The Beatles’ Penny Lane & Liverpool’s role in the slave trade


Liverpool in England is known worldwide for two things football and the Beatles, but few people outside Liverpool know that the city played a central role in the transatlantic slave trade with much of the city’s 18th century wealth built on the profits from the transportation of slaves, so much so that even the street Penny Lane which was made famous by the Beatles was named after a slave trader called James Penny who was an outspoken Liverpool Slave ship owner and a staunch anti-abolitionist.

Penny was involved in several slave trading companies and was known for his knowledge of the African coast derived from his many journeys dating back to 1776.

Liverpool grew from a minor fishing village into a major international port in less than a century due to the slave trade, it was very late in entering the slave trade but quickly surpassed London and Bristol to become Europe’s number one slave port by the 1740’s.

It’s thought that over 40,000 African slaves were transported by Liverpool vessels. By 1792 Liverpool was firmly established as the leading slave port, with 131 sailings in that year compared with 42 from Bristol and 22 from London.

Liverpool’s prosperity was bound up in the triangular trade. Liverpool’s ships were loaded with cottons and woollens, guns, iron, alcohol and tobacco. The ships sailed to Africa where they traded the goods for slaves, ivory and gold. The middle passage of the journey then took them to America or the West Indies where the slaves would be sold for money, colonial produce or bills of exchange.


In 1788, the British government set up The Lords Committee of Council to investigate the slave trade and launched an inquiry into the slave trade, following public pressure from abolitionists, Penny was chosen to represent the views of slavers. According to local historian F.E. Sanderson, he was a “man of considerable stature in the town, highly regarded by his fellow merchants, his forthright views on the slave trade must have brought him to their notice as a likely delegate”.

Penny and several other traders from Liverpool spoke in favour of the slave trade at a parliamentary committee.

In evidence James Penny voiced his opinion that the trade was humane “…that he found himself impelled, both by humanity and interest, to pay every possible attention both to the preservation of the crew and the slaves.

Penny also told the committee that he had invested in eleven voyages of ships carrying slaves from Africa to the West Indies. His ships were between 200-300 tons and usually carried between 500 to 600 slaves in a single voyage. Of these approximately two thirds of the slaves were male and one third female.


He later went on to say “The slaves here will sleep better than the gentlemen do on shore.”

Liverpool traders were anxious to preserve the slave trade which had made large profits for many of them and was the source of much of the city’s wealth.


The parliamentary minutes record James Penny’s conviction that ending the trade would cause great harm to Liverpool, “…Mr Penny being asked, whether he conceives this trade to be a profitable one in general to the Merchant?
“Replied, he thinks it, upon the whole, an advantageous trade; and added, he would have to beg leave to observe, that should this trade be abolished, it would not only greatly affect the commercial interest, but also the landed property of the County of Lancaster and more particularly, the Town of Liverpool; whose fall, in that case, would be as rapid as its rise has been astonishing.”

James Penny was insistent that the slave trade should be allowed to continue “…the Slave Ships at Liverpool are built on purpose for this trade, and are accommodated with air ports and gratings for the purpose of keeping the slaves cool.

In 1792 he was presented with a silver epergne for speaking in favour of the slave trade to a parliamentary committee. He continued to be committed to the slave trade even when other merchants were moving away from it. With his eldest son, James, he was elected to the African Company of Merchants trading in Liverpool in July 1793. He died in 1799.

The last British slave ship, Kitty’s Amelia, left Liverpool for Africa in July, 1807.

In July 2006 a Liverpool councillor Barbara Mace proposed that streets named after slave traders should be renamed. One of the suggestions includes renaming one of the streets in honour of black teenager Anthony Walker, who was murdered in a racist attack in Liverpool in 2005.

Originally, “all streets, squares and public places like Tarleton Street, Manesty’s Lane and Clarence Street were to be named after those who were involved in promoting or profiteering from the slave trade” to be renamed, but on 10 July 2006, Liverpool officials said they would modify the proposal to exclude Penny Lane.

Penny Lane” is a song by The Beatles written primarily by Paul McCartney It was credited to Lennon- McCartney. “Penny Lane” was released in February 1967 and was recorded during the Sgt Pepper sessions.

The street is an important landmark, sought out by many Beatles fans touring Liverpool, since the song the general Penny Lane area has acquired a distinct trendiness and desirability it is a neighbourhood most sought-after among Liverpool’s large student population.

In 2004, Rolling Stones Magazine ranked “Penny Lane” at #456 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of all time.
In August 2007 The International Slavery Museum was opened in Liverpool concerned specifically with the Atlantic Slave Trade, rather than the history of slavery in other regions and eras.

Toyin Ashiru

How Cuban Villagers Learned They Descended From Sierra Leone Slaves


How Cuban Villagers Learned They Descended From Sierra Leone Slaves

There is a pervasive idea that Africans are generally unmoved by the fate of the descendants of slaves throughout the Americas. That belief is born largely of the tragedy that the vast majority of Africa’s diaspora have little left of the specific languages, cultures, or beliefs that would tie them to a particular place of origin. The utter callousness of slavery, the endless destruction of families, and the sheer weight of the decades since have all attenuated much that originally crossed the ocean with their forebears. In the absence of those ties, some African-Americans have gone to central sites of commemoration, such as Gorée Island or Cape Coast Castle, looking for all that has been lost. Those who hoped for an individual connection to the motherland have sometimes reported these places rather disappointing. They are tourist sites, after all. What’s more, dark skin is here the norm, so it does little by itself to symbolize kinship or affinity if not bolstered by shared language, culture or experience.

Pokawa and his people have, by contrast, found some of their lost kin in the Americas. This tiny group of people in Cuba — a country they had scarcely heard of—singing and dancing their songs, was a gift from God. Or, more accurately, from God and Allah, both of whom are worshipped here side by side. Cut off from the media and from almost all Western education, to them the people taken as slaves into the transatlantic slave trade are still called by their ancient names, invoked as the lost. There was Gboyangi. Bomboai. There was the young girl just about to be married.

They live on in the village elders’ collective memory, but the idea that any had survived, lived long enough to have families in their new countries, and then had taught their children the songs and dances of this chiefdom — that was unimaginable. The fact that none had returned could only mean, they assumed, that none had survived. That there are untold numbers of people of African origin in the Americas who would dearly love to know the exact origins of their ancestors was utterly unknown. “Those poor children,” said Pokawa when I tried to explain why none had visited before.

The sources