Slavery museum in Liverpool aims to confront painful legacy
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 for visitors 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 benefited 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 focusing on Africa before European contact. They are greeted by quotes of American abolitionists and civil-rights leaders etched into stone walls before seeing 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. They 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 onlookers. 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.
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.
The museum is a journey of resistance, liberation, and the long fight for civil rights.