Hiding in plain sight: The history of slave trade behind Liverpool’s magnificent monuments

The grandeur of Liverpool’s centre is awe-inspiring for a first-time visitor.

The architecture tells a story of wealth and power but in the magnificent structures, which tower above the streets, there is a sinister story of human trafficking on a massive scale.

For Laurence Westgaph, an historian whose expertise is the transatlantic slave trade, it is the perfect classroom at a time when many are looking at Britain’s history with fresh eyes.

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Historian Laurence Westgaph runs slavery tours

Demand for his slavery tours around the city has grown following the brutal killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests.

“I am surprised but I think people are now starting to make the correlation between events that took place long ago and the way black people are still treated in the modern day,” he said.

“I don’t think you can extricate the history of slavery and the slave trade from the history of modern racism and how it affects black people in the most visceral forms.”

Employing social distancing, the tour journeys its way through the streets.

Many of the city’s secrets are invisible but with a guide you soon realise they are hiding in plain sight.

Stopping outside the Martins Bank Building relief sculpture, panels of the Roman god Neptune – which represents Liverpool – are pointed out. He stands above two African children carrying bags of money.

The work is controversial and in the current climate is interpreted by many people as a reference to Liverpool’s pivotal role in the slave trade.

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Laurence Westgaph says many people are shocked by the city’s past

By the 18th century, the city was Europe’s largest slave port.

It is thought ships from the Mersey ferried at least 1.5 million kidnapped Africans across the Atlantic.

The journey was dangerous and miserable with many dying in transit.

Those who survived were forced to work on sugar plantations in the Caribbean and in America’s Deep South.

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The tours have grown in popularity in recent weeks

On the back of this trade on the bones and blood of Africans, Liverpool and Britain became fabulously wealthy, Mr Westgaph explains.

“I think a lot of people are shocked – they don’t realise how deeply our society has been shaped by the events that took place in the 18th and 19th century, both here and in America where the enslaved people were transported to,” he said.

“Especially in a city like Liverpool, which I consider to be the greatest memorial to the slave trade in the country.

“The entire city has got remnants and connections to slavery either through street names, through buildings or places of memory. So for me, when I take people around the city, I’m really calling on that history, and the legacies of that history resonate into the present day.”









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Judging by the uptake of the tours, there is certainly an appetite to look at our history in a new way that is not taught in the national curriculum.

For instance, when the UK does talk about slavery it often starts with Britain’s role in its abolition – a glaring omission according to Mr Westgaph, as this country was one of the greatest slave trading nations and benefited enormously from it.

The killing of George Floyd is an opportunity to move things forward, he says.

But he warns there have been pivotal moments like this in the past which we have failed to learn from, and he is not as optimistic as others that this could be a time of real change.

If things are going to change, he says, there must be a focus on addressing systemic racism.

“I am very aware of the importance of symbolism but symbolism doesn’t change things on the ground,” he said.

“When you pull down a statue, when you go home that night you’re still having to deal with poor educational opportunities.”