Chapter 3: To Liverpool by Sail
TO MILLIONS OF PEOPLE around the world today, Liverpool is famous as the home of the Beatles. Back in Asa Eldridge’s day the city was equally renowned but for a very different reason: as one of the world’s greatest ports. Forty percent of the world’s trade passed through its docks, and for a while the city was wealthier than London. “Sailors love this Liverpool; and upon long voyages to distant parts of the globe, will be continually dilating upon its charms and attractions, and extolling it above all other seaports in the world.” So wrote Herman Melville in Redburn, based on his own experience as a Liverpool-bound sailor.
The port first rose to prominence in the eighteenth century on the back of history’s most ignominious commerce: the Atlantic slave trade. Liverpool was a key apex of the infamous “golden triangle,” the triangular trade between Europe, Africa and the New World that brought huge profits to those involved. In Liverpool’s case, the triangle typically began with the shipping of textiles, ironware and guns to the west coast of Africa, where they were bartered for slaves. It continued with the transport of these slaves across the ocean to America or the West Indies, where they were auctioned in public markets. The profits from these odious transactions were then used to buy goods such as tobacco, sugar and cotton, which were shipped back to Liverpool to complete the triangle. By the late 1700s over one hundred slaving ships were leaving Liverpool each year, representing about three quarters of the entire European activity in slave trading. In all, Liverpool merchants were responsible for transporting around 1.5 million African slaves across the Atlantic.
By the time Asa Eldridge first crossed the same ocean, the vile trade on which Liverpool’s prosperity was built had long since been abolished in Britain. The Slave Trade Act of 1807 had made this business illegal throughout the British Empire, and the following year the Royal Navy-which largely controlled the world's oceans-established the West Africa Squadron to enforce it.