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Grim `hidden history' nears an anniversary

The slave trade enriched Liverpool and its prominent citizens, until Britain abolished the traffic in 1807.

March 18, 2007|Robert Barr | Associated Press Writer

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND — Beatles lovers who seek out Penny Lane imagine it as that magical place "in my ears and in my eyes, there beneath the blue suburban skies." But it has a sinister undertone too.

The street in Liverpool, hometown of the Fab Four, is named after James Penny, a slave trader and investor in 11 voyages that took 500 to 600 captives at a time to the Americas.

Penny was among the many who enriched themselves and their city on human trafficking until the slave trade was abolished 200 years ago. Their ships carried millions of human beings from West Africa to American plantations in a triangular trade that also brought profitable cargoes of sugar, tobacco and rum to England.

Liverpool's rise, local historian Ray Costello says, is summed up in the carving on a bank facade: two black children supporting Liverpool as Neptune.

"What it really means is that this bank was founded on the slave trade," Costello said.

It resonates all the more with the approach of the March 25 anniversary of the British parliamentary act that abolished the slave trade in Britain's colonies 200 years ago -- although not slavery itself.

Liverpool's problem is its "hidden history -- nobody wants to talk about it," said Eric Lynch, a black Liverpudlian who leads city walking tours.

But the past has not gone unacknowledged.

The City Council formally apologized in 1999, expressing "shame and remorse for the city's role in this trade in human misery."

It has commissioned statues titled "Reconciliation," two abstract bronze figures embracing, which will be dedicated this year in Richmond, Va., and Benin, a West African port of call for Liverpool's slave ships.

On Aug. 23, the anniversary of the slave uprising in French-ruled Haiti in 1791, Liverpool will open the International Slavery Museum. Part of its mission is recovering Liverpool's history, which remains a fraught issue.

Lynch, the tour guide, finds the echoes in the streets named for slave traders -- Bamber, Banastre, Cunliffe, Gascoyne, Oldham, Seel, Tarleton; in a balcony railing made of chains by one of the businesses that depended on the trade; in the face of an African woman in the frieze around the ornate Town Hall.

Liverpool council member Barbara Mace last year proposed renaming streets associated with slavery, and was surprised to learn that Penny Lane was among them. After a lively controversy the proposal was withdrawn.

Liverpool was once the home of John Newton, the slave ship captain who became an ardent abolitionist and wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace."

The abolitionist Thomas Clarkson visited Liverpool in 1787, collecting horrifying stories from sailors and buying tools of the trade: chains, manacles, iron collars and branding irons, which made effective publicity for William Wilberforce's 20-year campaign in Parliament to abolish the trade.

"By the end of the 19th century, a lot of rich families were trying to sanitize their wealth, and every trace of slavery they got rid of," said Costello, who has been researching the history of fellow blacks in his city for nearly half a century.

What Liverpool needs to do, Costello says, is "take off its shades and see the blacks" who have been in the city since the 18th century, but who still find themselves mistaken for recent immigrants.

Blacks now represent 7% of the workforce in the city of 450,000.

Because the slaves sailed direct from Africa to the Americas, Liverpool saw little of the trade at close quarters.

Richard Benjamin, director of the new museum, said that 11 slaves were known to have been sold in the city. Some slaves who were given their freedom for fighting against the American Revolution made their way to Liverpool, while others came as crewmen on ships, Costello said.

The abolition act in 1807 was a milestone, but Britain waited another 26 years to outlaw slavery in the colonies. The United States followed in 1865 and Brazil in 1888.

Anti-Slavery International, founded by the leaders of Britain's abolition movement, estimates that 12 million people are in some form of slavery today, as bonded laborers or in the sex trade.

Slavery is now illegal everywhere, said Beth Herzfeld of Anti-Slavery International, but "laws today are not being implemented."

"We have to not just reflect on the reality and horrors of the slave trade but to see that people power had a very important role in overthrowing the trade, and that people today still have a role to play," she said.

Liverpool joined the slave trade in 1699 when a ship named Liverpool Merchant put to sea, carrying 220 slaves from West Africa to Barbados. Sir Thomas Johnson, a part-owner of the ship, is known as the founder of modern Liverpool; Sir Thomas Street is named for him.

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