Along Liverpool’s super-clean dock, it is easy to soak up the sun and people-watch, as I did, without a thought to the fact that slave ships once docked there; but follow the signs and venture into the former Dock Traffic Office building and you will never be the same.
Liverpool made my places to visit list because it wasn’t London, and because in the former Dock Traffic Office, it houses the International Slavery Museum (ISM); Nevertheless, on the designated tour day, a childish inner voice convinced me I need not allot much time to it.
That voice was wrong. Listening to it meant that my time at the museum was shorter than I would have liked, especially after lounging in a small street-side cafe for hours, drinking chocolatey hot chocolate with marshmallows and whipped cream, and eventually playacting with three curious young men who had some sort of lipstick fetish.
“Memories are in the making,” that childish voice said, and I agreed, sure I would regret following too strict a schedule. After all, vacation shouldn’t feel like the regular grind where you run from appointment to appointment, never enjoying the acts of chance, so I ate my almond croissant and fruits, and promoted in my mind the nagging idea that the museum might be boring. At the same time, large cafe windows helped me follow with my eyes the three clowns carrying out what I figured to be a bachelor party lark. I was their willing audience and they made me laugh. But I had walked around the shopping mall and the nearby neighbourhood for a while, too, even lounging and soaking up the sun along the dock, before ambling into the museum, where I spent nearly two hours. That would suffice for most, but for me, feeling a cultural connection and going at a leisurely pace, a three-hour visit might have been more satisfying.
Whether you have a long time or a little, however, the climb up to the third floor of Liverpool’s Maritime Museum building, is worth it, even as the maritime exhibits and the historic building’s exposed brick distract you along the way. Ultimately, the ISM will stimulate discussion beyond historical slavery. More than once strangers viewing the same exhibit turned to me to discuss the material they found most stirring.
For one thing, slavery exists today. And although books and movies have dealt with historical slavery, often showing slaves in metal chains, more modern slavery also needs to be addressed. The ISM would have you consider, for example, nannies who work abroad and are whipped and detained on their employers’ premises, but never paid — Is this slavery? Does classism, ignorance, secrecy, and fear of the topic influence it?
Venture deeper into the museum’s offerings and you will find various multimedia presentations and more traditional exhibits. African homes, for example, have been re-created with an eye for art as well as history, while carvings and archaeological finds, though not extensive, are all provided with research explaining their significance.
My visit to the ISM taught me the historical background of food such as okra (which I’ve heard some Jamaicans call, okro) and is called gumbo by those in Louisiana. So not just the stew or soup, but the seed pod itself is called gumbo. West Africans brought this vegetable to the lands where they were enslaved, be that America, or Caribbean islands such as Jamaica.
That these edible green seed pods, according to the ISM, point culturally to Nigeria (which I understand is elsewhere disputed) made sense to me. So, instantly there was new respect for something that, as a child and into young adulthood, I had rejected as slimy and disgusting, whether fried with mackerel or not.
Another food item: Ackee — half of the Jamaican national dish, ackee and salt fish — also originates in West Africa. Slaves brought the potentially poisonous yellow fruit with shinny black seed to the island.
The farming of yams and other provisions is shown to be a continuation of the West-African agricultural tradition.
Fried plantain was notable now, not just for being a thick, delicious and sweet banana, but because, along with those already mentioned, it has long been part of the West-African diet.
With all this in mind, and on the brink of understanding, I earnestly tried to synthesize new information with old. Then, as I left the building, it struck me: Slaves maintained their culture in fragments, instinctively fusing it with all that they encountered in their new homelands till, today, few probably understand how connected they remain to the African continent.
These connections, not just data, but these tangible ways in which culture perseveres, moved me immensely, and as I left the building I had to distract myself from tears. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of gratitude and responsibility, realizing I owe so much to so many whom I will never meet, or be able to thank.
But because of my visit to the ISM, I understand that immeasurable thanks are in order still, since because they endured, you and I can endure.
If you’re in Liverpool, stroll down to the Albert dock for a visit. Entry to the ISM is free, and what’s more, because the discussion goes beyond slavery, you might leave with a greater understanding of yourself and others.