Slave Trading in Liverpool as Late as 1825?

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.


Continuing Education Courses 2014-2015

Continuing Education 6

The new academic year is beginning, and that means a new set of Continuing Education courses is beginning at the University of Liverpool. Quite a few courses are brought together under “themes” this year. We’ve linked up with the Liverpool Gothic Festival to offer a series of courses called Other Worlds: Gothic and the Supernatural, there’s a series on The Grand Tour (I’m giving a talk on Arthur Conan Doyle’s journey to the Arctic on November 13th) and on Liverpool: Ideas and Culture.

Registration has already opened, but I wanted to highlight a few of the literature courses coming up soon. From October 1st Dr. Katharine Easterby is running a 10 week course on Burning Books and Dr. Diana Powell has one on Jail Birds, covering prisoners in literature in the early nineteenth century. From October 2nd there is a course on Reading Kate Atkinson, with Dr. Shirley Jones, and Read the Shortlist, covering the 2014 Man Booker Prize shortlist, with Dr. Hana Leaper. Booking information is here.

New this year to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day on October 14th at the Victoria Gallery and Museum, is a collaboration between History and English. This includes lectures on women in science by Dr. Claire Jones and on Lovelace’s father, the poet Lord Byron, by Dr. James Bainbridge, as well as lunch, and a visit to the special exhibition The World in a Particle. To book a place on Ada Lovelace Day, go here.

Full details of these and many more courses and events can be found on the University of Liverpool Continuing Education website.

From Liverpool’s Greenland Street to Greenland’s Liverpool Coast: William Scoresby, Whaling, and Exploration

On April 17th this year I gave a public lecture based on my research on William Scoresby Jr, Liverpool, whaling and exploration at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool. This was the first in a series of public talks exploring whaling and Liverpool as part of the Moby Dick on the Mersey festival. The video below is a recording I made while I was speaking combined with the slides from my talk. I’ve also included links below to the audio on its own.

If you want to listen to the talk without the slideshow, the mp3 is downloadable from here, or you can use the audio player below.

This public lecture series was organised as part of the Moby Dick on the Mersey festival by Claire Jones of the Department of Continuing Education, University of Liverpool.

Arctic Whaling in Liverpool

I aim to write something about the extraordinary weekend I’ve just had, helping to organise and taking part in Moby Dick on the Mersey, and about all the wonderful people who turned up and read. But before that, here’s a piece I wrote for the BBC website which came out while we were busy reading Moby-Dick. It’s about the brief, but quite significant role Liverpool played in Arctic whaling in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries:

Arctic whaling in Liverpool

Lunchtime Literature Lectures in Liverpool 2010-2011

If you live or work in Liverpool and feel like spending your lunchtime doing something interesting, you could do worse than attend these lunchtime lectures at the University of Liverpool. They are organised (by me) through the Centre for Lifelong Learning, and cover a great range of topics, from Shakespeare, to crime fiction, and contemporary poetry. All the lectures are delivered at 126 Mount Pleasant, Liverpool, opposite the Catholic Cathedral. They all start at 12.30 and are around 50 minutes long.

18 October, 2010: Nature and Rural Life in Contemporary Poetry. By Andy Jurgis.

Nature and rural life are again important themes in poetry following on from earlier poetic traditions. This lecture will include reference to major figures Seamus Heaney (Ireland) and Gillian Clarke (Wales) alongside key Scottish poets John Burnside and Kathleen Jamie. 15884 engl 942

19 January, 2011: Patrick O’Brian. By Mary Weston.

What can you do with Patrick O’Brian’s books but celebrate them? In this lunchtime lecture we’ll pull out some of the best passages from the series: Naval battles, natural history, espionage, love, and most of all friendship. 15885 engl 942

24 February, 2011: Environmental Writing Today:  Including Mark Cocker, Kathleen Jamie and Robert McFarlane. By Andy Jurgis.

There is a growing interest in developing the genre of environmental non-fiction. The lecture will include reference to the prose writings of poets Gillian Clarke and Kathleen Jamie, alongside the highly regarded nature writers Mark Cocker and Robert MacFarlane. 15886 engl 942

16 March, 2011: J.D. Salinger and the Catcher in the Rye. By Mary Weston.

Why do so many of us identify with Holden Caulfield? Are we all outsiders? Why do The Catcher in the Rye and the Glass family stories still speak to us, after half a century and more? 15887 engl 942

13 April, 2011: Shakespeare. By Esme Miskimmin. 15888 engl 942

4 May, 2011: Golden Age Crime Fiction. By Esme Miskimmin. 15889 engl 942

All lectures cost £8.

To book a place for any of these, or to see the range of courses on offer, visit

Continuing Education in the Centre for Lifelong Learning
University of Liverpool
126 Mount Pleasant, Liverpool L69 3GR
0151-794 6900
Office open 9.00 am-5.00 pm (you may leave a message at other times)
Enquiryline: 0151-794 6952 (24 hr answerphone)
Fax: 0151 794 2544

Clouds Gathering

So the summer is almost over and I thought it might be useful to put down, in public, what I’m planning to get done this autumn. I’ve never done this kind of thing before, so deep breath:

  • Finish off writing entries for the 100 American Crime Writers and 100 British Crime Writers books which I handed over to Steven Powell and Esme Miskimmin when I was at a low ebb late in 2009. Steve has put a lot of work into the Venetian Vase blog, and it’s becoming quite a nice thing.
  • Teaching–among other things–a course on the History of American Ideas (up to about 1865) at the University of Liverpool.
  • Overseeing English courses in Continuing Education at the University of Liverpool.
  • Once the crime fiction pieces are done I’m planning to get back to the Scoresby project, finish off my outline, and start writing. Very excited about this.
  • I’m also going to revisit my PhD thesis on Raymond Chandler. I think there’s a book in there somewhere, and dammit I aim to find it.
  • Put together some teaching materials in the form of a series of short non-fiction e-books. This is partly because I need to get the material together, and partly because I want a trial run to see how e-books work from a production point of view. I’m probably going to begin with a short annotated and introduced collection of Edgar Allan Poe Tales, to go with my Poe lecture. There will be Melville and Thoreau material coming along too, if all goes well.
  • Start working on a series of short pieces on researching and writing essays and articles, to go with a study skills/composition course.
  • And somewhere, somehow, I need to think about what happens when my contract at Liverpool ends in January. There will be some occasional teaching, but I’ll need more work. A return to freelancing? We’ll see.

No promises, but those are the plans. There are a lot of ‘starts’ there, so it will be interesting to see which ones work out.

Malcolm Lowry Centenary Events

Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano, was born in 1909 on the Wirral peninsula, just across the Mersey from Liverpool. To mark his centenary there are many events going on in Liverpool and around Merseyside over the next six months, including an exhibition and literature events celebrating his life and work running from 25 September to 22 November. In September Liverpool University Press is publishing Malcolm Lowry: From the Mersey to the World edited by Brian Biggs and Helen Tookey. From the blurb:

Malcolm Lowry described Liverpool as ‘that terrible city whose main street is the ocean’. Born on the Wirral side of the river Mersey, Lowry’s relationship to the Merseyside of his youth informs all of his writing and Liverpool itself continued to hold tremendous significance for him, even though he never returned.

The book includes writing by Gordon Bowker, Ailsa Cox,  Colin Dilnot, Annick Drösdal-Levillain, Michele Gemelos, Mark Goodall, Ian McMillan, Nicholas Murray, Cian Quayle, Alberto Rebollo, Robert Sheppard and Michael Turner.

And there’s more. Helen Tookey is also running a short course about Lowry and his work at the University of Liverpool in September and October. The course is open to everyone. Details will be available from the department of Continuing Education later in the summer.

For information about the book, visit the publisher’s page.

Information about Lowry events in Liverpool is available from The Bluecoat.

Liverpool Philosophy Safe for Now

People have been wondering about the outcome of the Senate meeting at Liverpool University on Wednesday, where a decision was to be made on a proposal to close down several departments, including Philosophy. Since then everything has gone quiet, but Stephen Clark, a lecturer in Philosophy at Liverpool has posted this in the comments on a philosophy blog:

Some comfort: the University’s Senate yesterday (11th March) persuaded the VIce Chancellor to remove the immediate threat of closure. The Department (and others) will be reviewed, and different solutions be suggested for its perceived ‘underperformance’. My thanks, and my colleagues’ thanks, for the efforts both of our students and of the philosophical community on our behalf. It has been most heartening. The fight isn’t over, but at least it is now actually a fight, rather than a rigged conclusion.

The Liverpool Daily Post has more:

As they arrived, some Senate members drew cheers as they raised their fists in salute of the protesters’ cause while those who failed to show their support were met with angry jeers.

Although the Senate voted 81 to 62 not to withdraw the plans, it voted to amend the proposals so that it “might” scrap the departments.

The original proposal stated that the institution “should” move to close them.

Dr Fionnghuala Sweeney, vice-president of the lecturers’ union the UCU, said: “We welcome the stay of execution, but are disappointed the vice-chancellor refused to put our motion outright rejecting the proposals to the Senate.

“It will be up to the members here at Liverpool University to decide our next steps, but the university can rest assured that industrial action remains an option.

“It was quite clear that the staff and students are united in fighting the closures.”

This is good news, up to a point. But it’s also encouraging that Sir Howard Newby’s plans are not going to be implemented without strong resistance. More on the story from the lecturers’ union.

Facebook, Public Protest and the Open Web

Liverpool University, where I currently do a couple of hours’ teaching each week, is going through a ‘restructuring’ process. This appears to involve closing down any departments the Vice Chancellor Sir Howard “Jobs for the Boys Wife” Newby doesn’t like the look of. We know what’s coming, because he tried it before. Michael Carr, former Registrar at Liverpool said this when interviewed by The Guardian in 2007, on the subject of Newby’s appointment:

“I can’t imagine he would think he could apply what he did at UWE to another institution anyway.”

I hope those words taste good. The Senate votes on proposals today and given the historic antipathy of the British professoriat to anything that might be seen as making trouble, the likelihood is that the turkeys will vote for Christmas. I hope they prove me wrong.

An interesting side issue in this though is related to the way the students have reacted. Feelings are running high and a protest is planned outside the Senate meeting. The way they have organised the protest is, inevitably, through Facebook. Unfortunately, while many students use Facebook, many of their tutors avoid it for the very reason that their students use it. There are already lots of ways students can contact tutors out of hours–email from students is a frequent intrusion on my family weekends, though it generally goes ignored until Monday–and Facebook looks like just another way to remove the boundary between work and private life. This forum thread at the American Chronicle of Higher Education (hat tip to The Rumpus for the link) shows what a vexed issue this. Many avoid the issue by avoiding Facebook.

What this means for the current protest of course is that many of the people the students might like to know about their activities simply can’t get access to the site. Facebook’s walled garden prevents anyone without an account from looking in. I take two things away from this. That the current generation of students use Facebook as a matter of course and don’t imagine that anyone might not. And secondly, that Facebook has an extremely firm grip on the browsing habits of millions of well-educated, soon to be affluent web users. Once the distinction between open web and Facebook is gone–and it looks like it has for these students–the web as a free and open environment is at risk. As some of the commenters in the Chronicle thread note, joining Facebook eventually becomes unavoidable.

I have asked the protest group to post the information openly online and have offered to do so for them. I’ll link to it from here if that happens. In the meantime, here’s the Facebook page, which I haven’t seen.