Mewett on Tibbles, 'Liverpool and the Slave Trade'

Anthony Tibbles
Ryan E. Mewett

Anthony Tibbles. Liverpool and the Slave Trade. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2018. Illustrations, maps. ix + 118 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-78694-153-4

Reviewed by Ryan E. Mewett (Johns Hopkins University) Published on H-Atlantic (May, 2021) Commissioned by Bryan Rindfleisch (Marquette University)

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The Town the Slave Traders Built

Public discussion of Britain’s complicity in the transatlantic slave trade has surged over the last year alongside global demonstrations for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd. Impelled by local activism, communities have moved forward with plans to remove or modify statues and rename streets commemorating slave traders and plantation owners in Bristol, London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cardiff, and Liverpool. This flurry of awareness breaks from a long trend in which British participation in the slave trade—and the economic gains reaped from it—has been, according to Anthony Tibbles, “for most of the last two hundred years ... ignored, downplayed or forgotten, not least in Liverpool.” In his career as a museum professional, Tibbles has figured prominently in attempts to pierce this cloud of ignorance. He led the development of the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery at the Merseyside Maritime Museum (1994), curated the initial content of Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum (2007), and since 2009 has been Emeritus Keeper of Slavery History for National Museums Liverpool. His aim in Liverpool and the Slave Trade is to continue that work and “document Liverpool’s prominent role in the trade,” raising awareness of the slave trade’s significant place in British history and its enduring legacy in the British present (p. vii). The product of his efforts is a compact, generously illustrated volume that is readable, engaging, and informative. Across six chapters, Tibbles synthesizes recent research and uses primary sources to provide a vivid exploration of Liverpool’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade.

Tibbles begins with a brief overview of the transatlantic slave trade as a whole and narrates the steady growth of Liverpool’s involvement, followed by the first chapter that details the introduction of the plantation system into the Americas, its adoption by Britons in the Caribbean colonies, and the role of the Royal African Company within the slave trade. Liverpudlians joined in the trade soon after the company’s monopoly on British trade to Africa ended in 1698, but participation remained sporadic until after the War of the Spanish Succession. From this gradual beginning, though, Liverpool grew to dominate the British slave trade. The town launched more than half of British slaving voyages after 1750 and 80 percent from 1780 until the abolition of the trade in 1807. In this chapter, Tibbles also discusses the system of British slavery more broadly, describing the conditions of plantation slavery and noting the economic and political power of absentee plantation owners in metropolitan Britain. Finally, a summary of Liverpool’s opposition to abolition and post-1807 links to Africa and Atlantic slavery concludes the chapter.

The second chapter focuses on slave trading enterprises and the ways Liverpool came to be deeply engaged with each aspect of the trade. For instance, the town’s shipbuilders constructed one-quarter of the British vessels involved in slaving, and artisans and tradesmen of all varieties participated in outfitting and provisioning those voyages. But “a core group of some 200 merchants”—many of whom exercised significant political power, both locally and nationally—provided the capital and dominated decision-making (p. 12). These merchants typically combined in short-term partnerships and elected one of their members to actively manage the details of a voyage. Investment in a given voyage was divided into sixty-four shares, and as many as 1,400 small-scale investors purchased occasional single shares and operated as silent partners during the period of Liverpool’s dominance in the slave trade. The town and its hinterland provided much of the cargo carried to Africa in exchange for slaves: textiles from Manchester, metals from the northwest and north Wales, guns from Birmingham, knives from Sheffield, salt from Cheshire, and sundry items imported from as far afield as the Baltic, Italy, and India. The captain hired for a voyage often played a critical role in cargo selection; the most experienced were valued by the merchants for their specialized knowledge of and relationships in particular African markets. Like the cargo, a majority of the crew was drawn from Liverpool and its environs, with the balance made up of sizable minorities of Scots, Irishmen, and foreigners.

In chapter 3, Tibbles examines the slaving voyage itself. The merchant shipowners provided their captain with detailed instructions but depended on his experience and judgment to ensure profitable trading on the African coast. In the course of several months at one or more slaving ports, the captain negotiated purchases of enslaved people singly or in small lots, customizing a suitable assortment of goods to exchange for each person. One characteristic voyage saw a captain engage in “over 2,000 rounds of negotiations in order to purchase 499 slaves in 316 transactions on 131 separate days from fifty-four different traders” during a six-month period at Old Calabar in modern-day Nigeria (p. 34). Tibbles describes the personal relationships formed between many Liverpool slavers and African traders, especially in Old Calabar; some Calabary merchants even trusted their sons to Liverpudlians to be educated in England. More generally, the chapter reflects the influence of modern scholarship that emphasizes African power and agency within the slave trade.[1] The account of the Middle Passage is similarly inflected; it takes African resistance seriously and details the measures slavers took to suppress revolts, alongside discussion of the brutal conditions of the slave ship and the violence inflicted by the crew against the enslaved. But the perspective here is largely informed by written evidence from slave ship officers—as elsewhere in the book—and as a result the reader’s viewpoint is distinctly that of the European slavers.[2]

Chapter 4 considers the possible causes of Liverpool’s dominance in the slave trade and—at greater length—its economic impact. Historians have offered a variety of explanations to account for the town’s ascendancy in the trade beginning in the 1740s, and Tibbles briefly discusses several: the specialist knowledge and high entry cost required for slaving voyages, the development of personal contacts in Africa, the unique access to trade goods provided by Liverpool’s environs, and Liverpool merchants’ unique risk-taking and entrepreneurial energies. The longest part of the chapter is taken up with evaluating how Liverpool profited from the slave trade. As a visitor to the town in 1772 rebuked its residents, “there is not a brick in your dirty town but what is cemented with the blood of a negro” (p. 65). Though Tibbles cautions that it is impossible to precisely calculate how much of Liverpool’s mercantile wealth resulted specifically from the slave trade, he leaves little doubt that it was a massive sum. Slave merchants were the wealthiest men in the town; they built country houses and endowed civic institutions. The profits spread widely enough throughout the town’s economy that artisans of all kinds vigorously opposed abolition in the 1780s. Although he notes that “at least 40 per cent of Liverpool’s wealth at this time derived from slave-related activities” and mentions several examples of industrial development directly linked to Liverpudlian slaving activities, Tibbles concludes the chapter with the caveat that among economic historians “the consensus seems to be” that the profits of slavery did not launch the Industrial Revolution (pp. 75, 77).

The last two chapters are concerned with Liverpool’s role in the campaign for abolition and its economic fortunes in the nineteenth century after abolition. Unsurprisingly, few residents backed abolition as compared to other large towns, but Tibbles contends that the issue rarely created enough tension to strain social and familial bonds. Many Liverpool slavers contributed to the abolition debate in Parliament. Merchants and officers testified in defense of the trade, while sailors’ accounts of cruelty and deprivation formed a significant body of evidence for the abolitionists. By contrast, Liverpool had little involvement in the debate leading up to emancipation in 1834, as few planters had links to the town. And the dire impact to Liverpool’s economy that some predicted would follow in the wake of abolition never occurred. While a few merchants became involved in the illicit slave trade, many more adapted their African trading ventures into new commodities, like ivory and palm oil. Liverpool traders also expanded their activities in the Caribbean and North America. Eventually, the town flourished as the entrepôt for slave-grown American cotton flowing to the textile mills of Lancashire, and “by 1850 raw cotton imports and manufactured cotton goods comprised half of all Liverpool’s trade” (p. 102). In conclusion, Tibbles discusses two aspects of the slave trade’s legacy in Liverpool: its Black community and the recent but stuttering efforts to challenge the historical amnesia around the trade. Tibbles also concludes on a note of ambivalence borne out by the events of the past year that while “the city has begun to acknowledge that uncomfortable past in recent years, it has yet to find a satisfactory way of living with that legacy” (p. 110).

On the whole the book is valuable and engaging. Tibbles does an excellent job of translating research with a substantial quantitative component into a fluid summary. Though clearly written for a general audience, the book is not simply descriptive; it addresses historiography and makes arguments (if only with a light touch). Several of the most appealing elements of the book seem connected to Tibbles’s background in museum work, as the reader is consistently brought to the material through specific people and objects. Frequent sidebars offer biographical sketches of relevant characters—some representative, some unique—like Black sailor John Jones, Calabary merchant Antera Duke, and slaveowner Sir John Gladstone, father of the prime minister. Similarly, insightful anecdotes drawn from primary sources in the Liverpool Record Office and the Merseyside Maritime Museum are woven skillfully throughout the main text. The book is beautifully and extensively illustrated with two maps and sixty-six images, including reproductions of paintings, engravings, and photos of artifacts and manuscript documents, primarily from the collections at National Museums Liverpool. The excellent bibliography will be useful to readers looking for more comprehensive treatments of topics discussed in the text.[3]

The book has one minor flaw. Perhaps due to its somewhat unique format and its target audience, the referencing is sometimes less comprehensive than one might wish. Specific statistics, quotations, illustrative anecdotes, and the like are invariably given a footnote, but sometimes general fact claims are not. Specialist readers thereby may be frustrated by their inability to follow specific claims to their source.

Liverpool and the Slave Trade is altogether an impressive work that will be useful to a broad range of readers. Even leaving aside its many fine qualities, the excellent images alone make it a valuable addition to a specialist’s library. Readers generally acquainted with the transatlantic slave trade will also value the Liverpool-specific aspects of every chapter, and it will serve as an engaging introductory volume for undergraduates, general readers, and all Liverpudlians.


[1]. For example, Randy J. Sparks, Where the Negroes Are Masters: An African Port in the Era of the Slave Trade (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); and Paul E. Lovejoy and David Richardson, “African Agency and the Liverpool Slave Trade,” in Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery, ed. David Richardson, Suzanne Schwarz, and Anthony Tibbles (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007), 43-65.

[2]. Works in Middle Passage studies often employ the same sources in ways that manage to minimize the voice of European elites and keep the lens squarely on the experience of enslaved people. See, for example, Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History (New York: Viking, 2007); Stephanie Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); and Sowande’ M. Mustakeem, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016).

[3]. Richardson, Schwarz, and Tibbles, eds., Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery is an ideal companion volume.

Citation: Ryan E. Mewett. Review of Tibbles, Anthony, Liverpool and the Slave Trade. H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews. May, 2021. URL:

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