Accessibility links

Legacy of Slavery Lingers in Britain

  • Henry Ridgwell

Britain, along with many other countries, has been marking UNESCO Slavery Remembrance Day. It commemorates the uprising of enslaved Africans in 1791 in what is modern day Haiti.

The docks in Liverpool are among the most desirable addresses in the city. The gentrified warehouse apartments and riverside cafes make it a popular place to live for Premier League soccer players.

Dark past

But the pleasant atmosphere hides a dark past.

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, ships lined the quaysides ready to be loaded with goods from across Europe to be sold in Africa in return for slaves.

On the same docks now lies the International Slavery Museum. Curator Claire Benjamin says it is vital that this dark part of the city's history is remembered.

"Liverpool was the first city to apologize formally for its role in the transatlantic slave trade," Benjamin said. "The wealth of the city was built on that. The docks, the port, the river, the city was built on the legacies and the business of the transatlantic slave trade."

What was it like?

Visitors to the museum are confronted with stark reconstructions of the conditions the slaves were forced to endure.

The slave ships packed in their human cargo so tightly that an estimated 15 percent of those enslaved died on the crossing from disease or starvation.

Maps show how the wealth of Europe and its colonies depended on the triangular trade of goods from Europe to Africa, the transfer of an estimated 11 million slaves across the Atlantic, and the return of raw materials like sugar and cotton back to Europe.

Apology request

The British government has yet to formally apologize for its role in the trade. Fernne Brennan, an expert in the legacy of the slavery at the University of Essex, says an apology is the first step - and a lot more needs to follow.

"When we look at retention in schools, when we look at access to public services and so on, there is still a distinct disproportionate problem for black people in the Diaspora, i.e. in the West, and obviously in Africa and the Caribbean," Brennan said.

Financial compensation

Some anti-slavery campaigners want financial compensation for the countries affected. Britain's Minister for Communities, Andrew Stunell, says paying money is not the right approach.

"We just do not feel that that is an appropriate way forward for events of 200 years ago," Stunell said. "What we have to do now is to make sure that those who were the victims of slavery, their descendants and of course migrants of many sorts, not all of whom were victims of slavery, are treated with respect and given the opportunities they need to flourish."

Daily reminders

Across Liverpool you can see reminders of the city's history in the slave trade. Jamaica Street, named after the destination of many of Liverpool's slave ships. Lime Street railway station, built on slavery profits and used to transport cotton and other goods.

The city itself has moved on. But more than 200 years after the abolition of the slave trade, campaigners say the scars on society have yet to fully heal in communities around the world that suffered through slavery.