a substantial contribution to its foreign trade and to stimulating economic expansion of the Lancashire and Cheshire hinterland.

By the turn of the 19th century, Liverpool provided for 79 per cent of all British ships engaged in the trade. Significantly enabling this was the growth of its shipbuilding and ship-repairing capability and the multiplicity of its docks. This was eventually credited with allowing Liverpool to rapidly increase its trading share. Its ships were designed initially for the slave trade and were bigger and faster than its competition while adaptable for use after 1807 for conventional cargo.

Another factor that worked to the advantage of the Liverpudlians was their willingness to establish mutually beneficial relations with their African partners. A curious reason for the dominance of Liverpool lay in the city's commercial presence among African entrepreneurs and middlemen. According to a witness before a British parliamentary committee, native Africans knew Liverpool as their "friend" and looked down on vessels originating in Bristol and London as from "small countries".

Social ties even resulted in more than 50 African children being brought to study in Liverpool schools in the late 18th century! Liverpool traders not only benefited by carrying merchandise - from glass beads to guns - to exchange for slaves, but also by exploring commercial possibilities that other British competitors had ignored. They uniquely developed trading associations with African chiefs in the Bight of Benin and Biafra as well as seeking opportunities for supplying slaves to the smaller islands of the Caribbean (some Spanish) and Demerara.

In his landmark book Capitalism and Slavery, Trinidadian Eric Williams described the huge profit from slavery as directly contributing to the economic growth and prosperity of Liverpool. The indirect impact on Liverpool could be seen in the enormous stimulus to commerce and manufacturing - cotton and woollen textiles, production of base metals, pottery and ceramics - and, of course, shipbuilding and repair. Without a doubt, it was from the profits of slavery that the social aspirations of Liverpool merchants were met.

The Liverpool slave traders spent their money on elegant town houses often on fashionable Duke Street and soon invested in agricultural land that some later converted into rural retreats. A good example is Thomas Leyland, who made a substantial fortune out of his mercantile investments, built his own vessels, and eventually launched a bank, which was the forerunner of the modern-day Midland Bank.

A penny-pinching man, Leyland's good fortune was jump-started when he and his partner won a state lottery which he later acknowledged with the naming of his vessel Lottery! Although some slave traders went bankrupt, Leyland died leaving more than 600,000 pounds. Barclays Bank also had its origin in Liverpool, with the Heywood brothers and their nephew having underwritten more than a hundred voyages to West Africa.

My research has only revealed one Liverpool merchant, Richard Watt, whose fortune was derived from owning a plantation in Jamaica. In 1769, he acquired George's Plain in Westmoreland. On his death, his nephews inherited his sugar and cattle property. Later, Richard Watt III owned Potosi in Westmoreland and received £3,421 for 224 emancipated slaves.

Moses Benson was typical of a few men who began their slave-trading as ship captains and agents in Jamaica for Liverpool merchants. He is actually recorded as being the treasurer for the Kingston Chamber of Commerce when it was formed in 1779. He returned to Liverpool in 1800 to trade on his own account. The mulatto mother of his four children, Judith Powell, accompanied him. Benson died in 1806. In a controversial will, he left bequests to his children but made no mention of his mulatto wife. All four "reputed" children were to be married in England, and one became a member of parliament.

All but four of the residences built by slavery and sugar no longer exist. Many disappeared in the 1960s when Liverpool was in a process of a costly slum-clearance programme, and as one government official put it, "Those (merchants') houses are better demolished and forgotten than they should be left to stumble into a degrading and pitiable decay (anyway they were built only for the specific purpose of displaying Victorian families to the best advantage.)" Some were converted into parks for the "culture and pleasure" of the people of Liverpool, ironically, on the backs of West Indian slaves.

- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright and historian. Email feedback to