Liverpool and Empire, 1700-1970

Project Synopsis for Liverpool & Empire, 20 and 21 April 2006

During the nineteenth century, Liverpool was frequently referred to as the ‘second city of the British empire’. Historians of modern Britain are increasingly integrating the empire into their work while, at the same time, imperial historians are focussing more and more on the impact of the empire ‘at home’. Yet, in this new imperial historiography of Britain, remarkably little has been written on Liverpool’s long-standing connections with the empire. Extremely valuable work has been published on Liverpool’s pivotal role in the eighteenth-century slave trade in addition to the long-term link with Ireland, and we will be re-visiting these debates at the conference. However, Liverpool’s interactions and exchanges with the empire did not suddenly end with the abolition of slave trading in 1807 or indeed after the Irish famine influx of the 1840s. The expertise gained by Liverpool merchants through the slave trade was applied to opening up lucrative new markets for ‘legitimate commerce’ in Africa, the Americas, India, the Far East and Australasia. Into the era of decolonisation in the 1950s and the 1960s, many of Liverpool’s leading institutions remained heavily orientated towards the empire-Commonwealth: for example, the numerous shipping lines and trading companies, the Chamber of Commerce, the School of Tropical Medicine, the Cotton Exchange, the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery and, if we extend the analysis to ‘Greater Liverpool’ or Merseyside, the Lever Brothers works at Port Sunlight. Nor must we overlook the significant, but often marginalized, Chinese, West African and Afro-Caribbean communities. Meanwhile, much of Liverpool’s architecture, as well as the city’s statuary, still bear the imperial stamp. Catherine Hall has recently argued that imperial issues and mentalities should be given much greater prominence in explaining the mid-nineteenth-century history of Birmingham – a city not particularly renowned for its connections to the British empire (Civilizing Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830-1867, London, 2002). If this is the case, then clearly the colonial impact on Liverpool, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, must have been profound and wide-ranging, and requires far deeper investigation and far greater acknowledgement.

Such a re-evaluation of Liverpool’s economy, politics, society, culture and identity will be particularly timely given the city’s 800th anniversary in 2007 and its award of European Capital of Culture status for 2008. Indeed, if Liverpool does encapsulate the ‘world in one city’ – the buzz-phrase for 2008 – this is largely a consequence of its imperial past and the city’s long-term experience of globalisation through intensive interactions with the extra-European world over three centuries. Hence, the project provides an exciting and apposite opportunity to re-examine Liverpool’s history in a global context. For example, what were the links between Liverpool’s long economic decline in the twentieth century and the demise of the British imperial system? Dependency on colonial export markets, and hence the incomes of primary producers, can explain Liverpool’s extreme experience of unemployment during the global downturn of the inter-war years. John Mackenzie has recently pointed out that Glasgow’s industrial decline was not so much a product of ‘over-specialisation’ as ‘specialisation’ in imperial commerce (‘ “The Second City of the Empire”: Glasgow – imperial municipality’ in Felix Driver and David Gilbert (eds.), Imperial Cities: Landscape, Display and Identity, Manchester, 1999, p. 216). In a similar vein, stagnating and politically unstable Commonwealth markets – especially in the 1950s and the 1960s – may hold the key to Liverpool’s loss of competitiveness rather than containerisation or the EEC as is usually supposed.

Moreover, in placing Liverpool’s modern and contemporary history in an imperial framework, the project will permit an evaluation of some of the major issues and contemporary concerns in imperial history. Most apparent in this realm is the debate surrounding the concept of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’. In proposing this notion, P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins have argued that Britain’s expansion overseas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as the survival, revival and contraction of British imperial power during the twentieth century, can be explained by the dominant influence and presence of a financial and service elite, exclusively based on the City of London (see especially British Imperialism, 1688-2000, Harlow, 2nd edition, 2002). However, other scholars have proposed that Cain and Hopkins’s analysis is far too ‘Anglo-centric’. To 1914, at least, the imperial dynamism of Strathclyde – linked to industrial rather than financial capitalism – is overlooked in the ‘gentlemanly capitalist’ paradigm. Returning to England, a similar case can be made for Merseyside – indeed, during the nineteenth century an integrated network of Liverpool-based shippers, traders, commodity brokers, insurers and financiers produced a north-western version of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ which was relatively autonomous of, and on a par with, London. Moreover, this Scouse financial and commercial nexus was closely linked both to empire markets and domestic manufacturing in an industrial hinterland, which extended as far south as Birmingham. In other words, Liverpool’s role in the imperial enterprise should not be ignored, and this conference should provide a chance to re-examine the role of the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce, for example, in imperial politics and decision-making. Of particular concern will be the influence of Liverpool business interests in the ‘imperialism of free trade’ and the consolidation of the Raj in India, c. 1815-1870, the scrambles for Africa and Southeast Asia at the end of the century, and the colonial development and welfare initiatives from the 1920s onwards.

As well as re-thinking Liverpool’s role in the wider, colonial world, the project will provide a testing ground for the burgeoning body of literature on the metropolitan socio-cultural imprint of imperialism and decolonisation. How popular was empire amongst the average citizens of the ‘second imperial city’, and hence how disturbing psychologically was the loss of empire for Liverpudlians? Was the presence of masculine imperial culture as all-pervasive as some cultural historians have tried to argue? How were Liverpool’s links with the colonial world reflected in the city’s schools and in its architecture and other forms of public display?