Slave capital faces up to grim history

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The Independent Online
THE CITY of Liverpool will be confronted by its uncomfortable past today when it remembers the slaves whose plight once made it great.

In the words of one of its tourism officers, Liverpool was "better at slavery than anyone else" after it stole the trade from London and Bristol in the 18th century and started shipping West Africans to British plantations in the Caribbean and North American colonies.

It was Europe's slave capital from 1780 but has often preferred to forget it. A history of Liverpool, written by the city librarian in the 1950s, allocated just four lines to the slaves whose toil lined the pockets of Liverpool's sugar and cotton merchants until the early 1860s.

No longer in denial, the city will mark Unesco's first International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade by unveiling a commemorative information panel to slaves at the dockside Museum of Liverpool Life. Bernie Grant MP, a campaigner for the greater awareness of slavery, will perform the ceremony.

Though Liverpool has also "come clean" with a Transatlantic Slave Gallery and slavery trails, no-one is sure, even now, what to do with a more graphic reminder of the subordination of black slaves - the replica of a 19th century frieze, Triumph of Neptune.

It depicts a black child at the feet of a white, regal figure and was erected near the city's St George's Hall for nearly a century before falling apart in 1950. A copy was made 40 years later but an embarrassed Labour council considered it racist and refused to reinstate it.

Some said this was Liverpool deleting its prickly past. "It wasn't so offensive, and could have been put in its context," said a city guide, Steve Binns. "If we ignore the past, our history books will have a lot of blank pages. We must face history square on, deal with it and move on."

Tony Tibbles, Merseyside's curator of maritime history, insisted Bristol had shied away from its slave trade far more than Liverpool. "Five years ago we were being told quite (frequently) how little was being done to address the issue in Bristol," he said.

Bristol's 1996 Festival of the Sea seems to have been a low point. The seas were shown as a place for exploration and adventure. No mention that when London's Royal Africa Company lost its monopoly on slavery in 1698, Bristol dominated the British trade.