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The International Slavery Museum

slavery museum caro
Robert Tombs
Written by Robert Tombs

Museums are an important means of historical education. The International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, visited by large numbers of school children, is among the most important given our current historical reflections. How has it been performing its task since it opened in 2007? In my opinion, it presents a very partial and even misleading account to its visitors for the reasons examined below.

I welcome the fact that the present museum is to be redeveloped and expanded.  Given the prominence of slavery in our present national conversation, the importance of this project is enormous, and Liverpool is the ideal place for a fitting memorial that will be at the same time an educational institution of the highest importance.  The present museum in my opinion fails seriously in its function of education.  I hope this will be avoided in the new museum, which is why I am publishing this note.

First, it is not an ‘international slavery museum’, but a museum of the Atlantic slave trade.  There would of course be a case for having a museum focusing on Liverpool’s role in this trade, but that is not how the museum describes itself.  An international slavery museum would have to cover the wider history of slavery, which was a universal institution.  Even if not all slavery were to be covered equally—which would require a huge museum—it would surely be necessary to explain the omnipresence of slavery throughout history.  At the moment, the impression given is that only African slavery by Europeans is significant.  This is not argued or explained: the case is made by simple neglect of all other slavery (in the Ancient World, in Asia, pre-Columbian America, the Muslim world, and of course in Africa itself).  The overall impression created is that slavery is an invention of Europeans and was confined to Africans.  This impression is produced partly by selection and omission, but also by misinformation concerning African complicity.  A few examples are given below.

Slavery was for millennia a universal institution and no longer is.  So the largely (though not entirely) successful struggle against the slave trade and slavery in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries is an essential part of its history.  Indeed, the opening of the Museum in 2007 coincided with the 200th anniversary of Britain’s banning of the slave trade.  But the ending of the trade is given brief coverage, and the unique role of Britain and indeed the British Empire in overcoming the powerful pro-slavery forces at home, in the Americas, in Africa and in the Arab world is strikingly downplayed.  Whether this is to be an international, or a national, or a Liverpool museum, surely this must be given proper prominence.  Is it not something to be celebrated?  Otherwise, a very misleading impression is created of Britain and its history, and one that is likely to be damaging to community relations and to our sense of identity.

A few examples: 

African

Why Africans?

Europe undertook the
leadership of the world
with ardour, cynicism
and violence.

Frantz Fanon, psychiatrist and political writer, 1961
Europeans began exploring West Africa
during the 15th century, even before they
discovered the Americas.

The enslavement of Africans by Portuguese
traders began more or less immediately.
It was not long before Africans were being
forcibly transported across the Atlantic
Ocean to work in the American colonies.

Civilisation and barbarism

Europeans used their own rigid concepts
of civilisation to justify this manipulation
and abuse of Africans. They considered the
achievements of European civilisation to
be paramount.

Because African societies and culture were
unfamiliar, Europeans denounced the continent
as barbaric and overrun with savage tribes
and religious despotism.

These racist beliefs would later be used as a
justification for colonial intervention in Africa.


Here the impression is clearly created that African slavery was a European invention.  Nothing is said about the existence of slavery in Africa, and of the eagerness of African rulers to sell slaves, and no mention at all of the huge pre-existing trade in slaves to the Muslim world, perhaps bigger in numbers and certainly far longer lasting than the Atlantic trade.

It is astonishing that the only mention I could see of ‘Islam in Africa’ said nothing about this at all:

islam in west africa

Islam in
West Africa

North Africans introduced islam
to West Africa from the 10th
century along trans-Saharan
trade routes. Traders and rulers
were the first to convert.

Later, West African converts
carried Islam further south
along indigenous trade routes.
They created Islamic learning
networks that linked together
the remotest rural Muslims
They also established Islamic
quarters in the settlements
along the trade routes. Many
of these settlements became
important towns.


aa

Separation, trauma,
desperation and loss were
the fate of those who were
forcibly uprooted and
enslaved.

The march to the coast
Sometimes enslaved Africans
were forced to march for
hundreds of miles to the coast.
Sold several times over on
this journey, they passed
from one owner to another,
their sense of disorientation
and dread heightening with
each sale.

The message when they
reached the forts was clear:
the impaled skeletons of
those who had tried to run
away remained as gruesome
warnings to deter escape.

Struggle
Enslaved people took every
opportunity to escape. One
group of women tracked their
husbands for several days
before breaking them free.

Many African leaders took an
active stand against slavery.
Tomba, leader of the Baga in
Guinea (1720) and Agaja
Trudo, King of Dahomey
between 1724 and 1726
resisted attempts to enslave
themselves and their subjects.


The ‘march to the coast’ is presented as something imposed by Europeans.  No mention of the terrible marches across the Sahara or to the Indian Ocean.  The impression given is of an Edenic Africa before Europeans arrived.  A King of Dahomey is mentioned (on the above placard) as a resister to the European slavers.  Similarly, a brief account is given of ‘the Asante economy’ (image below) in which trans-Saharan trade is mentioned—though without any reference to slave trading.

Yet Dahomey and Asante are described in an authoritative recent history of Africa as ‘the most authoritarian 18th-century [slave-]trading states’, ‘brutally inegalitarian and acquisitive’. A standard history of the slave trade describes it as ‘by far the biggest economic activity’ of Dahomey, whose king is estimated to have had an annual income of £250,000 in 1750—around five times that of the richest English aristocrat.  This is all concealed.  An innocent visitor is given a highly misleading impression of Africa, slavery and the slave trade.

‘The Asante Economy’: no mention of its role in the slave trade

1

Abolition of the slave trade

What about the other side of the story—the struggle against the slave trade and slavery?  Undeniably, this was led by Britain, and essentially by Nonconformist and Evangelical Christians.  This is briefly mentioned, but given very little prominence.  I am tempted to say insultingly little: a small placard of abolitionist campaigners is at floor level in the dark where it is practically invisible —at the bottom right-hand corner of the wall display on the ending of Atlantic slavery:

2

3

The small, and it seems to me grudging, summary below says the least possible.  A bare mention of the Navy—one sentence.  None at all of the sustained political, diplomatic, consular and economic effort to stop slaving across the world. Very little on the extent of popular support for abolition.

1 2

A final point, which in some ways sums it all up:

2 1

The powerful and moving sculpture of the chained African at the top is not connected with the Atlantic trade, but is part of a memorial in Zanzibar—a centre of the trade with the Arab world, eventually stopped by Britain.  No mention of this.

Conclusion

A planned new museum of slavery in Liverpool, which will be in part funded by the taxpayer under the general supervision of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, will have the opportunity to tell a fuller and more honest history of slavery and the slave trade, and thus contribute to improving relations between communities in our society.

About the author

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs is Emeritus Professor of French History, Cambridge, and a Fellow of St John’s College. He holds the Palmes Académiques for services to French culture. Recent works include The English and Their History (2014), Paris, bivouac des révolutions (2014), and This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe (2021).