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.
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.
Back in 2006 when I first met Sudarghara and Ajmail Dusanj at the Robert Cain brewery in Liverpool they expressed admiration for the Samuel Adams brewery in Boston, Mass., in particular for the way that small operation had managed to become internationally recognised. Then in March this year, after a tumultuous twelve months, they announced they were making a bid to become an exporter. And now comes the news that Cains is attending the National Beer Wholesalers’ Association convention in Las Vegas, with the aim of exporting Cains Export Lager to the United States. I hope they also take along a few copies of my book.
Tom Waits. A great song. Photography by Walker Evans, among others. Perfect.
There is a great story over at Wired about the whaling ship Essex, which in 1820 was rammed and sunk by a Sperm Whale somewhere in the Pacific. This is the story that partly inspired Melville to write Moby Dick a book everyone should read at least once. Melville of course was a seaman on several whale ships and stories like this would have circulated among his fellow crewmembers. One of the best things about Moby Dick is the way Melville blends the mechanics and science of whaling and whales with their mythic power. The real story of the Essex is fantastical in itself, but Melville’s novel turns the whale into a force beyond nature. From the article:
The ship’s three remaining whaleboats — one had been destroyed by a whale’s flukes during an earlier hunt — were dispatched for the kill. As the harpooning began, First Mate Owen Chase, commanding one of the whaleboats, looked back and saw a large sperm whale, which he estimated at 85 feet, approaching the Essex.
As he watched helplessly, the whale propelled itself into the ship with great force. Some crewmen on board were knocked off their feet by the collision, and Chase watched in disbelief as the whale drew back and rammed the ship again. This time the Essex was holed below the waterline, and doomed.
The crew organized what provisions they could and two days later abandoned ship aboard the three whaleboats. Twenty men left the Essex. Eight would ultimately survive the harrowing ordeal that played out over the next three months.
Here’s the link to the story, which comes with an excellent slideshow entitled ‘The Creatures That Ate Hollywood’.
Here’s my take on Melville’s novel.
I received in the post this morning a copy of issue 32 of The Reader magazine. It’s always been good, but The Reader is going through a really great period at the moment. Not only is it attracting some big names–Andrew Motion, Adam Phillips, Marilynne Robinson and Ian McMillan in this issue for instance–but has work by lesser-known writers as well as reviews and recommendations. Its poetry selections are especially good.
The range of the magazine these days is also impressively wide. Angie Macmillan, one of the magazine’s founders, included a note with my copy saying “I love working on a mag that can accommodate Milton and Dashiell Hammett.” Amen to that. The Hammett, incidentally, comes in the form of an article by me on the Flitcraft Parable, and a piece by Fred Zackel on the writing of The Maltese Falcon; it’s been a pleasure working with Fred on this. I’ll be posting my Hammett article here soon. My Hammett article is right here.
Several years ago now I wrote an article about American architect Jeh Vincent Johnson for a reference publication called Contemporary Black Biography. With so much being written about Barak Obama’s achievement in becoming President only forty or so years since segregation I’ve been thinking about this remarkable and generous man, who was kind enough to grant me an interview to support the piece. The United States has come a long way in terms of its racial politics but it has been as much to do with high-achieving black educators, architects, lawyers and other professionals as it has the revolutionaries and speech makers. It is worth remembering that the drive for equal rights in the United States goes back much further than the well-known events of the 1960s and that the door to high achievement has been grinding open for a century or more. It has been a long road indeed.
Jeh Vincent Johnson was born in 1931 and was educated at Columbia College and then, after winning a scholarship, at Columbia University. His father was Charles Spurgeon Johnson, a sociologist, born in 1893, who developed the Social Science Institute of Fisk University into a major centre for the study of race relations. Charles S. Johnson served with the League of Nations (which became the UN) and was the first black President of Fisk; he was inaugurated as such in 1947. His son, Jeh Vincent Johnson had a similarly meteoric rise. Having set up in private practice in 1959 to specialise in designing social housing, he was a member, in the late 1960s, of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Commission on Urban Problems, known as The Douglas Commission.
Jeh Johnson’s time as a part of the Douglas Commission put him at the centre of America’s efforts to tackle poverty and discrimination. He told me that government agencies were strongly distrusted by people living in the tough neighbourhoods they visited and that members of the Commission were sometimes attacked or threatened, though they rarely accepted the offer of a police escort. As I wrote in my piece: “Johnson noted [that] the work of the commission was received without fanfare, but most of its recommendations for ways of rationalizing taxation, construction processes, and alleviating segregation have since been adopted.”
Johnson spent many years teaching at Vassar College, where he was a dedicated advocate of equality in architecture, encouraging women and minority students to enter the profession. He was later a founder of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) and while few people outside of American architectural circles will have heard of him his influence on architecture as a profession, and on urban design in particular, is significant.
The third generation of the family is represented by Jeh Charles Johnson, son of Jeh Vincent Johnson, born in 1957. He served in the Clinton administration as General Counsel of the Department of the Air Force and was a foreign policy adviser and fundraiser for Barak Obama’s campaign. He will no doubt have influence in the new administration. News reports around the Obama campaign focused naturally on the more visible aspects of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, but the revolution has also taken place in quieter ways, in the hard work and achievement of several generations of families like this one, and in the encouragement and assistance they received to, as Jeh V. Johnson himself put it, “reach beyond their expectations.”
Here’s the link to my piece on Jeh Vincent Johnson again.
I could not be more pleased with the way this has worked out. What a huge sense of relief and what a pleasure to see so many people voting.
So Congratulations America for daring to choose optimism and hope over cynicism and bitterness. Truly inspiring.