By Robert Barr, Associated Press
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 that still reverberates.
The street in Liverpool, home town of the Fab Four, is named after James Penny, a slave trader and investor in 11 voyages which took 500 to 600 captives at a time to the New World.
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 the plantations of the Americas in a triangular trade which also brought profitable cargoes of sugar, tobacco and rum to England.
Martins Bank - Liverpool
One of two panels at the public entrance to the Barclays (originally Martins) Bank building in Liverpool. It is a reminder of how Liverpool became a wealthy city, although the building itself is less than a century old, showing Neptune with his hands over two African slave children holding bags of money. If you download and zoom in you can make out the manacles on the wrists and ankles of the children (image and text from Flicker)
Liverpool's rise, says local historian Ray Costello, 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 — though not slavery itself.
Liverpool's problem is its "hidden history — nobody wants to talk about it," said Eric Lynch, a black Liverpudlian who leads walking tours in the west coast city.
However, 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 which 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.
Liverpool: The new International Slavery Museum will include a state of the art education facility named after Anthony Walker. © Redman Design
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 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 New World, Liverpool saw little of the trade at close quarters.
Richard Benjamin, director of the new museum, said that only 11 slaves are 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.
By 1750, Liverpool had surpassed London and Bristol as a slave-trading port; 45 years later it controlled 80% of the British slave trade, representing two-fifths of the European total. In the peak year of 1798, 149 ships set off from Liverpool for Africa, officially with the capacity to carry 53,000 slaves.
By one accounting, Liverpool's traders transported 1,364,930 Africans in 5,249 voyages between 1699 and 1807.
Africans, often the captives of local chiefs, were paid for with cloth, kitchen pots and pans, muskets, gunpowder, flints, hats, mirrors, candles, beads and brandy.
A page displayed at the trans-Atlantic Slavery Gallery at the Maritime Museum in Liverpool details the profits of the voyage of the Enterprize in 1794. The ship sold 356 slaves and cleared a profit of 10,000 pounds — equivalent to about $2 million today.
It was a brutal trade, killing untold numbers of Africans in slave raids, by disease, shipwreck and mistreatment. Women captives were raped. Ship crews suffered heavy death rates from disease.
Alexander Falconbridge, a Bristol ship captain who became an abolitionist, said slaves on some ships were forced to lie on each other in crowded holds during a voyage of at least six weeks. Writing in 1788, he said, "the floor of their rooms was so covered with blood and mucus ... that it resembled a slaughterhouse. It is not in the power of the human imagination to picture to itself a situation more dreadful and disgusting."
Some denied it. Robert Norris, a former slave ship captain who was one of Liverpool's lobbyists in Parliament, claimed that after dinner the slaves aboard ship were given pipes, tobacco and musical instruments, "and when tired of music and dancing, they then go to games of chance."
Penny, another Liverpool lobbyist, told legislators that slaves slept aboard their ships "better than the gentlemen do on shore."
One of the worst atrocities was aboard the Liverpool slave ship Zong, which was wracked with disease; Capt. Luke Collingwood ordered the crew to throw 133 sick slaves overboard, then tried to claim against insurance for "loss of merchandise."
The abolitionist Granville Sharp demanded a murder prosecution, but the government's attorney responded: "It is madness; the blacks were property."
The Zong incident was one among many that fired the zeal of abolitionists — a mass movement built on networks of Quakers, with Sharp, Wilberforce and Clarkson in prominent leadership roles.
Josiah Wedgwood, the pottery pioneer, made an engraving of a kneeling slave in chains with the words "am I not a man and a brother?" Reproduced in the thousands on medallions, hat pins and brooches, it was worn by fashionable supporters of the cause.
In retrospect, the attitudes of some abolitionists now appear puzzling. Newton made two slave voyages even after being converted by the "amazing grace ... that saved a wretch like me."
"During the time I was engaged in the slave trade, I never had the least scruple as to its lawfulness. I was, upon the whole, satisfied with it, as the appointment Providence had marked out for me," Newton wrote.
However, he added, "I was sometimes shocked with an employment that was perpetually conversant with chains, bolts, and shackles."