Decolonising our Cities: How Lancaster is Confronting its Slave Trade Legacy

Published on 24 May 2022

Almost two years ago, the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol during the Black Lives Matter protests. The nationwide coverage of the event sparked fresh debates about how we as a nation deal (or have failed to deal) with our colonial past, particularly in relation to our significant involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. Despite being thrown into Bristol Harbour, the statue has since been placed in the M Shed Museum and interpreted to acknowledge its status in debates about Bristol’s past involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. Other cities with colonial links have also now started address their own histories. So, the question remains – how much has changed in the last two years?

It got me thinking about my own geographical area. I’ve lived in Lancaster ever since I moved here to go to university in 2017 and came to discover Lancaster’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade whilst doing my bachelor’s degree in history. In total, Lancaster was involved in the capture and enslavement of approximately 30,000 people with 122 slave ships sailing from the city between 1700-1800. It was the fourth biggest slaving port in the entire country – behind Liverpool, Bristol and London. Even more shocking, Lancaster was one of the few places in Britain that sent a petition to the government in favour of slavery at the time of the abolitionist movement.

For most of the points on the trail, a quick glance would not give you any idea they were linked to Lancaster’s relationship to transatlantic slavery. One prominent example is the Maritime Museum located on the Quayside. Of course, if you already had prior knowledge of Lancaster’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, you would surmise that there would be a connection. There is also an exhibition on Lancaster’s involvement in the slave trade on the top floor of the museum. However, if you had no knowledge at all or did not go inside the museum, then you would be none the wiser as the plaque on the side of the building merely states that the museum used to be the customs house, which was built in 1764 to the design of Richard Gillow.

The plaque misses out key details on the building’s role. Firstly, one of the key reasons for the building’s construction was to service Lancaster’s expanding role in the transatlantic slave trade, as merchants would use the building to pay taxes on the ‘goods’ they were trading, which would have certainly included the kidnapped humans they were transporting to the Americas. Secondly, the architect of the building, Richard Gillow, was one of Lancaster’s biggest slave traders and made 40% of his fortune from the selling of humans. Gillow was also a well-renowned furniture maker and crafted his pieces from slave-produced mahogany. Until recently, there was a pub named after him on Market Street in Lancaster’s city centre. After the protests in 2020, the pub was promptly renamed. Richard Gillow is just one of the numerous Lancastrian men that made their fortune from the slave trade.

Professor Imogen Tyler at Lancaster University states that ‘it is difficult to find a Lancaster elite from the 18th and 19th century whose wealth and power wasn’t derived in part from what is often euphemistically referred to as the West-Indies trade’. Lancastrian families not only owned slave ships but also many plantations in the Americas and their descendants inherited the wealth from the trade for generations. Arguably Lancaster’s most famous resident, Sir Richard Owen, who founded the Natural History Museum, had a father that was a West Indies Merchant who would have been involved in the slave trade in some capacity. A Wetherspoons pub on George Street still bears his name and his connections to the slave trade go unmentioned.

In 2019, Afua Hirsch, award-winning writer of the critically acclaimed book Brit(ish), asked in the Guardian ‘why is there no memorial to enslaved Africans’ in Britain, helping to demonstrate how little the memorial is known despite it being located in the city that was Britain’s fourth biggest slaving port. The memorial’s location, although appropriate, most likely doesn’t help as its situated outside of the main city centre where the majority of tourists and locals visit. It also is not very large, especially compared to the gigantic statue to Queen Victoria in the middle of Lancaster, making the slave trade memorial seem almost hidden away.

However, in the last two years, multiple initiatives have sprung up in the city to push for more recognition of Lancaster’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and the legacy it has left behind. One of these initiatives is the Lancaster Black History Group whose main aim is to ‘try and fight racism through education’ and wants Lancaster to ‘be an example of how black history can be celebrated’. The group have created a community research project, ‘Facing the past, transforming the future: Doing reparative history with communities in Lancaster’. The project involves researching family trees of five key Lancastrian slave-trading families and collaborating with schools, universities, community and faith groups. In October 2020, the group collaborated with a group of sixth form students from Lancaster Royal Grammar school to investigate claims that street names around the Quay had links to the transatlantic slave trade.

So, it does seem like Lancaster is making significant moves to increase recognition of the city’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. Of course, a lot more progress is needed to raise awareness of this history but it is positive to see that my local area is responding to the protests. As of this year, there has been no update on the new Slave Trade memorial but we will hopefully see it erected in the coming years. It will also be interesting to see if the street names found to be linked to the slave trade will be changed and whether other cities will follow suit. Regardless, Lancaster does serve as an example of how we can decolonise our cities and give more recognition to our nation’s Black history all year round, not just in Black History Month.