Liverpool's Heart of Darkness

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On the 27th of July, 1807, a ship named the Kitty's Amelia sailed from Liverpool, England, under the command of Captain Hugh Crow, a one-eyed Manxman turning 42. Earlier that year, Parliament had abolished the British slave trade, but the Kitty's Amelia had received legal clearance before the first of May, when abolition took effect. Though she left port almost three months after the slave trade officially ended in Great Britain, the Kitty's Amelia sailed legally, as legally, that is, as a slave trader-the last of the English slave traderscould sail. The ship carried 300 tons burden and 18 guns, a concession not only to England's war with.France but also to conditions on the Guinea coast of Africa, where Captain Crow-called "Mind-Your-Eye Crow"-was bound.

I have no idea whether the Kitty's Amelia was finally dismasted, her timbers knocked apart, her ship's furniture salvaged or burned. The ship may have ended its days benignly. It might have become a prison hulk, like the ones in Great Expectations, or been wrecked at sea. There's no knowing precisely where Captain Crow's human cargo finally ended up after being sold in the West Indies or where and in what circumstances they lived and died, apart from those captives, that is, who died of disease aboard ship during the Middle Passage from Africa to the New World.

As for Captain Crow, his days ended in 1829, and he was buried on the Isle of Man. In his autobiography, Memoirs of the Late Captain Hugh Crow of Liverpool, he does his best to make a slave's voyage aboard the Kitty's Amelia sound almost pleasant. "I always took great pains to promote the health and comfort of all on board, by proper diet, regularity, exercise, and cleanliness, for I considered that on keeping the ship clean and orderly, which was always my hobby, the success of our voyage mainly depended." How you interpret this passage depends entirely on the meaning you give the word "success."

I recently stood at the edge of the Mersey River, trying to imagine the July day 195 years ago when the Kitty's Amelia worked her way into the tide. The thought of that day brought with it a sense of the irrevocable, of lives lost, fortunes gathered and dispersed, the peculiar distortions of human and economic justice we like to call history. Perhaps someone in Liverpool, watching the Kitty's Amelia work her way downstream in 1807, had the sense of an era ending. But human flesh was just one among many cargoes, and a risky one because slaves found it so easy to die aboard ship. The end of the slave trade in Great Britain ratified the outrage of the abolitionists-people who, as Captain Crow saw it, knew little or nothing about the subject of slavery-but it also confirmed the shifting of markets and the growing importance of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. When Captain Crow arrived in Kingston, Jamaica, he found the harbor crowded with slave ships, their human wares going unsold.

Today, Liverpool stands where it always has, rising above the Mersey and above a chain of now disused docks. From the river's edge, you can look across the water and see the Wirral, a spur of land that divides the Dee River from the Mersey and, in a sense, England from Wales. Standing on the embankment, watching the tidal chop on the Mersey's brown water, which empties into a sea framed by Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and northern England, you get none of the land's-end feeling you get at the westernmost tip of Cornwall, where the waves breaking against the headlands seem to have come direct from America. The Mersey these days could be almost any large river flowing past the engineered edge of almost any city. Except that between 1760 and 1807 Liverpool built and the Mersey floated the largest fleet of slave ships in the history of the trade. …