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Why slavery?

25 January 2010 by stepheng

painting of sailing ships in the Mersey with Liverpool in the background

‘A view of Liverpool’ by Henry Freeman James from Merseyside Maritime Museum

I find the subject of slavery deeply disturbing and the more we find out about its workings, the greater the sense of disbelief.

It is astonishing that misery, disease and death could be imposed upon other human beings on such a vast scale. There are many important lessons to be learnt from the slave trade.  

The native peoples of the Americas and Caribbean were profoundly affected or exterminated and their cultures largely destroyed following the arrival of Europeans.

As colonies were set up and plantations established, there was a chronic shortage of labour because the local people had died in vast numbers.

The transatlantic slave trade happened because Europeans needed workers for their colonial enterprises. This resulted in the largest forced migration in human history as Africans were enslaved in their millions and transported across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas.

When European explorers arrived in the 15th and 16th centuries, they exploited the riches of the new lands. Initially Spain and Portugal took the lead and were followed by England, France and the Netherlands.

These were the countries that developed the transatlantic slave trade. The Portuguese began growing sugar in Brazil in the 1540s. As Europeans acquired a taste for sweetened food and drink, the demand grew and plantations were established in Caribbean colonies.

Other profitable commodities also entered the plantation system including coffee, tobacco and particularly cotton which was later to play a big part in the growth of Liverpool, Manchester and other Lancashire towns.

On display in the International Slavery Museum, in the Merseyside Maritime Museum building, are two stone implements from the Taino culture  – rare survivals of the original inhabitants of the Caribbean.

Europeans looked to Africa for a new supply of labour. Liverpool was not involved in early English slaving but came to dominate the transatlantic slave trade by the closing decades of the 18th century.

On display is an oil painting by Henry F James showing Liverpool in 1811 (pictured) just four years after the abolition of the slave trade. During this latter period of the trade, dealings with the West Indies generated about 40 per cent of Liverpool’s wealth.

A Wedgwood creamware bowl of 1786 features a hand-painted view of a sailing ship called the Lord Stanley. It was almost certainly made for presentation to John Smale, the ship’s captain, prior to his departure to West Africa on a slaving voyage.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1 p&p UK).

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