University of Portsmouth's History Blog

How to ‘forget’ difficult pasts: slavery, memory, and the maritime frame

In Theresa May’s ‘Brexit speech’, on January 17th 2017, the prime minister suggested that Britain’s “history and culture is profoundly internationalist” [1]. This is certainly one way of framing Britain’s historic relationship with the rest of the world. Alternatively, you might suggest that May spelt “centuries of colonial rule, oppression, slavery and genocide” wrong. As cultural sociologist Iwona Irwin-Zarecka argues, the range of possible interpretations of historic events and themes can be limited through processes of ‘framing’ [2]. Such ‘framing’ doesn’t necessarily block out other possible interpretations, but it does act to restrict the range of meanings. The past can be ‘framed’ in certain ways, and certain interpretations and narratives can be promoted over others in ways which obscure less palatable aspects through specific, and active, memory-work: through commemorative ceremonies, memorial design, and yes, political speeches.

There have been a series of public history interventions recently which have sought to re-engage with some of the so-called ‘forgotten’ sides of the more horrific stories of the history of the British Empire. Britain’s long and meticulously organised involvement in transatlantic slavery has come to light publicly through the work of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership  project at UCL, and the accompanying documentaries presented by David Olusoga, titled, ominously, ‘Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners’ [3]. The problem with the use of the term ‘forgetting’ here is that it just doesn’t capture how much effort it takes to ‘re-frame’ a history as brutal and horrific as, for example, empire into something as progressive-sounding as, say,  ‘internationalism’. Forgetting certain aspects of a nation’s past takes work. Forgetting something as epic as transatlantic slavery and the slave trade, something which saw the transportation of 12 million African people, four centuries of trade in human beings, isn’t something that’s easy to ‘forget’ by letting it slip the collective mind, like a careless omission. This isn’t the ‘dude, where’s my car?’ of historical memory [4]. Saying that transatlantic slavery has been ‘forgotten’ just doesn’t do justice to the lengths people have gone to obscure this history, reworking the memory of slavery into the memory of its abolition, for example, through the valorising of heroes (William Wilberforce) and the celebration of key dates (1807, 1833/34)[5].  This distinctly active process might better be termed an ‘organised forgetting’ [6] or an ‘unremembering’ [7] to indicate the work needed to obscure certain pasts.

One of the ways in which the connections between British history and transatlantic slavery have been forgotten in an organised way, is through the framing of this past through a distinctly ‘maritime’ lens. Helpfully, this also chimes well with national identity narratives about Britain’s maritime Empire and prowess, Britannia ruling the waves, commanding the seven seas, in images sometimes coupled with comforting national narratives of abolition; of Britain being a country “that took slavery off the high seas” as David Cameron once put it [8]. The ‘maritimization’ of the history of Britain and slavery, as John Beech has argued, has placed a focus on the slave trade rather than enslavement more broadly, severing connections to land-based plantations in foreign lands (safely at a distance) or to legacies closer to home, on British soil, like industrialisation or material culture (pretty Georgian squares and decadent country houses for example).

In Liverpool, the largest of Europe’s slave-trading ports, responsible for the transportation of over 1.1 million enslaved African people across the perilous ‘middle passage’ [9], this ‘maritimization’ is a process which has been embroiled within maritime-themed civic identity narratives. Historically, the city’s relationship with the sea flooded imperial connections with a language of romanticism within, that “[h]er ships sail on every sea, and the produce of every land under the sun finds its way to her Docks,” as one guide put it in 1902 [10]. In 1957, Liverpool’s 750th ‘birthday’ (marking 750 years since the signing of the King John charter of 1207), the appositely named Derek Whale wrote of the “romantic age of trading pioneers under sail” who brought back “[t]ales of strange customs and people of foreign lands, where lay the white man’s treasures in silks, cotton, ivory, oil, wine and spices,” [11] – and presumably also African people themselves, not included in this list of exotic foreign treasures. Commemorative occasions such as civic birthday parties are an important time for active ‘framing’ of dissonant pasts, which clash with objectives of promoting positive celebrations of local identity narratives. Similarly, museums can play important roles in forging authoritative narratives of the past, even before they exist. In Liverpool, public discourse around the construction of the long-awaited maritime museum reinforced romanticised narratives of sea-based identity narratives with notable omissions, focusing instead on “childhood memories of the romance of Britain’s second seaport.” [12] Criticisms were made of panel text when the museum did open, the 1989 Gifford Report into race relations in Liverpool, produced after the riots of the 1980s, described discussion of Liverpool and the slave trade as “a lawyer’s plea for mitigation” [13]. Even when the new International Slavery Museum opened in Liverpool in 2007, its status as an independent museum, irked some. “Slavery should be covered as part of the Maritime Museum (as it was), not as a free-standing museum” complained one online commenter, with another using this maritime context and perceived rightful place of slavery in the maritime museum to downplay the significance of the slave trade to Liverpool’s history, “[if] ever there was a statement that slavery was not the only thing that made the city rich it is that.” [14]


Goree Warehouses, engraving, copy (1822)


The thing about memory, rather than remembrance [15] is that it doesn’t always abide by the organised rules of active forgetting. As much as the authoritative, ‘organised’ framing of slavery through a maritime lens may act to obscure the breadth and depth of this history through displacement, distancing and downplaying, this ‘maritimization’ can also reveal human realities and consequences of a history left otherwise muddied in the Mersey. In Liverpool, maritimized connections to the city’s past reveal themselves through  mythologies surrounding ‘slaves in Liverpool’. Stories of a slave presence, though dissonant and contested, hook onto places which run along the memory of the 18th century river Mersey’s edge, before it was pushed back by later dock construction on reclaimed land. Such stories ‘hook’ in particular onto the historic site of Goree, eighteenth century warehouses named after an island off the coast of Senegal, the largest slave-trading centre on the African coast, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site [16]. Though demolished in the 1950s, Goree warehouses have continued to be the imaginative site of memory where an otherwise romanticised and obscured history of the trade in human beings is remembered. Stories of enslaved people shipped, sold, and chained to rings at the site, historical evidence unearthed in cellars around Goree, and obscure sculptures which commemorate the water’s edge, all simultaneously reveal and obscure the mythologies of slaves in Liverpool. As much as maritimizing has ‘framed’ the history of slavery as something seabound and distanced, maritime connections, made at the places where the land of Liverpool meets the water of the Mersey, have dislodged this frame, turned it backwards, revealing human connections.



Dr Jessica Moody is Lecturer in Modern History and Heritage. If you want to read more, this research is published in Moody, “ ‘Liverpool’s local tints’: Drowning Memory and Maritimizing Slavery in a Seaport City”, in Katie Donington, Ryan Hanley and Jessica Moody (eds.) Britain’s History and Memory of Transatlantic Slavery: local nuances of a ‘national sin’ (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016). This edited collection brings together essays considering localised case studies of Britain and transatlantic slavery in history and memory. http://liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/products/80782




[1] Theresa May. Speech about Britain leaving the European Union January 17th 2017. See full text here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/full-text-theresa-may-brexit-speech-global-britain-eu-european-union-latest-a7531361.html [accessed January 24 2017]

[2] Irwin-Zarecka, Iwona. Frames of Remembrance : The Dynamics of Collective Memory. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1994.

[3] ‘Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners’ BBC 2 (2015); see also David Olusoga, “The History of British Slave Ownership Has Been Buried: Now its Scale Can Be Revealed”, The Guardian, 12 July 2015; http://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/

[4] For younger, and/or more culturally sophisticated readers, Dude Where’s My Car? Was a 2000 film starring Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott in which two ‘dudes’ forget where they parked their car after a heavy night.

[5] See John Oldfield. Chords of Freedom: Commemoration, Ritual and British Transatlantic Slavery (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007)

[6] Paul Connerton. How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)

[7] Sinfree Makoni, “African Languages as European Scripts: The Shaping of Communal Memory,” in Sarah Nuttal and Carli Coetzee (eds) Negotiating the Past: The Making of Meaning in South Africa (Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1998) pp. 242-48

[8] David Cameron, in a speech responding to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s comments about Britain’s diminishing global influence. George Parker and Elizabeth Rigby. “Cameron goes on offensive after ‘small island’ jibe”, Financial Times September 6, 2013

[9] Kenneth Morgan, “Liverpool’s Dominance in the British Slave Trade, 1740-1807” in David Richardson, Anthony Tibbles and Suzanne Schwarz (eds), Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007) p. 15

[10] A New Guide to Liverpool (Liverpool: Littlebury Brothers, 1902) p. 133

[11] Derek Whale, “Fishing Village to a Great Seaport” City of Liverpool Charter Celebrations 1207-1957: Evening Express Charter Supplement, Liverpool Evening Express, June 17, 1957.

[12] Peter Rockliffe, “Special…the Launching of the Maritime Museum” Trident, 2 (1980)

[13] Lord Gifford QC (Chair), Wally Brown and Ruth Bundey, Loosen the Shackles: First Report of the Liverpool 8 Inquiry into Race Relations in Liverpool (London: Karia Press, 1989)

[14] Liverpolitan, comment on ‘International Museum of Slavery,” Skyscraper City Forum, 16 September 2007 (6:30pm) www.skyscrapercity.com ; Buggedboy, comment on Skyscraper City Forum 18 September 2007

[15] Jay Winter and Emmannuel Sivan distinguish between these two terms in order to highlight the organised, post-living memory status of acts of remembrance. See Jay Winter and Emmannuel Sivan, “Setting the Framework” in Winter and Sivan (eds) War and Remembrance in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

[16] http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/26

, , , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply