Liverpool World City: On the City's 800th Anniversary in 2007, and the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade, John Belchem Examines Liverpool's Cosmopolitan Profile and Cultural Pretensions

By Belchem, John | History Today, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Liverpool World City: On the City's 800th Anniversary in 2007, and the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade, John Belchem Examines Liverpool's Cosmopolitan Profile and Cultural Pretensions


Belchem, John, History Today


Unlike the dwellers in most English towns, all of us in Liverpool are, to a great extent, citizens of the world, for everything around us tells us of far-off countries and foreign ways, and in our midst are constantly natives of so many distant lands that we insensibly imbibe and learn to practice [sic] peculiarities not British.

COSMOPOLITANISM OF this order, expressed in the Liverpool Critic in 1877, was a much vaunted component of Liverpool's character and culture in its Victorian glory days. Hailed as 'the New York of Europe, a world city rather than merely British provincial', Liverpool of the 1880s stood proudly above the 'Coketown' monoculture of adjacent textile and industrial towns. As well as large numbers of migrants (Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Manx) from around the 'inland' Irish Sea, which was described as Liverpool's private Celtic empire, the great seaport attracted an 'abnormally mixed' population (to use Edwardian terminology) from the oceans beyond. By no means provincial, it was the great 'second city of empire', the commercial and human entrepot linking the old world to the new.

Liverpool was decades ahead of other cities in accommodating long-distance migrants, but in spite of this, it was not to develop into the role model for the multicultural Britain that emerged after the Second World War. According to the census of 2001, Liverpool is now one of the least ethnically diverse of British cities with small numbers of post-1945 'new Commonwealth' migrants. The strapline of the successful bid for European Capital of Culture status in 2008, 'The world in one city', draws upon Liverpool's historical legacy rather than its contemporary complexion.

Although the 'slaving capital' of the world, the very apex of the infamous 'triangular' trade across the Atlantic, Georgian Liverpool was not itself a major site for the sale of slaves other than individuals sold (often through newspaper advertisements) by ships' captains as 'fashionable' servants. By the late eighteenth century, Liverpool had a sizeable black population--and a street nicknamed 'Negro Row'--consisting of these 'privilege slaves' sold into service, runaways and students, the children of African nobleman, merchants and slavers from Old Calibar and beyond, sent across the seas for education. Numbers increased with the influx of discharged black soldiers from across the Atlantic, former slaves (manumitted on enlistment) who had fought for the defeated British army in the American War of Independence (1775-83). Although there are continuities and connections back to these foundational groups, most of the Liverpool black community trace their ancestry to later arrivals, to merchant seamen who settled in post-abolition cosmopolitan Liverpool.

Following abolition of the slave trade in 1807, Liverpool sought new markets and a new image. As it opened new routes across the oceans, it looked to rebrand itself as 'Liverpolis', a city state of the modern age dedicated to commerce, culture and cosmopolitan civilization as envisioned by the self-taught polymath and politician William Roscoe (1753-1831) and his circle. Formerly reviled for their opposition to the slave trade, these 'humanity men' were now elevated to iconic status (as the names of streets and pubs in the city still attest). Having previously deployed Corporation funds to defend the slave trade to the last in defiance of what it considered the meddlesome moralism of 'outside' abolitionist opinion, the new Liverpool placed itself at the forefront of the subsequent campaign (which achieved success in 1833) to abolish slavery itself within the British colonies. As the port diversified, it handled goods (such as cotton, sugar and tobacco) produced by slave labour still legal in other parts of the world, but the new mood and character was symbolized by a steadily increasing cosmopolitan mercantile presence.

Ethnic diversity became increasingly visible: significant numbers of Kru (from West Africa), Lascar (from the Indian sub-continent), Chinese and other sea-faring communities within and beyond the 'black Atlantic', were drawn to the port and its open 'sailortown' culture. …

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Liverpool World City: On the City's 800th Anniversary in 2007, and the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade, John Belchem Examines Liverpool's Cosmopolitan Profile and Cultural Pretensions
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