Last month, Tony McEnery and I completed a study which looked at changes in the representation of slavery in a prominent provincial newspaper, the Liverpool Mercury, throughout the nineteenth century. This will appear in the book Time in Languages, Languages in Time (Čermáková et al, forthcoming) which brings together a collection of articles reflecting on language and time: how language changes over time and how time is perceived across various languages. In this blog post we give a sense of the main findings of our work.
Using Usage Fluctuation Analysis (UFA, McEnery, Baker and Brezina, 2019) we searched almost two billion words of newspaper articles from the Liverpool Mercury to see how words linked to slavery changed their usage in the nineteenth century. While the chapter we wrote covers much in the way of method, in this brief blog post we want to focus on one aspect of our work by showing, through the lens of the Mercury, how nineteenth-century Liverpudlians felt about the traffic of enslaved Africans, their city’s association with the slave trade and how these feelings changed over time, if at all.
Our study has proven to be topical. A few days ago, it was reported in the press that the University of Liverpool had made the decision to rename a halls of residence known as Gladstone Hall. The former British Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, had strong family links to the transatlantic slave trade and early in his career made a speech against its abolition. His father, John, owned a number of sugar and coffee plantations in Demerara (now part of Guyana) and Jamaica. Like other men who profited from the slave trade, John Gladstone matched his economic success with political clout – he served as a Tory member of parliament for three different constituencies and he partly owned the newspaper Liverpool Courier.
The city of Liverpool, where the Gladstone family lived, was one of Britain’s principal trading ports, sitting at the corner of the so-called ‘golden triangle’ which drove the transatlantic slave trade. Vessels from Liverpool are estimated to have carried 40 per cent of the entire Atlantic slave trade and controlled up to 60 per cent of the British trade (Sherwood and Sherwood, 2007: 26) and the historian Brian Howman (2007: 277) has explained that, by the end of the eighteenth century, the livings of most Liverpudlians were bound up with the slave trade. Importantly, through the trade in cotton and manufactured goods with the United States, Liverpool retained strong economic links to a slave-owning economy for most of the nineteenth century. So, while emancipation of slaves occurred in the early part of the century throughout the British Empire, Liverpool retained a strong economic interest in slavery.
UFA helped us to make sense of a large volume of data by showing the changing usage of words like slave, slaves and slavery over the course of the century. Based on that, we were then able to downsample and explore the corpus, using techniques such as collocation analysis and close reading, to see how the discussion of slavery varied over time. What the UFA, and our follow up analysis, shows in the Mercury are three broad phases of discussion – the early part of the century is dominated by debates relating to abolition in the British Empire, which we will not discuss here. Instead, in this short blog post we will focus on the second phase of the debate, when it widened as a desire to end the slave trade beyond Britain increased. We will also note the third and final phase of the discussion, in which slavery slipped into historic memory. Let us begin with an exploration of phase two, which we call ‘a widening debate’.
A widening debate – doing more to oppose slavery
In the second phase of discussion the Liverpool Mercury did not shy away from discussing the slave trade. Within its pages, Liverpool’s past involvement in the traffic of enslaved black Africans was acknowledged and journalists conveyed a determination that any further participation must not be tolerated. The newspaper gave the impression that the vast majority of the inhabitants of the city were united against slavery. Indeed, when William Gladstone received the freedom of the city in December 1892, the Mercury reported an older, more liberal, Gladstone as saying that “we all look back with shame and sorrow” on the traffic of Africans.
However, there were also suggestions that Liverpool should be active, or more active, in opposing the slave trade. On 3 November, 1868, the newspaper carried a speech by the Bishop of Oxford who declared that Liverpool’s strong connection with the slave trade meant that the city must “be connected with the act of undoing it”. Occasional reports berated Liverpool for not speaking out to a greater extent. For instance, a letter published on 12 October, 1875 condemned the city for not protesting against the Slave Circulars – contentious instructions to ships captains that fugitive slaves should be returned to their former masters:
While other towns are protesting against the atrocities and illegal actions of the Tory Government, how is it that Liverpool is silent?
The newspaper also acknowledged that Liverpool was struggling to throw off its associations with the slave trade entirely. An article of 4 June 1862, for instance, condemned American slave traders who had established themselves in Liverpool. The slave ship, Nightingale, was reported to have been fitted out in the city. The reporter asserted that the people of Liverpool “are interested in discovering and bringing to justice ruffians who attempt to turn a British port into a slave-trading station”.
A widening debate – the geographic dimension
As the debate shifted from abolition in the British Empire, reports in the Liverpool Mercury revealed how Britain struggled to persuade other countries, particularly other empires, to agree to abolition. Articles detailed an array of diplomatic overtures – draft treaties, international assemblies, and outright bribes – designed to achieve this which were often unsuccessful. In the earlier part of the second phase of discussion, reluctance by France, Portugal and Spain to agree to abolition tended to be highlighted. Later the focus shifted to Cuba and Brazil, colonies of Spain and Portugal respectively. For instance, on 23 September, 1853 an article stated:
The commercial advices from Cuba state that the question of the slave trade continues to give constant trouble to the official representatives of the British government in that island. Open violations of treaty are almost of weekly occurrence, and, under the active connivance of the Spanish authorities, the traffic is obviously increasing.
In later part of the widening debate phase, countries such as Egypt and Turkey were cast into the spotlight with drafts of treaties with both countries being reported, while a number of articles referred to an alliance with the Sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin Said, aimed at curtailing the slave trade .
A widening debate – anti-slavery opinion
Many articles about the slave trade in the Liverpool Mercury throughout the second phase we identified were pessimistic in tone. The newspaper frequently reported that slavery was actually growing in strength in the nineteenth century.
Just as we care about the origins of our food, people in the nineteenth century expressed alarm over the origins of one of the most important products produced by slaves – sugar. Some abolitionists pushed Britons to abstain from the consumption of slave-grown sugar and the Liverpool Mercury carried a number of articles about the consequences of removing high protective tariffs on imported sugar and molasses. In stark contrast to the present day, sugar was presented as both “wholesome and nutritious” (article of 7 April, 1843) and an item which poorer people should be able to afford.
Britain had prohibited the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807 but the Slavery Abolition Act, which abolished slavery itself in the British Empire, was not put in place until 1833. Articles in the Mercury suggest that the British public felt impatient with the process of emancipation. In May 1823, the newspaper wrote about public petitions by the inhabitants of Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle for the abolition of slavery. Indeed, the abolition campaign has been called the first popular movement and was characterised by mass meetings and petition campaigns (Thomas, 1998: 12 and Drescher, 1994). A letter of 28 March, 1823 to the editor of the Liverpool Mercury lamented the material condition of enslaved Africans in stark, emotive language:
We do not hear the groans of the slaves: we do not behold the uplifted arm of the insulting and brutalized driver: the smack of his whip does not resound in our ears… Our best feelings are not shocked by the sight of his lacerated body; nor are we horrified by exhibition of instances which have been attested to exist in the West Indies, of persons, in whose neglected wounds even maggots have bred. We do not witness the rupture of all ties of domestic relationship: we do not see the violation of all the tender charities of life; the child torn from its parents; and the wife carried away from her husband, to be subjected to the brutal lust of a tyrant.
Journalists also employed emotionally charged language in writing about the slave trade – words such as miseries, atrocities, inhumanity, injustice, abomination and victims were all very common. In the first decades of the century, newspaper articles described shocking incidents where slaves had been deliberately thrown from slave ships by crew members who wanted to avoid being detained with slaves on board. However, as the century progressed, expressions such as horror/s of the slave trade and evil/s of the slave trade had become stock phrases, employed by reporters in order to demonstrate, very quickly and conveniently, their repulsion at the notion of the enslavement of humans. These reporters did not go on to elucidate why the trade was horrible; there was simply no need – by that time, the British public overwhelmingly despised the slave trade and was well aware of the horrors it entailed.
The final phase – the slave trade passes into history
Towards the end of the century, the discourse in the Mercury enters a third phase made distinct by an increase in mentions of works of art and literature which referenced the slave trade. Articles mentioned busts of early abolitionists, Graville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson, books about the slave trade and implements of the slave trade, such as timber yokes and iron shackles, being put on display. The slave trade was passing into memory during this period – its early opponents were being honoured, it was being represented in art and literature, and objects used to enslave black Africans had been removed from ships and plantations and placed in museums.
News articles in the pages of the nineteenth-century Liverpool Mercury reveal a sense of shame and regret at the city’s involvement in the slave trade. Perhaps journalists working for the newspaper hoped their frequent condemnation of slavery might partially atone for their city’s former enthusiastic participation in it. Although there were some suggestions that a very small number of Liverpudlians had continued their associations with the slave trade, the newspaper gives us the impression that the vast majority of the city’s residents had turned away from it entirely and, moreover, regarded the traffic and ownership of human beings with utter revulsion. By the end of the century, the discussion of slavery is rooted firmly in the past.
Čermáková, A. , Egan, T., Hasselgård, H. & Rørvik, S. (Eds, forthcoming) Time in Languages, Language in Time. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Drescher, S. (1994), ‘Whose abolition? Popular pressure and the ending of the British slave trade’, Past and Present, 143, pp.136-166.
Howman, B. (2007), ‘Abolitionism in Liverpool’, in Richardson, D., Schwarz, S. and Tibbles, A. (eds.), Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, pp.277-296.
McEnery, T., Brezina, V. and Baker, H. (2019) ‘Usage fluctuation analysis: a new way of analysing shifts in historical discourse’, International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, 24 (4), pp 413-444.
Sherwood, M. and Sherwood, K. (2007), Britain, the Slave Trade and Slavery, from 1562 to the 1880s. Kent: Savannah Press.
Thomas, H. (1998), The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870. London: Papermac.