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International Slavery Museum

   - darkometer rating: 7 -
A modern exhibition, separate from but within the same building as the Merseyside Maritime Museum, in a converted former warehouse at the redeveloped historic Albert Dock in Liverpool. It covers primarily the Atlantic slave trade from West Africa to the Americas, but also touches on present-day slavery issues and the wider topic of racism. The Maritime Museum also has some dark aspects, e.g. the story of the Titanic.   
More background info: Slavery is as old as human civilization. It was common in the Roman empire, in ancient Egypt and in pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas. However, the colonial transatlantic slave trade between the 15th and 19th centuries reached altogether new dimensions of slavery and has to rank as one of the worst crimes against humanity in history.
Portugal was at it first, and initially had almost a monopoly in this business. Later, the other main colonizing world powers, Spain, Holland, Britain and France competed in the trade too – see also under Maison des Esclaves, Senegal.
Britain began to partake in the “business” from the mid 17th century. At the peak of it, in the 18th century, Britain was a major player in the slave trade. Initially most slave ships sailed from London and Bristol, but from around 1740 Liverpool became the main port in all of Europe involved in the slave trade. And it gained immense riches from it. Hence it makes sense that the Slavery Museum is located here.
Slaves were mainly captured (or rather: procured from local slavers) in West Africa, West Central Africa and to a smaller extent East Africa too. There were dedicated, purpose-built slave trading posts on the coast and outlying islands (see Ghana, Senegal and Cape Verde) for “warehousing” the captives. Then they were dispatched – packed like sardines under the decks of the slave ships. And many did not survive the journey. There are estimates that the death rate may have been around 15%. Given the large overall numbers, that figure alone has genocidal proportions.
The black Africans were then sold in the European colonies in the Americas, in particular in Brazil, the Caribbean and south and eastern parts of North America, where they were forced to work in the plantations. The goods from these plantations, especially sugar, coffee, tobacco, and later cotton were in turn shipped to Europe, making for yet more lucrative trade. The trade routes thus formed a triangle: from Europe to the African coasts, from there to the Americas, and from there back to Europe. The name for this was “The Middle Passage”.
It is estimated that somewhere between 10 and 20 million Africans were thus uprooted and transplanted to the “New World”. Many Caribbean nations in particular are still ethnically characterized by the descendants of these African slaves – as is, of course, the USA with its large “African-American” black population. These, as well as black people in Europe and beyond, are therefore also referred to as the “African diaspora”.
Despite the big profits to be made in the slave trade, not everybody was happy with it, and a movement formed that condemned slavery as a shameful practice for an enlightened nation and calls for abolition gained momentum in Britain and elsewhere from the mid 18th century, including the northern states of the emerging USA. France abolished slavery towards the end of the 18th century, in Britain it took until 1807 for the slave trade to be declared illegal. However, slavery as forced labour still continued in the colonies. In the British Empire slavery wasn't outlawed altogether until 1833 in another Act of Parliament. In addition the British Navy formed an Anti-Slavery Squadron targeting still operating slave ships and managed to liberate many thousands from their fate as slaves.
In the USA, there was a sharp divide between the abolitionist northern states (and the southern states that kept on exploiting slaves in the vast plantations of the Deep South – and eventually this division would lead to the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865. With the defeat of the Confederate states, slavery officially ended in the USA (although in practical terms slavery-like practices still continued).
More and more countries followed suit, but slavery continued to exist in several pockets around the world. The last country to officially abolish slavery was Mauritania – in 2007!
Yet, slavery is far from being over. Though there is no open slave trade any more, illegal forced labour, human trafficking, child labour and extreme forms of exploitation of workers and domestic servants (including complete deprivation of freedom and no pay) continue to this day. Some estimate that there may actually be more slaves or quasi-slaves today than ever before.
So the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool has a mission, not only to tell the history of the slave trade in the past but also to raise awareness of contemporary forms of slavery and the prevalent racism often underlying it.
The Museum was conceived in the early 2000s and opened its doors in August 2007. Within its first ten years it has had some 4 million visitors. And there are currently plans for expanding the museum with additional exhibition space in an adjacent building.
The museum claims to be the only institution of its kind – and that is true in the sense of a modern museum with as wide a coverage as this one. But there are smaller, more limited museums about slavery elsewhere too, such as the one in Kura, on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao.
What there is to see: The Slavery Museum is subdivided into different sections. The main exhibition has three separate themes: Life in West Africa, Enslavement and the Middle Passage and Legacy. In addition there spaces for temporary exhibitions, seminars and educational programmes, kiddie entertainment, plus works of art.
The first section is the smallest, and from a dark perspective and also with regard to the museum's main theme the least interesting one. It's more like an anthropological exhibition about various aspects of Life in West Africa in terms of local cultures. On display are reconstructed mud huts, masks, tools, pottery, sculptures and so on. It's more like an overture to the slavery topic, an insight into the life before the tragedy of slavery hit.
The Middle Passage section, on the other hand, is highly illuminating and in parts quite graphic. On display are shackles and various other restraining implements as well as instruments of torture. Graphics and models illustrate the horrendous conditions on board the slave ships. And a large screen projection provides an overview of the different phases of the Middle Passage trade routes and the volumes of goods and slaves moved across the Atlantic. It's well worth watching the entire thing.
The life of slaves after their arrival in the New World is another main theme. It covers such aspects as the selling of slaves like cattle on markets, their living conditions, the hard labour, especially on plantations, and the harsh treatment of slaves – including brutal punishments for disobedient slaves.
Another aspect is the wealth created through all this trade, and the arrival and abundant spread of colonial goods such as sugar, and the effects of all that on life in Britain, are also covered, as are the campaigns for the abolition of slavery.
The final section of the main exhibition looks at the long-term legacy of slavery, how it changed the populations of the Americas, how racism and discrimination persist to this day, but also presents cases of prominent and successful black people in politics, culture and other areas.
Apart from extra temporary exhibitions and art, there's also a so-called “Freedom and Enslavement Wall” by the entrance to the main exhibition. Here, set into an artificial “stone” wall, small screens play a range of videos, including reports from victims of modern-day slavery.
Downstairs from the slavery museum you may also want to go through the Maritime Museum. Apart from general coverage of naval history it also includes a number of rather dark aspects so it is worth a brief coverage here too.
One tragic element of Liverpool's maritime heritage is the Titanic – as she was registered in Liverpool, home to the White Star Line. And the exhibition not only has a scale model of the ill-fated ship, but also various original items salvaged from the wreck. Although I am not sure now if that was part of the permanent exhibition or only a temporary add-on.
However, another tragic ship, the RMS Lusitania, is given a whole section of its own. And more contemporary shipwreck stories are covered too, including the mysterious loss of the MV Derbyshire, a bulk carrier that sank in the South China Sea in 1980 – this was the biggest British merchant ship ever lost at sea.
The naval part of war history plays a role here too, both WWI (the Lusitania was sunk by a German U-Boat in 1915, for instance) and WWII. In the latter it was the Battle of the Atlantic that is most closely linked to the history of Liverpool, and therefore gets the most coverage, but they also have sections about the sinking of the German battleship Bismark and on display is a model of its sister ship, the Tirpitz, which was eventually also sunk in a fjord in Norway.
One lesser known aspect is covered too: namely the fate of the sailors of the merchant navy who became POWs in Nazi Germany. Most of them were interned in a camp near Bremen (cf. Bunker Valentin).
Another aspect of maritime heritage that I had previously been totally unaware of was covered in an extra section called “Hello Sailor” – about gay life within the merchant navy and on passenger ships. Apparently that was a comparatively safe haven at a time when homosexuality was illegal (in Britain until 1967). So I found these insights into this “hidden world” quite remarkable and unexpected.
All in all: the slavery museum may not be especially big (at least not yet – see background), but most of it is highly illuminating and well presented, including some, but not overwhelmingly much, multimedia and interactive elements. The most interesting part is certainly the central core section about the Middle Passage and slavery in the Americas. The Maritime Museum is an add-on worth considering, although from a dark-tourism perspective only certain parts are relevant, but one can always go through the museum in a suitably selective manner. Overall, absolutely recommended, worthy of a detour, and a definite must-see when in Liverpool.
Location: on the third floor of the Merseyside Maritime Museum, which is located on the north side of the ring of refurbished warehouses around the historic Albert Dock by the waterfront of the Mersey River in Liverpool, Great Britain.
Google maps locator: [53.4013, -2.9929]
Access and costs: a bit outside the core of the city centre, but walkable and quite easy to locate; free entry.
Details: To get to the museum from the main bus station on Canning Place at the bottom of Hanover Street (which leads through the city centre from Liverpool Central Station) cross Strand Street to get to Salthouse Dock and keep going, past the iconic Pumphouse on your right and the former Albert Dock Traffic Office with its grand neo-classical portal on your left (in future this may become the museum entrance, actually). And a few steps down Hartley Quay will take you to the museum entrance. Coming from the waterfront, turn inland at the old Piermaster's House near the entrance to Canning Dock.
Opening times: daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission free!
Time required: between 45 minutes to two hours, depending on how deeply you wish to engage with the interactive elements and videos.
Combinations with other dark destinations: see under Liverpool.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Given the location in one of the former warehouses on Albert Dock, the rest of that redeveloped complex has to be the most obvious combination – as is the rest of the waterfront including Pier Head with its iconic landmarks of the Three Graces. These temples of commerce suddenly appear a little less graceful when you've just visited the slavery museum though and realize how much of the wealth of Liverpool's merchants was directly or indirectly derived from the slave trade.
Alternatively you can cool your head by taking a ferry boat across and along the River Mersey, or head into the city centre and the cathedrals.
See under Liverpool.
  • Slavery Museum 01 - part of the Maritime MuseumSlavery Museum 01 - part of the Maritime Museum
  • Slavery Museum 02 - floor planSlavery Museum 02 - floor plan
  • Slavery Museum 03 - African heritageSlavery Museum 03 - African heritage
  • Slavery Museum 04 - slave ship modelSlavery Museum 04 - slave ship model
  • Slavery Museum 05 - the big exodusSlavery Museum 05 - the big exodus
  • Slavery Museum 06 - display cabinetSlavery Museum 06 - display cabinet
  • Slavery Museum 07 - shacklesSlavery Museum 07 - shackles
  • Slavery Museum 08 - sugar mill modelSlavery Museum 08 - sugar mill model
  • Slavery Museum 09 - interactive elementSlavery Museum 09 - interactive element
  • Slavery Museum 10 - accounts of modern-day slaverySlavery Museum 10 - accounts of modern-day slavery
  • Slavery Museum 11 - modern-day racismSlavery Museum 11 - modern-day racism
  • Slavery Museum 12 - Titanic model in the maritime museumSlavery Museum 12 - Titanic model in the maritime museum
  • Slavery Museum 13 - Titanic artefactsSlavery Museum 13 - Titanic artefacts
  • Slavery Museum 14 - historySlavery Museum 14 - history

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