Liverpool Faces the Past - and the Future

01 April 2000

In 1999, as its last formal act of the millennium, Liverpool City Council passed unanimously a resolution apologizing for the city's role in the Atlantic slave trade.
The English city of Liverpool is transforming the image it once had of dilapidation and decay. Its waterfront area is cleaned up, thriving and very tourist-friendly. The home of the Beatles and the Mersey Sound, of the Grand National and championship football teams, of Anglican and Catholic cathedrals joined by Hope Street, is looking to become, in the words of its Lord Mayor, 'a true 21st century city'.

As part of that commitment, without much fanfare and with little media notice, it has taken a monumental step to leave the past behind.

At the height of the slave trade Liverpool shipowners financed 40 per cent of the European ships involved. The city's wealth grew initially out of the triangular trade taking manufactured goods to Africa in exchange for slaves for the Americas and then carrying produce back from the plantations to Britain. Slave ships from Liverpool made 5,000 Atlantic crossings. Memories of this time are still evoked by the carvings of African heads which adorn the city hall and by streets which bear the names of merchants enriched by the trade.

In 1994 steps were taken to acknowledge this history, when a permanent gallery devoted to transatlantic slavery was opened in the Merseyside Maritime Museum. In 1999, as its last formal act of the millennium, Liverpool City Council passed unanimously a resolution apologizing for the city's role in the Atlantic slave trade. 'This was the proudest moment of my political life,' says Lord Mayor Joseph A Devaney.

The resolution stated that while the city had been bequeathed a rich diversity of people and cultures, learning, architecture and financial wealth, the human suffering had been obscured. 'The untold misery which was caused has left a legacy which affects Black people in Liverpool today.'

The Council expressed its shame and remorse for the city's role in 'this trade in human misery'. It made 'an unreserved apology' for its involvement in the slave trade and the continual effects of slavery on Liverpool's Black communities. 'The City Council hereby commits itself to work closely with all Liverpool's communities and partners and with the peoples of those countries which have carried the burden of the slave trade. The Council also commits itself to programmes of action, with full participation of Liverpool's Black communities, which will seek to combat all forms of racism and discrimination and will recognize and respond to the city's multicultural inheritance and celebrate the skills and talents of its people.'

The Lord Mayor says that in apologizing the city sought neither forgiveness nor absolution. 'It is my belief that Liverpool can only be truly forgiven after a process of reconciliation through action has taken place,' he says. The city is planning an event where representatives of those who bear the burden and the legacy of the slave trade, both within the city and from the Americas and Africa, will be invited to set out their vision as to how Liverpool might finally put its past to rest. 'When this process of change is successfully completed we will have earned forgiveness and absolution,' Devaney says.

Canon Nicholas Frayling, Rector of Liverpool, was asked to speak in the Council Chamber before the resolution was put. Interviewed later, he said, 'It was highly significant and most remarkable that the resolution was passed unanimously in a Council Chamber that has seen so much controversy and partisanship. It was an indication of how deeply the members of the Council were touched, both by the content of the resolution and the passionate way in which it was proposed and seconded.'

Commending the Council for its forward-looking act, he had told them, 'The only way to bring about lasting reconciliation is to face the pain of history with courage, and then to change.'

Lord Mayor Devaney says, 'We must look to the future and ensure that the mechanisms, programmes and policies are in place which will ensure that the world recognizes that our city has changed forever.'

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