More than 12 million Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic to work as slaves between 1515 and the mid-19th Century. Some two million of the enslaved men, women and children died on their way to the Americas.
In 1700, Liverpool was a fishing port with about 5,000 people. The figure rose to 78,000 by 1800, with thousands of this number finding jobs thanks to the slave trade. Liverpool had then become part of the slave trade “triangle” with West Africa, America and the West Indies. Thousands of enslaved Africans passed through the city.
In fact, Liverpool-based vessels carried more than 300,000 Africans into slavery such that by 1795, Liverpool controlled more than 60% of the British and more than 40% of the European slave trade, according to a report by BBC. This brought the city great wealth as Liverpool made about £300,000 (now $391,000) a year from the slave trade in the 18th century.
Abell, an African man, is believed to have been enslaved and brought to the city where he lived and died more than 300 years ago. In 1717, his death was listed in the records of Liverpool Parish Church, currently known as the Church of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas. Abell was buried in the churchyard of the church on October 1, 1717. Nothing else is known about him including his early life.
Liverpool historian Laurence Westgaph discovered the record listing Abell’s death and started a campaign to erect a memorial to him, describing him as Liverpool’s first recorded Black resident.
“As part of my Ph.D. I put together a database of all baptisms, marriages and burials in Liverpool,” Westgaph told the ECHO in 2020. “Although there were earlier baptisms, his is the earliest burial, so we can see he was the earliest recorded Black resident of the city. We don’t know where he came from or when he got here.”
Black communities have existed in Britain for at least five centuries but Liverpool’s Black community is said to be the oldest in Europe thanks to factors like the slave trade. By the 1780s when the city had become the European capital of the transatlantic slave trade, its ships were sailing to West Africa, exchanging goods for enslaved Africans who were forcibly transported across the Atlantic and sold.
“The slave ships then picked up sugar, cotton and tobacco grown on plantations by enslaved Africans and took these goods back to Britain,” according to a report by National Museums Liverpool.
In 1807 when the British slave trade was abolished, groundnuts, timber, palm oil, and rubber were now traded, with Liverpool becoming a major imperial port. Owing to this, African sailors like the Kru from Liberia and Sierra Leone settled there. During this period, Black people were found in many parts of the township. The earliest Blacks however settled in parishes in the area currently known as Toxteth and in areas of what was then Liverpool township center, such as St. James, St. Thomas and St. Peters, as stated in this report by blackhistorymonth.org.uk.
But besides being a port where enslaved Africans passed through, not all Black people who lived in Liverpool were slaves or servants. During the last quarter of the 18th century, the city was home to freed enslaved Africans, Black veterans of the American War of Independence, and children, especially sons, of African rulers.
“Britain gained politically, as trade rivalries with other European countries in the eighteenth century meant that by offering educational opportunities to the sons of African rulers, they would be sent to England to receive an indoctrination favourable to the British viewpoint,” writes blackhistorymonth.org.uk.
Then there were the Black Loyalists or Black veterans of the American War of Independence. These were people of African descent who sided with the Loyalists (American colonists who remained loyal to the British Crown) during the American Revolutionary War. The British had promised freedom for all Blacks who would join them. And following the loss of the American Colonies in the war, Black loyalists were shipped out to Britain after the British surrendered to the American Patriots (members of the Thirteen Colonies who rejected British rule during the American Revolution). Most of the Black Loyalists were taken to London in the late 1780s, but some settled in Liverpool.
Later, in the 1800s, West African seafarers working on Elder Dempster Line ships settled in Liverpool, increasing the number of Black people already settled in the city. Records show that from 1794 to 1805, 76 free Black sailors worked on slave ships and were believed to have been recruited in either Liverpool or their African or West Indian homelands.
Despite difficulties such as discrimination, Black presence has continued to grow in Liverpool, impacting life on every level. Officials acknowledged this in October 2020 when a stone commemorating Abell, the first recorded Black resident in Liverpool, was unveiled.
“It is well-documented that Liverpool has the oldest Black community in Europe. Black people have played a pivotal role in the development of our city, a role which continues to this day,” Lord Mayor Anna Rothery said at the time. “As a city we are facing up to the grim injustices of our past and by setting them in their context, we are a better place.”