Liverpool and the Slave Trade is the first comprehensive account of the city’s role in the slave trade. Drawing on recent research, contemporary documents and illustrations, it provides a detailed account of how the trade operated and was eventually brought to an end. We caught up with author Anthony Tibbles to discuss this recent publication.
First, could you tell us a bit about Liverpool and the Slave Trade and what compelled you to focus your research in this area?
I first became interested in Liverpool’s role in the slave trade when I was asked to take charge of the development of the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery at the Maritime Museum over twenty-five years ago. In doing some initial research, it was clear that there were a lot of myths but very little academically sound published information, particularly about the scale and nature of the city’s involvement. Whilst a large amount of research has been carried and published since then on the transatlantic trade, very little has focussed specifically on Liverpool.
In 2007 I helped edit Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery (Liverpool University Press), a volume of academic papers on various aspects of Liverpool’s role in the slave trade but I still felt there was a need for a comprehensive history especially one aimed at the interested general reader. In the same year, as part of the events organised to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, I was asked to give a lecture on Liverpool and the slave trade at Gresham College in London. After I retired and decided to attempt to write about the subject myself, the Gresham lecture provided me with a template for my approach to the book.
This is the first comprehensive account of Liverpool’s participation in the slave trade. Why do you think this area of the city’s history has been overlooked?
I think for many years there was a reluctance to admit that the city had been so closely involved in what was by then almost universally condemned as an horrific and disgraceful trade. It was easier and less painful to pass over what had become regarded as a shameful episode in the city’s history and concentrate on the spectacular growth of Liverpool in the nineteenth century. I know when we developed the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery there were people who said we should put Liverpool’s role in the trade ‘behind us’, effectively forget about it, and look to the future. In fact, it is only by confronting uncomfortable aspects of the past and recognising that history, that you are able to move on.
Liverpool and the Slave Trade includes the use of contemporary documents and personal testimonies and experiences to explain the topic – are there any stand-out materials which you could tell us more about?
I have made significant use of the Davenport Papers which the Maritime Museum acquired in 2002. They are part of the extensive business archive of William Davenport who was one of Liverpool’s most active slave traders, responsible for over 140 voyages. The letters between him and his captains are particularly detailed and revealing of the complexities of the trade. They show the matter of fact way that Davenport and his captains discussed the buying and selling of fellow human beings and their total lack of concern for the enslaved, unless it affected the profitability of the voyage.
Could you tell us more about the cover image and why you chose it?
The cover image is a detail from a watercolour entitled Liverpool from Seacombe Boathouse which was painted by Michael Angelo Rooker (1746-1801) in about 1768 or 1769 and was published in 1770. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1769 along with its pair A View of Liverpool from the Bowling Green. I wanted an image that related to the subject of the book and although there are one or two paintings of Liverpool slave ships, they are not immediately obvious as such. I thought it was important to show Liverpool and the Mersey and this view shows the port during the height of the slave trade.
How does this volume pave the way for further research on the topic?
This book is a general overall survey of Liverpool’s participation in the slave trade and is intended as a summary of current research.
There are still a number of questions which have not been fully answered and where historians have different opinions. These include the extent of the importance of the trade to Liverpool’s development and economy; how the slave trade related to other trades that the town was involved in; the relationship between the trade and the industrial revolution; and why Liverpool and its merchants came to dominate the trade in the late eighteenth century. More research could also be done on the merchants themselves, who they were, what were their origins, how far they were involved in other trades and how important the slave trade was to their personal wealth and prosperity.
What are you going to be working on next?
I usually have a number of projects on the go at any one time. I have been researching members of the Watt family who owned Speke Hall in the nineteenth century and whose wealth came from Richard Watt (1724-96). He made his fortune in Jamaica as a factor, a dealer in enslaved Africans and a plantation owner and in his latter years was a shipowner and trader in Jamaican produce, particularly sugar and rum. Quite separately, I am also researching Liverpool marine artists and ship portrait painters with the intention of publishing a dictionary. The port was home to some of the most prolific and talented painters in this genre from the late eighteenth century until the immediate post-Second World War years.
I’ve also become interested in the history of bell ringing in Cornwall! This started from seeing a couple of delightful eighteenth century painted boards featuring images of bell ringers and a rhyme about rules for ringing. I’ve now found more than a dozen similar boards in local churches which seem to be unique to Cornwall.
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