Slavery museum in Liverpool aims to confront painful legacy

Russell Contreras

LIVERPOOL, England (AP) — Scarlet shackles sit peacefully on display in front of a sad, gray backdrop. The now rusted leg irons once locked human ankles during 18th Century voyages from Africa to some European port, then to the Americas.

Who the shackles held remain a mystery. But as a citizen of the United States (US), I’ve likely broken bread with a descendant of the woman forced to wear this instrument. Maybe my uncle fought alongside her kin in a war. Or it’s possible one of her distant relatives is now be my relative.

These are the thoughts I entertain recently while walking through the reflective International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England. Founded in 2007 on the bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade, the museum sits just a short walk from the dry docks where slave trading ships were repaired and fitted out in the 1700s. Once a major slaving port, Liverpool grew thanks to merchants’ financial ties to the enslavement of people to the Americas.

Today, the building tells the story of the enslavement of people from Africa and how this British city benefitted from human bondage. The Liverpool location reclaims a space once connected to worldwide human suffering and is similar to O Mercado de Escravos — the slavery museum in Lagos, Portugal, where the European slave trade began. But Liverpool’s museum is much larger, more interactive, and more ambitious without being exploitative.

Inside, visitors immediately are taken on a meditative experience focussing on Africa before European contact. You are greeted by quotes of American abolitionists and civil rights leaders etched into stone walls before you see traditional masks from present-day Sierra Leone and Mali. There are vibrant textiles from Ghana, intricate headdresses from Cameroon and samples of Igbo wall painting from Nigeria. You can listen to samples of drum signals from the Republic of Congo or a Mbuti hunting song. The messages are clear: before enslavement, Africa was a diverse and complex continent with long artistic and religious traditions.

Next, visitors are whisked toward a room tackling enslavement and the brutal Middle Passage. Racial ideologies and Europe’s unfamiliarity with the cultures of Africa sparked the slave trade which grew once European powers expanded to the Americas, the museum tells us. In this room, details of the voyage of the ship Essex are reconstructed. That’s a slave ship that left Liverpool on June 13, 1783, just nine years after the American Declaration of Independence.

During the Middle Passage portion, visitors encounter shackles and chains used in forts and castles along the African coast to hold humans before their horrific journey. A small replica of a slave boat illustrates how captives were tossed into small compartments. Next to the ship are 18th-Century whips and branding irons. Yes, these were used.

Then, there was resistance, liberation, and the long fight for civil rights. Surprising, I walked into an area dedicated to the African American heroes from Harriet Tubman to the Rev Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. US news footage from the 1950s and 1960s illustrates how the descendants of those who crossed the Middle Passage had to fight for human rights and against violence amid white supremacy — the ideology that launched racialised slavery in the first place. There’s also photos of the civil rights struggles in the United Kingdom from London’s “Keep Britain White Rally” in 1960 to the Toxteth Riot of 1981 in Liverpool over allegations of police harassment.

A set of shackles used to hold enslaved Africans in forts and castles along the coast from Tamale, Ghana. PHOTOS: AP
Latex figures made in the 1940s depicting daily life in Jamaica in the sugar cane fields displayed at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England