Towns / Cities Visited: 109
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 14,665
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,969,353
Our day began bright and early, as was so often the case. With the car packed for our next adventure we turned from it and headed for the train station. Like in many cities across the globe, the price of parking quite often outweighs its convenience, especially when public transport is relatively cheap and accessible. As such, before we moved on to our next temporary home, we were to head into Liverpool to explore, while our car sat outside of our Airbnb and awaited our return. As we arrived at the station though, we were met with something we had managed to avoid since Copenhagen; train cancelations due to track works. Luckily a friendly employee was on hand to give us directions to the nearest bus stop, and with very little ado we were soon stepping off to begin out exploration for the day.
As we walked towards this centuries old city, we took a moment to admire our first destination for the day, Liverpool Cathedral. The first thing that strikes you about this beauty, aside from its towering heights, is the fact that, unlike most of the churches we had encountered across the country, this one is built entirely out of red bricks. This hulking ochre giant somehow manages to look equal parts homely and intimidatingly gothic simultaneously. After admiring its external beauty, we were disappointed to find that we would not be able to marvel at its interior due to the Sunday service currently in progress. There was nothing for it though, and thus onwards we continued.
A short walk further into town found us stumbling upon another church we hadn’t even known existed; St Luke’s. Now the red bricks of the cathedral were certainly striking, but they had nothing on the haunting silhouette provided by the remains of this structure, aptly known to locals as the ‘Bombed Out Church’. Despite being on the other side of the country from mainland Europe, Liverpool was not spared from the ravages of the German Blitz during World War Two, and this little slice of history sits as a constant reminder of the indelible mark the war had on this land. Although its walls and tower remain, it sits silently, roofless and gutted, plants peaking out from within, proving that life can survive even ruin such as this. Outside its walls, in its carefully tended memorial garden, sits a moving statue depicting a British and a German soldier shaking hands over a football during the temporary truce which took place during World War One around Christmas 1914. There is something so humanising about its figures, perfectly juxtaposed to the starkly damaged structure that forms its backdrop. It faultlessly reminds us that behind the weapons and the armour stood men who still had love and compassion at their core; that although we are flawed as a society, we are not without hope.
We continued on from here, making our way into the heart of the city, and admiring some of its stunning old architecture on our travels, including the Romanesque pillared beauty of St George’s hall. Much like the cathedral we were not able to enter as it was in use, however we did take a moment to admire the two massive bronze statues of Queen Victoria and her husband Albert, both sat atop gallant steeds. Between them also sits a huge bronze relief; a memorial of those who fell during the Great War. This courtyard is steeped in the sepia tones of history both figuratively and literally.
With the time ticking away, we hurried off towards our main destination for the day, and we soon found ourselves at the docks. Although this used to be one of the busiest ports in all of the country, it has since undergone renovations, and now sits as a revitalised public space. Reminders of its past are still posted proudly around though, including the signage for the Great Western Railway, of which we had previously learnt so much about at the SS Great Britain in Bristol. Passing the many food vans and buskers, we finally reached the location for the afternoon’s free education; the Merseyside Maritime Museum. Now, I know it sounds like its all going to be boats and buoyancy, but we were actually here to visit the special museum located on the third floor of the building; the International Slavery Museum. A rather dark and morbid topic I know, but what better place to learn of these atrocities than in the home port through which a huge number of transatlantic slave traders had their ships fitted and repaired, and from which 5300 voyages departed to feed the demand for free labour.
First and foremost it is important to mention that this museum is not all doom and gloom. In fact, it is focused greatly on the resilience and bravery of those unfortunate men and women who had their freedom stolen from them under the false, and quite frankly abominable, idea that they were worth less simply because of the colour of their skin. The museum begins with the moving words of the former slave, William Prescott, who stated “They will remember that we were sold, but not that we were strong. They will remember that we were bought, but not that we were brave”. For me this really pulled at my heart, as it shows so clearly the loss of identity that those stolen from their homeland felt, while at the same time highlighting the way that not just the racists of the past, but the racists of today, often see those of difference colour and creed as objects more so than people.
The space itself is separated into three sections, the first of which looks at African history and culture, displaying many traditional artefacts, from clothing and jewellery, to musical instruments and stone tools, all the way to masks and carved effigies. This part of the museum does an amazing job of calling attention to the fact that this ancient land, the cradle from which our civilisation emerged, was and is articulate, skilled, and cultured in its own way, albeit differently from European standards of the time. Those who traded its people saw them as primitive and less evolved, but even a rudimentary look at these artefacts shows just how rich the history of Africa and its tribes was, and continues to be.
As we moved to the next section we passed a series of screens playing short interviews with a number of different people. One showed a woman speaking of her deep sense of shame knowing that her ancestors were plantation owners who purchased quite a number of slaves to service their land. Another showed a film of a black man speaking about the way modern racism continues to oppress those of African decent, especially in the United States despite slavery now being illegal. Yet another shows an immigrant worker talking about how she was the victim of modern slavery when she worked as a housekeeper for a family who essentially held her hostage by taking possession of her passport and papers, and then proceeded to treat her horribly, and withhold payment from her. It was confronting to see that despite all of our laws against it, slavery and slave labour is still a very real problem in the world today, it simply wears different guises.
The second part of the museum looks at the Transatlantic slave trade itself. From the people who captured and sold them, most of whom were, surprisingly, other Africans who kidnapped people and transported them to African ports; to the white European buyers who purchased them, forced them into entirely inhumane conditions on their ships, and trafficked them to the US to be traded to plantation owners. They were bought and sold like cattle, nameless numbers on tally cards, but we must not forget that although we call them slaves, they were so much more than that; they were farmers, merchants, smiths, priests, soldiers, and everyone else in between; they were fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters. The first half of this section puts forth a number of displays including many sets of shackles and restraints; a selection of the precious items stolen to be sold as curiosities, including carved ivory tusks, and ceremonial headwear; a branding iron to scar those purchased as though they were livestock, and even a model ship which shows just how cramped the conditions were, which left little room to be confused as to why so many died on the journey across the seas. From here you are shown a short reenactment which portrays the horrendous conditions and treatment these shackled hostages endured. As painful as it was to watch, its hard not to admire the fortitude of those who lived through such horrors.
The second half of this section looks at life on the plantations in the US, and the abhorrent abuses both the men and women were subjected to in order for the white population to have cheaper coffee, cotton, tobacco, and countless other products. From lashings, to sexual assault, to straight up murder should they try and escape, its hard to even fathom such events from the comfort of my comparatively charmed life. They have a huge model of a typical plantation in the south, and a plethora of information about the wrongs done to the slaves who made their owners so very wealthy. There is also a number of videos of actresses reading the memoirs of some of the slave women. These included a mother who had her daughter torn away from her and sold, because all of the children born into slavery, were themselves considered the property of the slave master, hence fertile female slaves were a hot commodity. It was a heart wrenching scene to say the very least. On a heartwarming note though, there is a monologue of a woman who speaks about the fact that the slaves all did their best to keep what few traditions from their homeland that they could, and practiced them in secret. There was something inspiring about the fact that although these people were ripped from their homes, and stripped of their names, that their memory was entirely theirs, and could never we stolen.
The third and final section of the museum looks at the lasting effects of the slave trade since its abolition more than 150 years ago. Its easy enough to recognise the racism that freed slaves and their descendants faced over the years, and continue to face, within the US, from lynchings and segregations, to restrictions in education and overrepresentation in the circles of homelessness, unemployment, and police brutality. We have all seen the way black people were represented in media and popular culture of the not so distant past, from golliwogs and blackface, to racist Pears soap ads; hell I’m not even 30 and I was given a golliwog as a child. The uniform of the KKK is all too familiar to the majority of us, but on a more pleasant note, so are the faces of those great men and women who stood up against their oppressors, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Despite these obvious examples, the effects of slavery go so much deeper than that. We often overlook the devastating damage the slave trade inflicted on Africa. For hundreds of years the continent’s population was decimated, especially of men in the 15–30 year old age bracket, and due to this, the entire continent suffered hugely both economically and technologically. We see most of Africa as third world, but how many of us of Anglo-Saxon heritage actually stopped to consider the fact that it is the fault of our ancestors. Even after slavery was abolished we did nothing to help the nations of Africa to recover from the damaged we dealt, instead Britain, and a number of other European nations, simply divided up large portions of the land, colonising and ruling them with little regard for the people the land actually belonged to. It is a prosperous place and we bled it dry and left its people for dead; we forced them to fall behind and stay behind, while we grew wealthier and healthier.
Against all odds though, there have been a huge number of noteworthy and highly achieving black citizens who have beaten the odds in our whitewashed society, and many of them are also shown here; from entertainers and sportspeople, to politicians, scientists, and even astronauts. It gave me a great sense of hope to see that when it would have been easy to give up, these people stepped forth and showed the world that, regardless of whether everyone believes so or not, they are worthy and strong, they are powerful, and most importantly, despite the cruelties dealt to them they continue to be kind and compassionate in spite of all of this.
With a huge mix of emotions swelling in my chest, we took our leave from this most enlightening of educational experiences, and headed downstairs. Before we left the building though, there was one last exhibition we wished to duck into; the Titanic. Despite never docking here, the ill fated ship has a special connection to Liverpool, as this town was home to White Star Line, the company who owned it. Although there was little here that we had not already seen or learnt at the Titanic Museum in Belfast, there was a number of articles recovered from the shipwreck, along with one rather confronting display that we had not yet been presented with; the list of names of all of those aboard, colour coded to show those who survived, and those who were not so lucky. It was saddening, and angering, to see just how few third class passengers lived when compared to those in first class; but even more infuriating to see how few men survived regardless of class. This, coupled with the audio system playing readings of the last messages sent from the sinking ship, meant we left even more shattered than we had walked in.
With our sightseeing done for the day, and our stomachs rumbling, we took a rather introspective wander around the docks to try and find some sustenance before our drive to our next destination. With it being mid afternoon and a Sunday, the options were slim, but we eventually settled, rather strangely, on a Mexican restaurant. Despite being half a world away from both Mexico and Australia, it made us ever so homesick for one of our favourite Mexican restaurants in Melbourne. With our emotions comforted somewhat with the soothing taste of home, we made our way back onto the bus, and into the car for the three hour drive to Banbury, which would be our temporary home for a few nights as we visited the fascinating destinations around it.
After a quick home cooked meal, and a little relaxing, we were soon tucking ourselves into bed. As I reviewed our day, my mind was unsurprisingly caught up once more in thoughts of slavery. Today had been a barrage of painful truths and hard to swallow bites of history, but then again travelling shouldn’t be all fun times and good food, it is supposed to challenge you, and to change you, and it has and continues to in so many ways. My pondering found me stuck on the reality that slavery is not just a part of our history, it is still rife in our world here and now. Much of it we turn away from, we block it out, we sweep it under the rug, and bury it under other thoughts so that it doesn’t eat at our conscience. We buy the cheap clothes and pretend that there isn’t factories full of women and children in far off lands working for a pittance, and we soothe ourselves with the lie that because they are getting paid something that they technically aren’t slaves. We see stories of young women being trafficked to fulfil the sexual urges of depraved men and bury the thought of it under the feel good news stories about cute kittens. We justify the exploitation and abuse of illegal immigrant workers by assuring ourselves that because they aren’t in our country legally that they do not deserve basic human rights and fair treatment, despite the fact that entire industries would be severely damaged, or destroyed completely should that labour force actually ‘go back where they came from’.
Slavery has many disguises in the modern age, in fact I work in an industry where it is literally written into our contracts. Two simple words which conceal the true nature of their purpose; ‘reasonable overtime’. Chefs the world over are signed into agreements that pay them for a certain number of hours, plus reasonable overtime. Now I don’t know about you, but I fail to see how employers expecting people to work any amount to hours for free doesn’t equal slavery. Besides, what constitutes reasonable anyway. For some its just an hour or two here or there in the busy periods, a simple eventuality most of us just take on the chin because we have a passion for our work; but for others its 5–10+ hours every single week. There are chefs being given pay slips that say 38 hours on paper, when their rosters have them working 60. So for those of you who work the 9–5, who sit in restaurants and think less of those who cook your food, let me ask you, if your boss made you work 22 hours a week for free, would you be as outraged about it as you seem to be that the chef accidentally cooked your steak medium instead of rare? For those of you who think that slavery lives only in the annals of time gone by, I beseech you to open your eyes; just because we’re not shackled doesn’t mean we’re free.