Liverpool’s Heart of Darkness

It was strictly business: The city’s era of prosperity rested on the profits of the transatlantic slave trade. Today its idle docks are home to the memories of an ancestral crime.

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On the 27th of July, 1807, a ship named the Kitty’s Amelia sailed from Liverpool, England, under the command of Captain Hugh Crow, a one-eyed Manxman turning 42. Earlier that year, Parliament had abolished the British slave trade, but the Kitty’s Amelia had received legal clearance before the first of May, when abolition took effect. Though she left port almost three months after the slave trade officially ended in Great Britain, the Kitty’s Amelia sailed legally, as legally, that is, as a slave trader — the last of the English slave traders — could sail. The ship carried 300 tons burden and 18 guns, a concession not only to England’s war with France but also to conditions on the Guinea coast of Africa, where Captain Crow — called “Mind-Your-Eye Crow” — was bound.

I have no idea whether the Kitty’s Amelia was finally dismasted, her timbers knocked apart, her ship’s furniture salvaged or burned. The ship may have ended its days benignly. It might have become a prison hulk, like the ones in Great Expectations, or been wrecked at sea. There’s no knowing precisely where Captain Crow’s human cargo finally ended up after being sold in the West Indies or where and in what circumstances they lived and died, apart from those captives, that is, who died of disease aboard ship during the Middle Passage from Africa to the New World.

As for Captain Crow, his days ended in 1829, and he was buried on the Isle of Man. In his autobiography, Memoirs of the Late Captain Hugh Crow of Liverpool, he does his best to make a slave’s voyage aboard the Kitty’s Amelia sound almost pleasant. “I always took great pains to promote the health and comfort of all on board, by proper diet, regularity, exercise, and cleanliness, for I considered that on keeping the ship clean and orderly, which was always my hobby, the success of our voyage mainly depended.” How you interpret this passage depends entirely on the meaning you give the word “success.”

I recently stood at the edge of the Mersey River, trying to imagine the July day 195 years ago when the Kitty’s Amelia worked her way into the tide. The thought of that day brought with it a sense of the irrevocable, of lives lost, fortunes gathered and dispersed, the peculiar distortions of human and economic justice we like to call history. Perhaps someone in Liverpool, watching the Kitty’s Amelia work her way downstream in 1807, had the sense of an era ending. But human flesh was just one among many cargoes, and a risky one because slaves found it so easy to die aboard ship. The end of the slave trade in Great Britain ratified the outrage of the abolitionists — people who, as Captain Crow saw it, knew little or nothing about the subject of slavery — but it also confirmed the shifting of markets and the growing importance of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. When Captain Crow arrived in Kingston, Jamaica, he found the harbor crowded with slave ships, their human wares going unsold.

Today, Liverpool stands where it always has, rising above the Mersey and above a chain of now disused docks. From the river’s edge, you can look across the water and see the Wirral, a spur of land that divides the Dee River from the Mersey and, in a sense, England from Wales. Standing on the embankment, watching the tidal chop on the Mersey’s brown water, which empties into a sea framed by Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and northern England, you get none of the land’s-end feeling you get at the westernmost tip of Cornwall, where the waves breaking against the headlands seem to have come direct from America. The Mersey these days could be almost any large river flowing past the engineered edge of almost any city. Except that between 1760 and 1807 Liverpool built and the Mersey floated the largest fleet of slave ships in the history of the trade. Between 1795 and 1804 alone, Liverpool authorities cleared nearly 1,100 ships for the triangular traffic that carried manufactured goods to the west coast of Africa, slaves to the West Indies, and sugar, tobacco, and rum to England.

To most of late 18th-century Liverpool, to almost everyone except the ships’ captains and their crews, slavery was an economic abstraction, a matter of so much return on so much investment. It was an exercise in the convertibility of capital. A successful voyage — one in which the majority of slaves survived and reached the sales block in good health — performed the miracle of turning Manchester cloth or Sheffield steel into human beings. The human beings were then turned into several kinds of sugar, coffee, cotton, and bills of exchange, which, in Liverpool, were converted once again into the opulence of an increasingly opulent city. The trade fed the increasing girth of its merchants; it supported their luxuries and charities alike. The enormous prosperity of this three-sided trade did more to justify the practice of slavery than any of the philosophical arguments that a man like Captain Crow might make, who argued that “the traffic in negroes was permitted by that Providence that rules over all, as a necessary evil,” and that English slavers had a regard for human life that other nations, which continued slave trading after 1807, did not share. That the solid flesh of slaves might melt away mattered vastly less than the very solid returns that materialized when a ship like the Kitty’s Amelia completed her round- trip. No apology like a dividend.

In a sense, the convertibility of capital converted Liverpool. The city that had once competed with Bristol and London for the slave trade dominated it completely by the time it was abolished. However you measure the relative profits of slave trading in Liverpool, the West Indian traffic that breasted the Mersey River year after year laid the foundation for a nautical and mercantile prosperity in Liverpool that reached right through the 19th century. Prosperity may selectively preserve some elements of the past — its finery, especially — but it quite thoroughly wipes the past away too. A visitor to Liverpool now sees a fundamentally Victorian city, a fraying monument to a latter-day prosperity. That Victorian city, one of the greatest ports of Europe, was founded in part on the profits of the slave trade. As the city has dwindled, the fabric of Victorian Liverpool, much of it now labeled with signs saying “To Let,” seems to have grown larger and larger, the ghostly reminder of richer times.

Were Captain Crow to make one last passage up the Mersey and into harbor at Liverpool, it’s hard to say what would surprise him most. Some of the street names and their layouts would remain as he knew them. He would find unexpected structures like the Custom House, the Cunard Building, and the Royal Liver Building looming over the river, constructions of a magnificence, a commercial pomposity he could scarcely have imagined. But what would surely have surprised him most, like anyone who knew the Liverpool waterfront before World War II, are the docks themselves. The forest of ships’ masts and spars is long gone, the crowds of men loading and unloading, the merchants and ships’ owners striding among them. All the waterfront cacophony is gone, replaced by quiet rectangular pools of water whose river gates, where ships entered, were opened for good more than 20 years ago. The shipping has gone, and the warehouses have been turned into office space, into restaurants and wine bars and museums, including the Merseyside Maritime Museum, with a gallery devoted to transatlantic slavery, which opened in 1994. The opening of that gallery began a process that culminated last year in an official apology by the City Council for Liverpool’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.

Like all such apologies, this one was made from descendant to descendant, from the distant political heirs of the slavers to the distant blood heirs of the slaves. And though the gesture — including a purification ceremony by African chiefs flown in for the occasion — is emotionally and symbolically significant, it has, in Liverpool’s case at least, the strange effect of ratifying the grander apology that time itself has made. The same dispassionate economic logic that made slaves part of the currency of Liverpool’s transatlantic trade also brought Liverpool’s shipping — the economic and emotional heartbeat of the city — to an end in the second half of the 20th century. The thing that would have seemed inconceivable in the late 1700s, the extinction of Liverpool as a nautical force, has come to be. The very first person I met on my recent trip to England was a cab driver whose father had been a Liverpool dockworker back in the days, only a generation ago, when there were still ships for Liverpool dockworkers to work.

Where the shipping went is another story, a tale of containerization, labor struggles, Margaret Thatcher, and, ultimately, the loss of empire. The deep-water pools that are Liverpool’s docks have quietly silted in since then. Some days, down at the Albert Dock, the most nautical sights are a propeller from the Lusitania and a Yellow Submarine, commemorating the Beatles, that seems to have surfaced in the lawn just across from the entrance to the Albert Dock. A small sailboat rests at berth in the pool where merchantmen once docked, its owner pressure-scrubbing its deck while gulls scream overhead, their cries echoing off the warehouse walls. The more portentous sign of the shift in Liverpool’s fate, more portentous by far than Victorian grandiosities with unoccupied floors, is the modern building that once housed the Transport and General Workers Union — the dockworkers union — which is also empty and posted “To Let.”

The loss of a city’s way of life is no atonement for an ancestral crime. It does nothing to redeem the loss of all those African lives, the slow execution of whole peoples. The shift of seagoing traffic away from Liverpool does nothing to expropriate the wealth of those whose fortunes were built, in part, on the slave trade.

In the end, the City Council’s apology for Liverpool’s history of slave trading, like all such apologies, requires an act of instructed imagination, an effort to understand the dimensions of the crime, without which contrition and gesture are meaningless. In that sense, few museum exhibitions are more aptly sited than the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery at the Merseyside Maritime Museum. At the center of the gallery is a reconstruction of the hold of a slave ship, the sullen chamber in which Africans would have found themselves chained during the long transit from the Guinea coast to the West Indies. What a visitor can discern from such a reconstruction is only a sense of rough proportion, at best. Building codes prevented the gallery designers from making the ceiling as low as it would have been in a real slave ship. In other words, a legally mandated concern for the proper headroom of modern visitors prevented the museum from showing how little headroom the Africans who had been snatched illegally from their lives would really have had.

The very structures of the present forbid us from seeing the past with any ease. Only a few of the visitors to the museum can ever have experienced the rolling of a ship under sail in the mid-Atlantic. Fewer still can ever have been kidnapped or shackled or whipped or forcibly separated from their families, much less have known that they were being sold into a life of worse-than-penal servitude. It’s no criticism of the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery, which is a moving experience in and of itself, to say that it cannot impart to its visitors the intensity of grief and suffering that would have prevailed in the hold of the Kitty’s Amelia. To do so would of course be intolerable and prohibited.

By most modern standards of museum craft, the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery is an educational success. But, like most museums, including museums of conscience, it’s also a reminder that our efforts to understand the past, experientially, are always aesthetic. A visit to the slave ship’s hold is just one of the attractions of the Albert Dock, after all. It coexists with a branch of the Tate Museum, the Museum of Liverpool Life, and an underground exhibition devoted to the Beatles’ story. You can go straight from viewing the iron shackles any slaver would have carried to a cozy English tea with a view of Liverpool Cathedral in the distance. It takes just a short walk along the Mersey.


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