Roots of a Multicultural City

The Slave trade…invigorated every industry, provided the capital for docks, enriched and employed the mills of Lancashire, and afforded the means for opening out new and ever new lines of trade. Beyond a doubt, it was the slave trade which raised Liverpool from a struggling port to be one of the richest and most prosperous trading centres in the world.’  (Staying Power, P. Fryer, 1984)

Liverpool emerged from the 18th century to be an industrial, economic and cultural powerhouse, and one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world that included Europe’s first black community. Liverpool was built primarily on slaves and cotton. Its official entrance to the slave trade in 1700 saw the city’s population rise from 5,000 to 78,000 by the end of the century. Between 1883 and 1893 Liverpool’s profit from the trade in Africans was officially recorded as £12,294,116.00, with 303,737 enslaved people bought and sold, a figure grossly underestimated. Liverpool’s black population was made up from the slaves of captains, mates and surgeons, who were often given slaves to work alongside them who they were then allowed to keep. These young Africans were often sold upon their return to Liverpool. Others were brought to Liverpool by returning planters, government officials and army and navy officers, and used extensively as domestic servants. Slaves were advertised in local papers and sold in coffee houses on Canning Dock and Water Street.

By the 1780s these black people were supplemented by at least 50 African schoolchildren, mostly from Windward and Gold Coasts (present day Liberia, Ivory Coast and Ghana). These children were sent by wealthy parents for education in Britain. Free black men also worked on slave ships and other vessels.

After 1784, Britain and Liverpool’s black population was swelled by refugees from the American War of Independence who were lured by the promise of freedom if they fought for the British. After the British were defeated, 14,000 African-Americans were evacuated to Britain, the majority hungry and destitute with many finding their way to Liverpool.

In addition to Africans other settlers included Indian Lascars (seafarers), Arabs and Chinese, and made Liverpool one of the first multicultural cities in Europe with the role of white, often Irish women, becoming critical in the development of communities.

The black community settled primarily in the area around the docks in the city centre working as seafarers and in other port related trades. As their integration within the city became cemented they began to organise socially, culturally and politically. The growing anti-slavery movement, which swept large parts of the country and found its most acute resistance in Liverpool, was actively supported by ordinary black people, whose political activity would often result in unemployment, black-listing and violence, such was the influence of Liverpool’s merchants.