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Liverpool and Beyond: An Essay on Slavery

Recently I took a class at Oxford on human rights. As a class, we took a trip to Liverpool to hear about the slave trade and Liverpool’s connection to the practice. Here is a mini essay I wrote on the subject material and some readings I had read. Of course accompanied by photos and relevant to the material! 

Happy and thanks for reading! ❤


Slavery – Liverpool and beyond

Does modern slavery exist? If so, is it possible to stop it? Does history or discourse on the subject help bring about change or glorify its past?

This mini-essay response will examine three questions. Does modern slavery exist? If so, is it possible to stop it? Does history or discourse on the subject help bring about change or glorify its past? Drawing on readings carried out during the POL380 course, specifically Davidson and Hoffman and Pape. It concludes that modern-day slavery is alive and well, its nuanced form harder to identify and as a result solve. History is important in reminding us of past atrocities and warning us of the troubles that the present and future may hold.

Slavery exists in modern times, but in a much more nuanced form. One that is increasingly difficult to resolve, as a result of the complexity to define. We have no more chattel slavery, but we have types that involve economic exploitation, immobilization and abuse of rights that arguably can be categorized with acts of slavery. There are two main reasons for this: definitions of exploitation, slavery and others are socially constructed and specifically, the difficulty in determining the degree of which the lack of voluntariness and other criteria of exploitation can be measured.



Dilapidated building juxtaposed with requested for investments in New Liverpool


The problem is they exist on a political continuum, as Davidson has argued. They are essentially political.[1] Concepts like freedom and slavery are constructed by social norms, and therefore are not absolute definitions.[2] Appropriateness of exploitation can be varied across countries. Unsurprisingly a lot of countries that have lower social standards on what is considered exploitation are far more likely to find human rights abuses within their sovereign territory. In the case of Dalits in India, this manifests itself as caste discrimination. Dalits struggling to gain access to education, dignified jobs and other degrading practices that are associated with their social status as ‘untouchables.’[3]

The second reason is that conditions for slavery – such as its ‘involuntary nature’ can often be hard to define on a practical level. To some degree, we all have the ability to make choices regardless of status. However, it is just as important whether the person believes they have no choice or if the alternatives they face are significantly detrimental (such as death, starvation, or abuse.)[4] In the slavery museum, one quote speaks to this, “[p]eople don’t have chains on their arms…but people still have chains in their minds.”[5] Identifying this maximum for what may constitute slavery, or which alternatives may seem as sufficient can get quite complicated. One’s reasons can often be determined by social norms, as stated above, but also be informed by one’s political position, gender, race, etc. Fundamentally, it means that often these questions of what is voluntary and what can be considered as economic exploitation – are left unclear. All in all, modern-day slavery persists because of these fundamental reasons. Do we on the outside of the society and outside the individual possess the right to determine when slavery exists?



The dry-docks of the former slave trade, dried up

Regarding ever solving modern-day slavery, if we agree it exists, I think it’s a chicken and egg solution – based on two conditions.[6] On the international level, we need to expand our current definitions of what constitutes slavery and exploitation – as stated a hugely difficult and political process.[7] From an international perspective, we cannot name and shame state and multinational corporations, when its violations aren’t considered to be wrong under international moral consensus. A power that international forums like the UNGA, and even more exclusive clubs like G7 & G20 groups hold in allowing norms to progress via the socialization effect. However, as Greenhill mentions, this is a neutral process, and therefore, the chances that an anti-slavery norm progresses is based on that is present and their views (and their friends’).[8]

The second condition in our chicken and egg scenario is there has to be domestic political support – as Hoffman and Pape examine in the British anti-slavery movement. If the norm of anti-slavery is ever to be internalized, it must reach a critical mass point in a domestic audience. In some cases, this is about framing the issue in a favorable context, sensitive to the societal values of the country.[9] However, often the success is based on the political salience of the domestic public’s concerns to the political elite. If politicians are in a precarious position politically they are more inclined to listen to their constituents and specifically, special interest groups. [10] However, what the authors fail to examine is countries like Britain that are instrumental for implementing an international moral norm – hold significant weight in the evolution of a norm. The influence of the socialization process on an international level is weighted and disproportionate towards major powers, which may influence their neighbors more than most.[11] Fundamentally, the chicken and egg solution is one of two parts: domestic and international. Still unclear though– as the phrase suggests – which comes first and whether the order matters.



Liverpool’s Nelson monument with the words “Every man to do his duty” underneath two slaves lay shackled

Finally as the most reflective part of my response; Liverpool, serves as a test case for discussions on history and the evolution of norms such as anti-slavery. The two tours I went on – with Mr. Lynch and the New Liverpool group – couldn’t be more opposed in their position. Mr. Lynch offered an argument that history was significant in determining one’s identity as individuals and as a collective. The slave trade, which Liverpool played an important role in, must therefore, be presented as a large part of its narrative as a town. As it shaped and developed the very same infrastructure, we see today, based on the wealth it had produced.

While the latter tour, conveniently abstained from any detailed commentary about the period of development. Demonstrating through its decisions and priorities to weigh Beatles over slave ships, world war memorials over slavery comments. Acknowledging what may be primarily European conflicts than the role Europeans had on the slave trade – and fundamentally slavery as a concept grounded in racism. This isn’t to say that it merely reflects the view of the tour company, but rather the mentality of the city itself. The best example that comes to mind is the decision to place an international slavery museum on one floor of a maritime museum. When Liverpool’s shipping industry primarily began as a result of its practices in the slave trade. Its merchant’s earning reportedly (in low estimates) forty percent of their wealth from the immoral practice.[12] Should we remove these aspects of our history that remind us of our bleak past, as New Liverpool Tour Company had done? Or is the past – a warning to the present and future issues to come and connection to our identity as individuals and people?



Graffiti near Beatles’s Carven Club

In conclusion, modern slavery still exists today – alive and well. It’s changed from the easily identifiable chattel slavery to more nuanced forms of exploitations. Difficulties have been mentioned as to why it remains as an issue of the twenty-first century. It can be resolved by the chicken egg conditions: international political consensus on an expanded definition of slavery and exploitation and domestic political support from key states. Liverpool as a testing ground shows the struggle anti-slavery advocates, and in general norm entrepreneurs, face in maintaining awareness of past atrocities while demonstrating its relevance to today.


Bank with two panels depicting European slave trade and its involvement in the bank’s origins


[1] Davidson, 244

[2] ibid, 257

[3] Even though India has constitutionally put a stop to the practice of labeling Dalits as ‘untouchable’ – on a social and practical level it remains

[4] See Davidson, 246

[5] International slavery museum, poster

[6] Synthesized interpretations of arguments made by Davidson and Hoffman and Pape.

[7] One that may hopefully include conceptions of modern forms of exploitation

[8] Greenhill, 130

[9] Something that Professor Hopgood, has argued in lecture to POL380 class

[10] Hoffman and Pape, 660

[11] A criticism that Greenhill also is vulnerable to

[12] International slavery museum poster

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