Letter: Difficulties tracing Liverpool's black families

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The Independent Online
Sir: The misunderstandings over the black population of Liverpool go back a long way and, judging by recent letters in these columns, are likely to persist. At the heart of the debate is the question of numbers: the tendency to overestimate the size of the black population past and present stems from the best of motives but does nothing to advance the cause of justice for British blacks.

Except for his remarks on 'community', Fritz Spiegl (letter, 16 August) is more or less right. No more than a handful of Liverpool's black community in the 1950s can possibly have traced descent back three or four generations in the city.

The question of local history is emotive and important, which makes the failure of those who claim a deep-rooted black population to produce any evidence for their views all the more surprising. N. P. Anderson (letter, 22 August) is right to draw attention to the parish registrars (everybody had to be buried, so they are an obvious starting point), but the titbits he presents may mislead.

The data are circumstantial and demographically tricky. For example, in the years 1767-75, 15 black 'servants' were buried in the pauper cemetery identified only by their master. In 1800-01, 25 blacks, mostly West Indian teenagers or young unmarried men, were among 4,350 Anglican baptisms in the parish. Cutting a complicated argument short, it is unlikely that in 1770 there were more than 200 black persons in a population of about 30,000, and they cannot have exceeded 0.5 per cent between 1750 and 1820. For the mid-Victorian period a population of 400-500 blacks, mostly mulattos of West Indian birth, is a fair estimate based on census data. Significant certainly, but about 0.1 per cent of the town's population.

Folk memory is important, but is not enough and not always reliable. If blacks became 'invisible' through integration, we need to know how. If unmarried black 'servants' produced offspring, we need to know how many and why they are not recorded.

Richard Foster's assurances (letter, 18 August) are welcome, but the forthcoming exhibition on slavery must avoid the uncritical indignation that is so easily produced where over-familiar titbits such as 18th-century newspaper advertisements displace difficult arguments.

Yours sincerely,

PAUL LAXTON

Department of Geography,

University of Liverpool

22 August

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