Chapter Excerpt

From Chapter One

Sprawled near the Irish Sea, on England's windswept River Mersey, Liverpool--its population nearing 400,000 by the 1840s and distended by masses of immigrants--became the island nation's greatest port.1 In earlier years, the Mersey had been little more than a broad, shallow estuary where treacherous currents, silting, and extreme tidal fluctuations hampered passage from the sea through the narrow channel at the river's mouth. Predatory buccaneers once had imperiled whatever ships dared to venture through that neck, and for centuries Liverpool seemed destined to remain a drowsy fishing village surrounded by Lancashire's feudal agricultural hinterlands. But the Royal Navy's increasingly effective controls, ambivalent transformations generated by the Industrial Revolution, plus lucrative maritime commerce (including the transatlantic trade in slaves) converted the river delta "from an obscure, ill-cultivated swamp into a busy, lively region, multiplying its population tenfold in eighty years," observed a young German Communist named Friedrich Engels.

Liverpool stretched six miles along the Mersey's east banks. Its mercantilists envisioned, and soon dredged, channels deep and wide enough, then carved out and constructed mazes of quays, slips, and wharves that were vast and sturdy enough, to provide access and secure havens for the legions of battered or elegant passenger liners, cargo ships, and fishing boats that found their way to, dropped anchor, and thus enriched Liverpool's increasingly busy port.

Though pervasively rank and replete with commonplace as well as atypical urban woes, to some observers Liverpool seemed madly romantic. The "forest of masts belonging to the vessels in dock" inspired one visitor. She marveled at "the glorious river along which white-sailed ships were gliding with the ensigns of all nations . . . [the] clouds of smoke from countless steamers . . . telling of the distant lands, spicy or frozen, that sent to that mighty mart for their comforts or their luxuries."

With her cousin and husband Prince Albert at her side until his untimely death in 1861, Victoria, whose name and ethos characterized the entire age, was Defender of the Faith, queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the empire's monarch, mistress of all she surveyed--and much that extended far beyond her royal reach or vision. She heeded the counsel of shrewd advisors (including the commanding, Liverpool-born Liberal Party leader William Gladstone, heir to a family fortune amassed in the slave trade), and her epic longevity and fortitude would keep her on the throne into the next century. An awesome maritime network controlled Her Majesty's domain, which at its peak, embraced fully a quarter of the world's population and inhabited lands. Without doubt, Britannia ruled the waves.

As a linchpin in Victoria's realm, Liverpool became home, or a habitual point of arrival, transit, and debarkation, for a crazy quilt of the world's peoples. A majority of its residents, of course, were white and English, Irish, Welsh, or Scottish born. Nonetheless, ample numbers of Caribbean mariners and stowaways; able Kroo seamen from West Africa's Pepper Coast; Chinese "coolies"; Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta's turbaned, work-hungry laborers; plus Lascar sailors (often regarded by the indigenous British as a "species of wild animal") from Malaya and Burma, all began arriving by 1800. "Coloureds" from many countries also ended up in London's East End, Bristol, Manchester, Cardiff, even Aberdeen and Edinburgh, but the early surges of heterogeneous, darker-complexioned foreigners made Liverpool's nineteenth-century racial amalgam more diverse than that of other localities in Britain.7 Elsewhere, the majority of black, brown, tan, and yellow refugees appeared more than a century later when immigrant job seekers and their families flooded to the metropole after colonial power withdrew from the scattered outposts of empire, often leaving behind a heritage of turmoil, poverty, and ignorance to fill the breach. "Here was England," wrote a discerning Negro American some decades later, "with her flag draped around the world, ruling more black folk than white and leading the colored peoples of the world to Christian baptism, civilization, and eventual self-rule."

Its poor were legion, but Liverpool and its entrepreneurs flourished during much of the nineteenth century. Rugged workers from throughout the empire swarmed about the wharves finding employment as porters, stevedores, rope- and sailmakers, caulkers, or shipwrights. A Negro carter named James Bond belonged to that multitude of anonymous laborers who toiled and lived near the waterfront in the 1840s. Judging from his Anglo-Saxon name (at some point in the past replacing an African one and possibly suggesting his forebears' status as bondsmen), rather than being a new arrival from Africa, Bond, and perhaps his antecedents, may have resided in England for quite some time. Alternatively, he could have come more recently from the British West Indies as an ex-slave who accompanied a homeward-bound master, but no records substantiate the circumstances of his arrival in Liverpool.

James Bond and others in that city's multiethnic and multiracial laboring classes crammed the holds of outward-bound vessels with diverse manufactured goods, coal mined in Wales or the Pennines, cured meat or fish destined for ports anyplace on the globe. They also unloaded, among a variety of foodstuffs and raw materials, cumbersome, burlap-sheathed bales of slave-cultivated cotton. That Gossypium hirsutum was the prized, staple crop which, so long and so well, had kept mainland North America's slave empire financially afloat, even flourishing.

Flat-bottomed, cotton-laden barges plied the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, the Bridgewater Canal that linked Liverpool and the River Mersey with Manchester, and the murky Grand Trunk, which headed southeast to grimy Birmingham. As early as 1810, those man-made waterways had become conduits for more than forty thousand tons per year of raw cotton that fed the droning mills of the country's sooty industrial hubs, and the tonnage increased through the next half century. Though intermittent oversatiation, secession, the Civil War's onset, and the ensuing Union naval blockade of southern ports periodically curtailed the transatlantic commerce in slave-grown cotton, perhaps more than with any other European city, human and mercantile interests tethered Liverpool to the eastern United States.

Despite their nation's indispensable maritime links with much of the world, many Englishmen thought that even the usually pale-complexioned (though still "foreign" and, almost unforgivably, Roman Catholic) local Irish "yahoos," as they were called, were "creature[s] manifestly between the gorilla and the negro." One of those "yahoos" who resided in Liverpool was a woman named Eliza Kelly.

Especially during the cataclysmic 1840s' famine--as the Emerald Isle's mysteriously plagued potato fields turned black and putrid with rot, forcing legions of its denizens to forage for roots and berries, even gnaw on tree bark--many of the Irish embarked for the Merseyside port. Almost two million emigrants (a quarter of the population) left Ireland between 1845 and 1855, while hunger-provoked deaths claimed well over another million. Unmarked grave sites littered the island's pastoral green slopes.

Destitute, dispossessed from their lands, laden with any transportable belongings, and weakened by debilitating bacteria, refugees like Eliza Kelly arrived on packed ships from Drogheda, Cobh, and Dublin, crossing the Irish Sea in a few hours and receiving far less care or concern than other, more valued cargo, such as swine. Nature's cruel vagaries fused with harsh economic and political misfortunes to wrench the rural poor from Erin's countryside and thrust them into daunting confrontation with the beastliness of urban industrialism. Throughout Lancashire, a caustic visitor commented, "abides [the Irishman] in his squalor and unreason, in his falsity and drunken violence, as the readymade nucleus of degradation and disorder." But at least in England those scorned exiles believed they would eat, though critics sighted whole families "sleeping upon the cold hearth-stone for weeks in succession, without adequate means of providing themselves with food or fuel . . . starving in a crowded garret or damp cellar, gradually sinking under the pressure of want and despair into a premature grave."

During the famine years, the Negro abolitionist Frederick Douglass visited Ireland, where he compared the "wailing notes" of indigenous ballads there to American slavery's sorrow songs with their roots in distant Africa. And a traveling French aristocrat found among the Irish human misery even worse, he claimed, than that of the New World's enslaved Negroes. Some of Liverpool's newcomers may even have been the fabled "black Irish," often thought to be descendants of local women who had borne daughters and sons of the African survivors of misdirected, wrecked slave ships.

England's myriad Hibernian aliens--Eliza and other Kellys, plus Healys, Murphys, Higginses, Callahans, and Fitzgeralds among them--were considered the Merseyside city's detritus, whom predatory Liverpudlians both loathed and habitually snookered. Despite widespread elitist presumptions and chauvinistic antagonisms, however, not only the Irish, but a steady stream of the empire's other racially and religiously disparate subjects, as well as a great variety of raw materials and manufactured produce, coursed through that teeming port.

But people of African ancestry arrived and stayed in Eliza Kelly's and James Bond's Liverpool under different circumstances. With motivations both pragmatic and idealistic, the courts had acted to end slavery in England during the 1700s' final decades, characterizing it as an "odious" institution, yet in truth, many Negroes remained long thereafter in an agonizing, intermediary state. Their circumstances usually fell somewhere between the Western Hemisphere's black chattel slavery and white English domestic servitude. As late as the 1820s, a few Africans still were being sold on the Mersey docks, though any such acts flew squarely in the face of established law. Nonetheless, those unfortunates brought with them intricate cosmologies, food preferences, music, and other manifestations of their African cultures.

Excerpted from Homelands and Waterways: The American Journey of the Bond Family, 1846-1926 by Adele Logan Alexander
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.