Reflections on a recent visit to the museum of slavery in Liverpool.

Authors: Merry Fowler and Rob Fowler Anti Racist Cumbria members and volunteers.

Merry and her dad Rob visited the International Museum of Slavery in Liverpool in February 2022. In this special guest article they share their reflections and insights of their recent trip. Content warning: This article contains some upsetting imagery from the museum. 

Merry & Rob: There is no doubt that the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool is worth a visit, it is one of the few places in the UK that tackles this heinous part of British history and we encourage people to go. There are hugely successful areas but society’s understanding of anti-racism has developed in the some fifteen years since the museum was first built. Our personal anti-racist understanding has also deepened considerably since being part of Anti Racist Cumbria and we feel it was with a clearer lens that we undertook this visit.

The ‘journey’ that the design of the museum takes us on begins with displays of African culture – describing the long and rich traditions of peoples in Africa – displayed were marvellous and detailed weaving and intricate sewing of fabric – a positive start, but perhaps there could have been more references to the great library of Alexandria, the Songhai empire, the Great Zimbabwe or the chapel of the tablet in Axum – together with references to the exquisite art of Africa: the Benin bronzes; the ivory mask of Queen Idia; or Nok terracotta. Of course many of the best examples lie in the imperialist collection of the British Museum, however references to these artefacts could have revealed more about the great civilisations of Africa. Perhaps the point being made here was rather that the humanity of everyday objects have a power of their own.

Rob: To my mind, any exploration of the transatlantic trade of enslaved people should have starting points of: the development of imperialism and, in particular European imperialism; the development of the industrial society in the west; the history of slavery in ancient times and, crucially, how the transatlantic trade of enslaved people was markedly different to slavery in the ancient world. Missing was a discussion of why Europeans believed they could treat people the way they did – and how the church and state supported this position.

One presentation at the museum discusses the ways that slave owners such as Edward Colston brought ‘benefits’ to people in England through the trade of enslaved people. There is no doubt that people other than major plantation owners ‘benefited’ from the slave trade: the work of Catherine Hall at UCL has revealed the hidden slave owners of Britain (as presented by David Olusoga on TV) but the many aspects of this trade- the resulting cheap labour for the production of cotton and sugar of course benefitted many people in European society. The lasting ‘benefits’ are also underplayed – for instance, there were two or three grand houses mentioned – but the likes of say the Lowthers in Cumbria weren’t even mentioned and the ways that families such as these supported much of society (Wordsworth lived on the Lonsdale plantation for two years) whilst building their own wealth on the backs of the slave trade were not explored.

The museum’s film about Touissant L’Ouverture is a little lost in the museum – there are no seats in front of it and its wrapped round by information about slave ‘uprisings’ – the implication being that abolition was partly a reaction to these uprisings. Marx’s analysis of the end of slavery in the USA may be usefully employed here – that the North’s need for cheap labour rather than altruism sparked abolition in America. The simple fact that, when slavery was abolished, many people found themselves working in debt to the plantation and factory owners isn’t fully explored – a key factor in the story of inequality.

Racism is discussed later in the museum’s narrative as if its development came later – the very issue that makes the trading of enslaved people different to slavery in the ancient world is relegated to a footnote, a reaction to the ‘freedoms’ enjoyed by black people rather than an integral part of the story. The natural rights of freeborn Englishmen were not appropriate for freed slaves. To quote Stuart Hall “…even as the modern discourse of the nation sought to unify the United Kingdom’s internal differences … it became increasingly dependent on the imperial discourses of race’.” (The Fateful Triangle). Racism isn’t only embedded in the institutions and laws of the UK but in the very fabric of society, in the discourses of Englishness.

Merry: Rather puzzling is the somewhat random display of ‘famous’ black faces – and, without context they sit uneasily in the space. Links to other parts of the narrative might be more appropriate – and the display could have included Darcus Howe, Stuart Hall, Diane Abbot, Champion Jack Dupree and, in the home of the Beatles, Billy Preston (often referred to as the fifth Beatle).Mentioning these figures in the context of the story may have brought a greater relevance and context to their display. There is almost a sense that, what you’ve seen is history and that these people’s success is proof that racism is no longer an issue. A dangerous message. 

Rather than films and displays about riots in USA and the Black Panthers – the story of Mangrove Nine may have been more pertinent to the story in Britain.

The Empire Windrush is mentioned – perhaps this is a section that could do with some updating to explain that, when the British government welcomed members of the commonwealth to Britain after the war, the thought the immigrants would be White Australians, White New Zealanders and White Africans – when Black immigrants arrived in Britain it came as a shock to the government. The recent ‘Windrush’ scandal is a consequence of the deep rooted institutional racism which can be tracked through the Empire Windrush, to the transatlantic trade of enslaved people and needs to be laid bare.

The story of slavery under the East India company in India wasn’t explored (where slavery was abolished ten years later than in the West Indies). Following the abolition of slavery, Indentured workers were made to enter into five year contracts (which the majority were unable to read). Often the labourers were fleeing poverty and famine – and many were coerced or deceived. Conditions on the ships were the same as those slave ships and many Indian workers travelling to the Caribbean died at sea. Working conditions on the sugar plantations were still harsh, labourers were made to work long hours, corporal punishment was liberally meted out and their pay was a fraction of what a British labourer could expect to receive at the time. This story could show one way that abolition was a false dawn.

Another theme touched on within the museum but not fully explored or explained is the environment. It feels an ‘add on’ and given the Climate Emergency and the ongoing legacy of capitalist globalisation, its impact is missed. There is a sense that things are unconnected when this could not be further from the truth. A deeper and more honest look at where power, money and resources were and still are today and which people and places are exploited in their name is needed.

Jason Hickel’s recent tweet: The top map shows which nations are most responsible for excess emissions. The bottom map shows which nations are most impacted by it. If we are not attentive to the colonial dimensions of climate breakdown, we are missing the point.

Overall the ties between then and now need to be made stronger – the ongoing racist legacy of the trade of enslaved people did not end when slavery was abolished.

Before we visited this museum we had paid homage to the Fab Four at The Beatles Story – the influences of Black music and, later, Indian culture were amply demonstrated. Billy Preston was here too! This popular exhibition – clearly aimed at a more mass market than the Museum of Slavery interestingly had some interesting things to say about the ways that subculture and the counter culture owed much to the African and Indian diasporas.

And afterwards we visited the Tate – where the free exhibition was ‘Who’s Tradition – Rethinking inspiration between different cultures’ – including works by Ellen Gallagher and Santa Mofokeng, challenging the impact that white Western ideals of beauty have had on Black identity.

 

Anti Racist Cumbria understand that the International Museum of Slavery is currently reviewing and reimagining its collection and presentation and has secured Heritage Lottery Funding to enable changes to be made. We look forward with hope to what that might look like.