In the eighteenth century, Liverpool was a key port in the “triangular trade” in which ships sailed from Britain to West Africa, collected a cargo of living humans, then crossed the Atlantic to the Americas to sell them on. Many of Liverpool’s wealthiest families were involved in slave trading, or profited from slavery, including several who lived in Abercromby Square, now part of the University of Liverpool. The trade was made illegal in 1807, though of course slavery in the United States and the Caribbean continued for years afterwards.
But what the law says should happen, and what actually happens, are sometimes quite different. Back in 2014, while I was researching a short piece on Henry Howard Brownell, the American Civil War poet and abolitionist, I came across an interesting letter (reproduced below) that is suggestive, to me at least, of slave trading going on in Liverpool as late as 1825. It’s far from definitive–there is no actual mention of slaves, for obvious reasons–but it’s intriguing.
As an abolitionist, Brownell had an interesting background. His mother came from the DeWolf family of Rhode Island so he was a close relative of James DeWolf (sometimes written D’Wolf), a major ship owner, slave trader and privateer. Although based in the North East, the DeWolfs were slave owners in Cuba and the southern US states, and are known to have continued to transport and trade in slaves well into the nineteenth century, and to have used their influence to evade the law. They were immensely rich and often packed the courts with family members, and controlled the excise in Bristol, RI.
The letter itself is from a man called Martin (?) Bennett to John DeWolf (James’s brother I think), dated April 16 (?), 1825, and was written when the ship (owned by DeWolf) arrived in Liverpool with cotton from New Orleans. Apart from revealing the massive profit on cotton, it ends with the following:
“I purchased the goods according to your memorandums at this port and at the lowest rate payable. I shall take particular care of the goods and keep them onboard the vessel until I return.”
There is no certainty in this of course, but word “them” and the bit about keeping them on the vessel under “particular care,” suggests something alive, which I doubt was sheep.
I’d be interested to know what others think. Hat tip to the Rhode Island Historical Society, which is where this came from.
It’s been a while since I posted anything here, so it seems appropriate that I should revisit Cain’s: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint, the book I published in 2008 about the Cain’s brewery in Liverpool. After the book was finished the brewery struggled on for a couple of years but has now closed. It is about to be transformed into a centre for independent retailers and an apartment block, but in the mean time it is host to the 2016 Liverpool Biennial. I was asked to produce an audio guide giving some historical background to the brewery, but tying it in to the Biennial’s themes:
Liverpool Biennial 2016 explores fictions, stories and histories, taking viewers on a series of voyages through time and space, drawing on Liverpool’s past, present and future. These journeys take the form of six ‘episodes’: Ancient Greece, Chinatown, Children’s Episode, Software, Monuments from the Future and Flashback. They are sited in galleries, public spaces, unused buildings, through live performance and online. Many of the artists have made work for more than one episode, some works are repeated across different episodes, and some venues host more than one episode.
For several years now I’ve been researching the life and work of William Scoresby Jr., an early nineteenth-century whaler and Arctic explorer who sailed from Whitby, and Liverpool. Of course this has on the whole been a spare time project, and one that is quite a departure from my academic background in American literature, and crime fiction. It has taken quite a while to reach the point where I feel confident about publishing on the subject. I’m working on a full-length book about Scoresby, but in the mean time I have written and self-published a short (~10,000 words) book-let on his once famous voyage of 1816, a voyage which could very easily have ended in tragedy and disaster.
This booklet is available as a print copy from Amazon and in due course as an ebook from all the usual outlets and in all the usual formats. In the mean time your one stop shop for the ebook in the right format for you is Smashwords. The cover image is by mixed media artist Caroline Hack, from an original illustration by Scoresby himself.
I first met artist Caroline Hack at the “Moby Dick on the Mersey” marathon read I organised in Liverpool in 2013. We’ve since worked together on a little book about the 1816 voyage of the Whitby whale ship Esk. Back in 2013 Caroline was already established with a back catalogue of work related to whales and historic whaling and she is currently Artist in Residence at Burton Constable Hall in East Yorkshire, where there is a famous skeleton of a Sperm Whale, washed up on the Holderness coast at Tunstall in 1825. This skeleton featured first in Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839) and later, via Beale, in Moby-Dick (1851) itself.
Caroline has built an exhibition with this skeleton–now in the stables–as its centrepiece, starting from Saturday March 26. If you’re in the area the hall and grounds themselves are a good day out anyway, but this exhibition just makes it all the more worthwhile. Caroline’s work with printed and sewn fabrics is both reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, and starkly corporeal in its use of whale bones and historic objects.
The exhibition runs from Easter Saturday to Thursday 28 April 2016. Opening Times: 11am – 5pm, seven days per week (the hall itself is not open on Fridays). The project is funded by the Arts Council England via Grants for the Arts and the Friends of Burton Constable.
See more of Caroline’s work at carolinehack.com
On Monday I was interviewed on BBC Radio Four for a programme by poet Paul Farley on Herman Melville and his relationship with England and with Liverpool in particular. Melville came to England three times: as a cabin boy in 1839, as an established, and quite famous writer in 1849, and as a writer facing “annihilation” in 1856. We talked by the side of a breezy, chilly Albert Dock. I’ve done several radio and TV interviews over the years and even though we cowered in an alcove by the entrance to the public toilets, this was, from my point of view at least, the most enjoyable and relaxed. The programme, Herman Melville’s Sea Change, is very atmospheric and thought-provoking. If you are in the UK can be heard at this link until early March.
This is a fascinating talk about Melville’s novel in which Philip Hoare touches on his own interest in the book, on perceptions and representations of the whale, and how he came to be so connected with whales.
I have many reasons to be thankful and among them last weekend was that the storms and flooding that hit Cumbria on Saturday December 5th did no more than inconvenience my family and me. It’s true, we lost our car, which was already stranded and beyond saving in the early hours of Saturday morning, before “Desmond” actually arrived. The River Rothay finally swept it away up the road just after dark on Saturday evening. But the insurance has already covered that and, well, it was just a car, and not a particularly special one.
Compared with the people of Carlisle, Cockermouth, and many other places, we got off very lightly indeed. Rather unexpectedly we had heat, light and broadband throughout the weekend. Besides a slight worry that the floodwaters would eventually reach our elevated front door, and the frustration of being marooned, all we had to think about was just how extraordinary the rain was, and how awesome, in the proper sense of the word, nature can be. My memory of that Saturday is of darkness, and relentless rain. The air became mostly water. It is also full of the noise the river made as it barrelled down the valley, carrying with it large branches and the root balls of gigantic felled trees. There were few opportunities to take photographs–being outside was just too unpleasant and it was far too dark anyway–so these pictures were taken before the worst of the flood hit.
That roaring sound was everywhere, all the time. It is no great revelation, but true nonetheless, that the world we make for ourselves–the comfortable, carpeted, indoor world–is a lot more precarious than it seems.
Tourism is a major part of the economy in this beautiful part of the world, but there are businesses of all kinds, from art galleries, gift shops, and shops selling outdoor gear, to cafes, breweries, and of course farming. They are suffering: please use them. Visit if you can: don’t cancel that hotel booking if the hotel is still open. If you can’t visit, why not buy some of your Christmas presents from Cumbrian businesses online?
If you can spare some cash, please also give to the flood appeal.
It is almost a month now since I attended the European Beer Bloggers’ and Writers’ Conference (EBBC) in Brussels and a blog post about it is long overdue. EBBC15 is the fourth conference of its type that I’ve attended (there have been five altogether) and the first to take place in continental Europe. The opportunity to learn about Belgian beer was irresistible.
Probably the best thing about these conferences is the opportunity to try a lot of different beers from a single geographic location, and of course to discuss them with knowledgeable, enthusiastic people. That’s probably why most of my photographs from the weekend are of people talking in bars, and people pouring beer. The few seconds it takes to pour beer into a glass are are always filled with joyful anticipation, so watching people doing it with skill and evident pride in what they are pouring is a great pleasure.
For the Belgian Family Brewers this was an opportunity to tell the world about their new cooperative venture, bringing together 22 longstanding brewing families to promote their beer and to show us “the rich diversity in our beer scenery.” As recent convert to Belgian beer, being able to taste many different beers close together, and to hear about them from the people who make them, was a great learning experience.
Of course the beer itself is what we were there for and throughout the weekend we were treated to the full range of what Belgium has to offer, from the fruitiest Kriek to the sourest Lambic. De Brabandere Browerij, producers of Petrus even showed us how they are reinventing the Belgian tradition of blending by suggesting drinkers do it themselves. All conference organisers should consider doing something similar to this. I’m looking forward to these blending packs appearing in the UK.
For me though, the highlight of the trip was the excursion to the Lambic breweries. Even though we had to cut it short to catch the train to the airport, the visits to Drie Fontainen and Boon breweries were an education and a privilege. Thanks to everyone who made the conference so enjoyable; it was great meeting old beer friends again, and making new ones. Reuben Grey at Tale of Ale has a great roundup. Here’s to next year.