LIVERPOOL, England -- At Town Hall, the facade has sculpted heads of African peoples -- silent reminders of the victims of the slave trade that once helped make this city rich. Street names commemorate the places the slave merchants traded with -- Maryland Street, Virginia Street.
For 75 years, Liverpool merchants and seamen dominated the infamous trans-Atlantic commerce in human beings -- until 1807, when Britain banned it. For the next half-century they traded in the cotton, tobacco and sugar that slave labor produced. The edifices erected with the profits of the slave trade still stand out in the cityscape, like dubious jewels on a homespun dress.
But now Liverpool has been confronted with this dismal history in a way few other places have. A newly opened gallery at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in the old Liverpool docklands takes a hard look at the city's inglorious role in the buying and selling of human beings.
Entitled "Transatlantic Slavery, Against Human Dignity," the gallery puts slavery in a broad historical context that starts with pre-slavery African cultures and nations, and ends with slavery's continuing contemporary effects.
Public response has been strong. Attendance at the Maritime Museum has doubled since the exhibit opened in October. A comment board at the end of the gallery is always filled, often with heartfelt notes:
"Long overdue! The Horror!" says one. "A terrible and devastating story," says another. "I'm angry," says a third. "The exhibition is a good beginning, but definitely not the end."
To tell its grim story, the gallery displays original documents and artifacts, videos, even a small stand of growing sugar cane, to symbolize the crop that millions of slaves were brought to the Americas to cultivate. Perhaps most haunting is a reproduction of the hold of a slave ship.
The reproduction of the ship, with its low ceiling and wooden bunks, its projections of dimly seen bodies, writhing and tormented, and its recorded sounds and readings, recalls nothing so much as accounts and films of Auschwitz.
"It's broadly based on the Brookes, which was a Liverpool ship from the 1780s," says Allison Taubman, the curator who assembled the exhibit.
The diagram of how human beings could be packed most efficiently into the Brookes under the "regulated slave trade" has become one of the most famous symbols of the passage across the Atlantic. It shows about 480 figures crammed into a 100-foot-long ship of 320 tons.
"But when the ship actually sailed," Ms. Taubman says, "it had over 600 captives on board."
Death rates on these ships reached one in five by 1750, when surgeons were put aboard in an attempt to limit the number of casualties. The death rate was unsound economically.
The Transatlantic Slavery gallery fills the lower level of the Maritime Museum, a refurbished warehouse at the 140-year-old Albert Dock, now a tourist center not unlike Baltimore's Inner Harbor. "The Beatles' Story" is at the other end of the pier.
"Liverpool was not just the economic capital of the slave trade, but the political capital as well," says Ms. Taubman. The gallery displays the grand silver-plated serving dish the Town Council awarded James Penny, a Liverpool worthy who vigorously campaigned against abolition of the slave trade. The sweet, nostalgic Beatles song "Penny Lane" unwittingly celebrates the street named for him, and the many-branched serving dish used to be exhibited simply as an example of fine 18th century silverwork.
All of Liverpool's mayors from 1787 to 1807 were involved in the slave trade. By then Liverpool outfitted three-quarters of all English ships involved in the slave trade. In all, they made 5,300 voyages.
In the 18th century, English ships carried about 3 million enslaved Africans to America. From 1750 onward, Liverpool ships carried 30,000 to 40,000 slaves a year, according to the gallery catalog. After 1780, writes David Richardson, an economic historian, Liverpool was "by far the largest slave port in the Atlantic world."
Liverpool fought hard to preserve the slave trade when it was under attack in Parliament by abolitionists, Ms. Taubman says. But after the slave trade was banned in 1807 the city moved easily into the trade in raw cotton from America and palm oil from the old slave coasts of Africa.
American cotton bound for the mills of Manchester moved through Liverpool and the city vigorously supported the South in the Civil War, so much so that the Confederacy opened an embassy here.
Liverpool, in fact, remained dominant in seaborne trade with West Africa until the middle of this century, when shipping in general collapsed. But for most of the 20th century, Liverpool has served for Britons as a symbol of a city in decline.
The gallery was established with a $750,000 grant from the Peter Moores Foundation. Peter Moores is a member of a Liverpool family that owns the Littlewoods football pools, which are legal and pay out multimillion-dollar prizes.
Mr. Moores became interested in slavery and the slave trade when he bought a home in Barbados and traced its history. Africans were enslaved early and fatally on the sugar plantations there.
Official Liverpool has been reticent about the gallery. The town council has not been involved and has not acknowledged the exhibit's existence.
"It means looking at the official involvement," Ms. Taubman says. "That's difficult for the city fathers, if you like, to acknowledge."