9th October 2020:

In the first of our series of articles for Black History Month in which we profile sites that reveal aspects of the prehistory and history of Black people in Britain, we look at the results of our excavations at Liverpool’s historic docks and the site’s links to the transatlantic slave trade.

The development of Liverpool has been shaped to a very large extent by its maritime and mercantile role, which resulted in the creation of an extensive dock system and waterfront settlement in the 18th and 19th centuries. Before the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the transit of slaves became an important feature of Liverpool’s maritime economy, and in 1753, 101 known slave traders lived in the town. In addition, some of its households contained African servants, and by the 1780s a black population had become firmly established.

Excavations by Oxford Archaeology North exposed extensive remains of Liverpool’s 18th-century docks and quayside areas, created by reclaiming land from the Mersey. Although linking the archaeology with Liverpool’s slave-trading past, and nascent black population, is difficult, a reclaimed area, known as Nova Scotia, was examined. This was developed in the 1740s by two influential townsmen, Joseph Bird and Owen Pritchard, who were both heavily involved in the slave trade.


Liverpool docks: a wall of 'Nova Scotia'


The excavations uncovered substantial sandstone walls protecting Bird and Pritchard’s land reclamation, as well as a slipway, named ‘Bird’s Slip’, after Joseph Bird. Artefacts recovered from the fieldwork included clay tobacco pipes dated to the 1780s, which were produced in Liverpool not only to be sold in the Caribbean and North American markets, but also to be used as trade goods in bartering for slaves.


Liverpool docks: Three-dimensional laser-can survey of Bird’s Slip


Pottery relating to the town’s 18th-century sugar-refining industry was also recovered. This industry was intimately linked with slavery, as sugar cane was transported to Liverpool from plantations in the West Indies by Liverpool ships, some of which were first used to transport slaves from West Africa to the plantations.

Liverpool docks: one of several sugar moulds found at the site

The results of the excavation have been published in Archaeology at the Waterfront Volume 1: Investigating Liverpool's Historic Docks, which is available from Oxbow Books. Click here for more details.