Liverpool 800 - Culture, Character and History

Edited by John Belchem
Liverpool University Press

Reviewed by Ritchie Hunter

I OWN I am shocked at the purchase of slaves,
And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves;
What I hear of their hardships, their tortures and groans,
Is almost enough to drive pity from stones.

I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum? (1)

2007 is not only eight hundred years of the city, but also two hundred years since the Abolition of the Slave Trade bill was passed through Parliament. In 1999 the leader of Liverpool City Council, Mike Storey apologised for Liverpool’s part in the slave trade. He failed to mention that rich Liverpool families still owned slaves in British colonies until after 1833. (2) John Belchem mentions it, but tells us that:

“Liverpool placed itself at the very forefront of the subsequent campaign (which achieved success in 1833) to abolish slavery itself within the British colonies” (p15)

No evidence is given to support this statement, and if we are to believe this version of history then Liverpool merchants must have had a ‘road to Damascus’ experience after 1807! This version of Liverpool’s role in slavery is nothing new. Historians have consistently shirked from telling the full tale.

I don’t want to criticise all the authors of this large book. It is laid out in sections, contains a lot of interesting information, and has reference pages that are a resource for anyone studying history. My comments are mostly about its major failures. Slavery played such a large part in Liverpool’s wealth, both before and after 1807, and how the leaders of the city were tied in to this should be brought out in full. The justification for slavery was a racism that went deep into British society and has lasted to the present day.

In 1814 a petition was sent to Parliament registering Liverpool’s opposition to slave trading. (3) But Napoleon had just been defeated and France was being allowed to resume its own slave trade. (4) Liverpool traders must have been outraged that French ships could carry slaves when theirs couldn’t.

Anyway, contrast this one petition with the 64 petitions Liverpool Council sent against the abolition of the slave trade during the Parliamentary debates of 1787-1807, and the fact that Liverpool Corporation paid for a delegation to remain in London to put their case to Parliament throughout this time! (5)

Jane Longmore in her section of the book about Civic Liverpool from 1680-1800 tells us that a leading slave merchant, George Case, chaired the Council Finance Committee for thirty-eight years from 1775 (p140). And Peter Fryer in Staying Power writes how all the ‘grand old Liverpool families’ were ‘more or less steeped’ in slavery, either trading or owning or both. (6)

John Belchem would do Liverpool history a service if his book listed these family names and their involvement in making a profit out of human flesh; take the Gladstones for instance.

John Gladstone was an MP from 1818 to 1827. He owned more than 1000 slaves in Demerara, now Guyana. In 1823 a revolt of slaves in the colony was put down by the governor, with 250 slaves slaughtered (7). Gladstone went on to help procure the West Indies planters a grant of £20 million (about £1.6 billion today) in 1833 by way of compensation for the loss of their slaves (the slaves got nothing!).

His son, William Ewart Gladstone, who later became Prime Minister, devoted his first substantial speech in the Commons in 1832 to a defence of slavery.

John Belchem doesn’t tell us of this and his book doesn’t mention such an important event in Liverpool’s history as the massacre on the slaver Zong, owned by the Liverpool banker and slave trader William Gregson and his partners.

In 1781 this ship was bound for Jamaica with a crew of seventeen and the human cargo of about 470 slaves, when seven of the crew and 60 of the slaves died of disease. It looked likely that more would die, so the captain had 133 slaves thrown alive into the sea. The owners of the Zong claimed from the insurers the full cost of the murdered slaves. This was the single most important incident in bringing public opinion behind the anti-slavery campaign (8).

After its abolition Liverpool merchants continued to profit from slavery through imports such as cotton (9). During the American Civil War of 1861-65, Confederate war ships were secretly built on the Mersey (10). This could only be done with the support of leading Liverpool merchants and the bribery of officials. One of these ships, the Alabama, went on to destroy sixty-eight Union ships! Compensation had to be paid to the US after the war.

The thing that strikes you most when looking at history is how much is repeated; and this book has plenty of examples of this, from immigration (p383) to the building boom of the early 1800s, which was fuelled by speculation (p514), just like today! And the first public housing in the country, St Martin’s, had rents set too high for the poor and homeless to afford!

One section in the book, about cosmopolitan Liverpool, co-authored by John Belchem and Donald M. MacRaild, gives us the fact that Liverpool is one of the least ethnically diverse cities in Britain. So much for the Capital of Culture slogan: ‘The world in one city’. Also in this section is the fascinating information about how the influx of different immigrant groups into Liverpool shaped our life and culture, and how Irish fighters for independence had a strong base here.

What I find strage is that, even though John Belchem is an authority on Chartism, there is no mention of Chartism in the book. The link here between Irish nationalism is surely significant, considering that Liverpool occupied the largest single file in the Home Office Disturbance Papers for 1848, the year of the charter, and revolution in Europe.

Other important events and personalities from Liverpool’s past are missed in this book (11). And why does the Liverpool Trades Council only appear in the 1950s, when it was actually formed in 1868? No mention either of the Socialist Hall built in Lord Nelson Street in 1840.

“In this hall black lecturers, some of whom were ex-slaves, put on educational programmes illustrated by panoramas of slave life and accounts of slave escapes.” (12)

Jon Murden, in his section on Liverpool since 1945, seems to suggest that the Militant led every labour and community struggle of the 50/60/70s and 80s. Looking at the references you can see where this distortion of history comes from. Jon Murden has relied heavily on The City That Dared to Fight by Tony Mulhean and Peter Taffe, a one sided, self-publicising view of events.

What of the Croxteth School Occupation of 1983? Surely a ‘historic’ event in education? The first school occupation where lessons were taught, and official exams were taken. And still open! But it doesn’t even rate a by-line in this history of Liverpool (13).

History is being made around us. Media reports are biased, leaving out important events and slanting others to fit the establishment view of the world, everyone knows this. Academic historians have the chance to redress this imbalance. They are in a privileged position. They have ready access to information that the layperson has difficulty in obtaining. They can get the funding and they have time. There is a responsibility on them not to abuse this position by leaving out significant parts of history or slanting it to a point of view (14).

Liverpool 800 - Culture, Character and History is available at News From Nowhere, Bold Street for £14.95.

  1. William Cowper, ‘Pity for Poor Africans’ (1788)
  2. Slaves in the colonies did not actually become free in 1833. This didn’t happen until 1838 as they were indentured for five years as apprentices to the slave owners.
  3. A History of Race and Racism in Liverpool 1660-1850 p16. Compiled by Ian Law, edited by June Henfrey (1981)
  4. Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains, The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery, (2005), p316 (the Treaty of Paris, 30 May, 1814). France abolished slavery in 1794, but it was restored by Napoleon.
  5. Bill Hunter, Forgotten Hero, The Life and Times of Edward Rushton. (2002)
    The corporation even commissioned a Reverend Raymond Harris to produce a pamphlet in which he stressed slavery’s “…conformity with the principles of natural and revealed religion delineated in the sacred writings of the word of God.” Not surprising when the Church of England was the largest single owner of slaves in the West Indies!
  6. Peter Fryer in Staying Power, The History of Black People in Britain (1984).
  7. Adam Hochschild, p330.
  8. Of course it was mass action, which is the main factor in bringing about any change in society. Letter writing campaigns and abolitionist propaganda played a role in getting slavery abolished, but the main reason was the activity of the slaves themselves. Uprisings such as the 1791 rebellion in Santo Domingo had the effect of stimulating anti-slavery feeling in Britain, and France, where slavery was abolished in 1794. Another factor was the conditions of seamen on the slave ships. According to Adam Hochschild, p94, the death rate for seamen in the triangle trade was an average of 20%! Workers in Britain could identify with both these groups because they were little more than slaves themselves. Then there was the economic effect of the falling price of sugar. CLR James in The Black Jacobins (1980) says:
    Those that see in abolition the gradual awakening conscience of mankind should spend a few minutes asking themselves why it is man’s conscience, which slept peacefully for so many centuries, should awake just at the time that men began to see the unprofitableness of slavery as a method of production in the West Indian colonies.
  9. The United States dominated Liverpool’s imports of cotton, averaging 75%of the Britain’s total, and rose from around a quarter of a million bales to well over a million bales in a thirty-three year period from 1820. In 1837 it was 90%. Taken from D.M.Williams, Liverpool Merchants and the Cotton Trade 1820-1850, in Liverpool and Merseyside: Essays in the Economic and Social History of the Port and its Hinterland, edited by J.R.Harris, (1969).
  10. Tony Barley, Myths of the Slave Power, Confederate Slavery, Lancashire Workers and the Alabama (1992), p48. An interesting statistic is that between 1832 and 1862 the number of slaves in America had somehow doubled.
  11. For instance Mary Bamber, George Garrett the Garston Riots etc. See Nerve 9.
  12. A History of Race and Racism in Liverpool 1660-1850, p18.
  13. See Nerve 4.
  14. In researching for this review I had problems following up some of the references given because they are in university archives and the public doesn’t have access.

Liverpool slave trading mayors:

1700 Richard Norris
1714 Richard Gildart
1716 Foster Cunliffe
1721 Bryan Blundell
1727 John Hughes
1728 Bryan Blundell
1729 Foster Cunliffe
1731 Richard Gildart
1733 William Pole
1735 Foster Cunliffe
1736 Richard Gildart
1738 Robert Armitage
1742 Edward Trafford
1746 Joseph Bird
1750 James Gildart
1753 James Crosbie
1754 Charles Goore
1756 Richard Hughes
1758 Robert Cunliffe
1760 John Blackburn
1761 John Williamson
1762 William Gregson
1763 George Campbell
1764 John Tarleton
1767 Charles Goore
1769 Ralph Earle
1778 William Pole
1785 Charles Pole
1787 Thomas Earle
1795 Peter Baker
1797 Thomas Staniforth
1798 Thomas Leyland
1812 Samuel Staniforth
1814 Thomas Leyland
1820 Thomas Leyland

Slave merchants:

Bold family
John Bolton
Robert Bostock
Richard Bullin
Thomas Crowder & Co
Sir Ellis Cunliffe
Robert Cunliffe
John Dawson
John Earle
Edward Forbes
William Forbes
Edward Phillip Grayson

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Comment left by Mike Brian on 25th January, 2007 at 0:46
Re Footnote 5 (second part) Raymond Harris was in fact a Spaniard, real name Hermosa or Ormaza, an R C Jesuit, serving at the mission of St Mary's, Liverpool. Some time after the publication of his pamphlet, the Town Council awarded him an annual Honorarium. See Burke, T Catholic History of Liverpool, Tinling, Liverpool, 1910 p14 ff

Comment left by shelley bethel on 7th September, 2007 at 13:16
Iam trying to research the bold family. Thomas bold licensed victualler (age 50 on 1861 census) trying to make a connection with joanus bold ect, any information or guidence would be great. Thank you for your time, shelley.

Comment left by Terry W on 18th October, 2007 at 16:36
I am saddened that Liverpool is becoming capital of culture whilst it is well known of the racism that still exists not just in the communities but in the establishments. It is criminal that the city council which boasts such second to none policies on race equality does nothing to protect racially harassed employees like myself. It is my belief that for Liverpool to truly be a capital of culture, the Liverpool city council needs to wake up and be true to the policies they have written. The struggle continues for most of us in the minorities but how we pray that our children and grandchildren do not have to write the same stories we do.

Comment left by dml on 15th November, 2007 at 4:17
i am looking for images, pictures, paintings of slave ships, esp. those belonging to cunliffe and gildart. any leads rec'd with appreciation.- dml

Comment left by Alan on 25th April, 2008 at 20:19
I am looking for any information, relating to the Gildart family. For example, images, pictures, paintings and ships. Any information greatly received.

Comment left by marie o'brien on 24th August, 2009 at 14:08
can you tell me where John Blackburn was born please. thanks marie xx

Comment left by carla murch on 16th July, 2010 at 11:07
This is a comment for Marie o Brien. I am researching my family tree and believe one of my great great great parents father was born on John Blackburns Plantation in the West Indies if I uncover any more info im willing to exchange any with you.

Comments are closed for this review