Looking back on Lancaster’s history during Black History Month can be uncomfortable when the extent of Lancaster’s involvement in the slave and sugar trade during the 18th century is so prevalent. However, as the work of the ‘Lancaster Slavery Family Trees Community History Project’ reveals, it is in remembrance and recognition of the past that we can celebrate the vast advances in equality that are commonplace in contemporary society and we can memorialise the memory of historic Black individuals.
It is a common misconception that Black people didn’t reach the UK until the transatlantic slave trade began in the late 1500s or that it wasn’t until much later in 1948, when the HMT Empire Windrush arrived in London carrying hundreds of Caribbean migrants. In fact, the evidence of Black people living in the UK goes as far back as the third century AD in Roman Britain where civilian migration across the Roman empire both allowed and, in some cases, forced people to travel across borders, possibly facilitating the arrival of the first African people in Britain.
In 1901 the remains of the ‘ivory bangle lady’ were found in York. An analysis of her body revealed that she was most likely of North African descent but was born in Roman Britain in the latter half of the fourth century. She was buried with expensive goods, such as jet and elephant ivory bracelets, earrings, pendants, beads, a blue glass jug and a glass mirror, suggesting not only the existence of African British citizens of the Roman Empire, but a history of Black people who had wealth and power in the period.
Long before the arrival of Empire Windrush, evidence suggests that there were hundreds of free Black people living in Britain: individuals that were in positions of power such as the Tudor courts and the households of important Dukes, indicating a rich Black history in Britain and places like Lancaster that is often overshadowed by the forced mass migration of enslaved persons during the late 1500s.
However, by the 18th century, Lancaster had become the fourth largest slaving port in Britain; between 1700 and 1800 at least 122 ships sailed from Lancaster port to the African coast. Merchants based in Lancaster were involved in the capture, enslaving, and trade of an estimated 300,000 people, and many more Lancaster slave-ships used the port of Liverpool.
Lancaster’s shipyards were a significant part of the trade. Ships were constructed for a wide range of long-distance trade with America, West Africa, and the West Indies.
Brockbank shipyard (located on the site of present-day Sainsbury’s supermarket and car park) was started by brothers John and George Brockbank in 1738. Between 1738 and 1801 they launched over 100 ships into the Lune, captained by slave traders such as Robert Dodson, John Preston, and Thomas Hinde.
Many of the names of the ships they built, as well as their name itself, can be found as present-day street names on the Lune Industrial estate, such as Thetis Road, Minerva Road, and Brockbank Avenue. The shipyard accelerated Lancaster’s position as a significant merchant port in the 18th century, with their ships documented in records as having docked in ports in West Africa, and the West Indies.
A number of Lancaster’s present-day buildings originate from the period of trade in which enslaved people were being exploited: The Maritime Museum was once a custom house and built in 1764 for goods passing through the Quay, The Sugar House stands on the location where sugar from merchant ships was stored, Powder House Lane was the location of ships’ ammunition storage ( as it was far enough from the port to ensure no accidental explosions) and there was also a sail cloth factory in the Stonewell area of the city.
The shipyards weren’t the only industry to benefit from the demand created by the slave trade. Lancashire milled imported goods, most grown on plantations by enslaved people in America and West Indies, such as mahogany, sugar, dyes, rice, spices, cotton, coffee, and rum; and exported goods such as furniture, gunpowder, wool and cotton garments to the colonies. Although these trades may not have directly involved slaves, they created the demand for the goods which many were enslaved in order to produce.
This meant the vast majority of Lancaster’s elite – those dominating local politics – had derived their wealth and power from this trade.
Many of the buildings along the quay by the Lune were built as warehouses used for goods in the ‘triangle trade’ – the trade of goods from slave-plantations in America to Britain. A memorial was erected in 2005 on Damside Street, next to the Millennium Bridge, as a permanent memorial to Lancaster’s role in the slave trade.
Much like the significance of the memorial, which depicts the way in which Lancaster’s wealth was achieved through the oppression of enslaved Black people, the oppressive history of Lancaster’s role in the slave trade must also serve as a reminder of the struggle of enslaved individuals that built the foundations of the local area that we live in.
In this month of celebration of Black History, tragedies of the past like this must be remembered, not only to preserve the memory of those who were forced into oppression and maintain a link to local histories, but to attribute today’s freedoms in the local area to both more modern activism groups and also the role that Black people played in Lancaster’s history.