The new International Slavery Museum in Liverpool quotes prominently the former slave William Prescott asking us to “remember not that we were freed, but that we fought”.
This is a refreshing change from much of the coverage of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, which has tended to focus on the actions of a few white abolitionists, relegating the slaves themselves to passive victims.
In contrast, the museum takes care to tell the stories of slaves fighting back and resisting, as well as making clear how slavery has left with us the legacies of racism and Third World poverty.
Liverpool is a fitting place for this museum. It is estimated that ships from Liverpool were responsible for transporting nearly 1.5 million African slaves, more than 10 percent of all those transported.
The museum highlights the way the slave trade has shaped the city, with many of its landmarks, such as Penny Lane, named after men made rich through slavery.
It is also to the museum’s credit that it doesn’t let local pride prevent it from highlighting the shameful role of Liverpool’s ruling class in supporting the confederacy during in the US Civil War and ousting the abolitionist MP William Roscoe.
The museum’s commitment to remembering and emphasising the struggles of slaves against the oppressors is clearest in a timeline highlighting acts of resistance.
Beginning in 1522 with the first slave revolt on the Spanish Caribbean island of Hispaniola, this timeline includes events such as the 1791 revolt on Saint Dominique, which led to the creation of the free state of Haiti, and the free states established by escaped slaves in 17th century Brazil.
The abolition of the slave trade in Britain in 1807, and William Wilberforce’s role in it, is simply one point on this timeline. In this way Wilberforce and his actions are placed in a proper context, as merely one stage in a broader struggle.
Interestingly, this timeline continues up until the modern day, and contains references to the rise of the civil rights movement. It is even brought right up to date with a reference to the racist murder of Anthony Walker in 2005.
Rather than stop at the formal abolition of slavery internationally, it continues to focus on the legacy of its racist ideology and the actions of people resisting it.
The exhibition is clear from the very beginning that racism has its origins in the justification of slavery. It shows how the notion that African culture was backward and needed “civilising” also played a key role in imperialism.
One of the most striking parts of the exhibition is the sculpture entitled Freedom, which confronts visitors as they enter. The sculpture was created in Haiti, the first republic established as a result of a slave revolt, and explores the meaning of freedom and slavery to the people of the poorest country in the western hemisphere.
As one of its creators notes, “People don’t have chains on their arms and legs now, but people still have chains in their minds.
“When you have problems getting enough food, housing and education, you are not living in a free country.”
This highlights both a strength and a weakness in the museum. It establishes extremely well the way in which slavery has shaped the modern world.
It is clear that huge inequalities and exploitation remain in the world today.
In doing this it sometimes gives the impression that what it describes as “contemporary slavery” – the way capitalism forces the global poor into appalling working conditions – is the same as the “chattel” slavery associated with the slave trade, the legal ownership of some people by others.
But it’s important to distinguish between chattel slavery and the conditions of workers under capitalism.
While both involve exploitation, the struggle to end slavery was a real step forward for working people that should not be downplayed.
However, overall the exhibition is thought-provoking and significant – and succeeds in providing an important alternative to the dominant accounts of the slave trade.