The headlines of the past few weeks made me think about my home town Liverpool which played a significant part in slavery in the past. In fact the city’s wealth and expansion was built on it. There were more slave ships running in and out of Liverpool in the late 1700s than there were either in London or Bristol. So is it now time for the city to follow the lead elsewhere and remove evidence of those people responsible? Or should we continue to acknowledge it as an example of wrong doing.
My go to example in these sorts of debates is Hitler’s Germany. We have not erased Hitler from history even though he is surely the most evil individual that ever lived. The site of Auschwitz was not burned down and removed so as to forget what happened. Instead these are used to illustrate the horrors of what happened so that those who died are never forgotten. Likewise in Liverpool there is a museum that seeks to tell the true story of slavery in the port and it stands theoretically as a tribute to those who suffered under it’s dominance. The Mayor had already announced, before the current situation, that new plaques would be placed at the site of statues or places associated with slavery to tell the true story of what happened.
Liverpool was so deeply part of that movement that its identity is partly shaped by it. The Beatles song `Penny Lane` celebrates a street that was named after slave trader James Penny. The city centre Sir Thomas Street is named after the owner of one of the first slave ships. The Cunard Building now owned by the City Council has statues of slave ships on its exterior. The well known Rodney Street consists of houses built for traders. African slaves are depicted in the plasterwork of the Town Hall. I could go on with a long list but you get the idea- Liverpool might need to have a number of places re-named or changed to erase all of this. Or should it?
A plan was initiated five years ago to change several street names in Liverpool but it ran into problems when it met more recent history. Changing the name of Penny Lane would affect tourism as it is a site visited by hundreds of people thanks to the song. Quite apart from the practicalities of removing parts of buildings, renaming streets and so forth, there is that question of whether the right thing to do is forget that it ever happened. Some would say that by not opposing it you are tacitly supporting it. Others would say you must learn from history as it happened not try to re-shape it from a modern perspective.
Liverpool has tried to apologise and acknowledge what happened as a lesson to the future. As well as the International Slavery Museum which shows the sordid past on which Liverpool was partly built there is an annual day of remembrance in August and a free celebration of African culture and music Africa Oye, held each June. In 2007 the Council formally apologised for the city’s involvement in the slave trade. Local historian Laurence Westgaph has said the city is not doing enough and there needs to be a dedicated memorial and more teaching in the classroom.
I have to admit I don’t know the answer to this issue and as a white man perhaps its not for me to say. However I can see a worrying trend in which anything deemed offensive from a Tweet to international slavery and lots in between could be `cancelled` meaning that the children of the future may end up with fewer valuable lessons to learn and therefore may be more likely to repeat some of history’s mistakes.