I spent most of last week in Liverpool, on holiday. I had never visited the city before, and found it impressive and fascinating.
The centre of town is full of beautiful, grand buildings, monuments to the British Empire and its swift and bloody accumulation of wealth from around the globe, large amounts of which passed through the port of Liverpool.
The Museum of Liverpool tells a multitude of stories, revealing a place that is constantly reinventing itself, grasping the opportunities of history and incorporating new ideas, people and technologies as soon as they sail in on each new tide.
The holocaust we deny
I was aware, of course, of the central role of the transatlantic slave trade in making Liverpool rich. In the city museum there was a display of some of the bizarre and unexpected things brought back by traders – vast quantities of whalebone, mummified cats, exotic animals, and so on – while in the International Slavery Museum I read about a single boat journey which netted the owners a profit of £10,000.
Altogether, over 12 million African people were captured and transported into slavery between 1500 and 1900. The scale of this horror is difficult to contemplate and shamefully seldom acknowledged or considered by mainstream culture and education in the UK. The Slavery Museum rightly includes a focus on both the impact on the development of African societies and slavery’s complex legacy for black populations across America and Europe, rather than presenting the story of the trade itself in isolation.
One story from the museum that stuck in my mind was a reminder that not all slaves in north America were put to work on sugar plantations. Some found themselves in cities – their labour was used to build places like New York, creating the infrastructure and working on the docks from where goods were shipped back to Liverpool.
The echoes of slavery – and the colonialism which flowed from it – permeate every aspect of European and American society – from infant nutrition to policing, from film casting to the structural causes of mass migration.
Children of the Disappeared
Back in the Museum of Liverpool, there is another hidden story, shocking because it is so little known and yet it happened directly to people who are still living.
In 1945, under the post-war Labour government, a meeting took place at the Home Office, to formulate a plan for deporting hundreds of Chinese seamen who had settled in Liverpool during the war years.
There was a long history of Chinese sailors settling in Liverpool, dating back to the late 19th century, when Alfred Holt and Company began running steam ships to China. However, during the 1939-45 war, this population was boosted by thousands of Chinese sailors who were recruited to the British merchant navy, to keep the country supplied with goods, despite the obvious dangers.
As the war dragged on, many settled in Liverpool, forming relationships with local women and fathering children.
Once the war was over, the Chinese seamen were surplus to requirements. The exact reasons for the decision are not entirely clear – the government feared mass unemployment, the local council faced a shortage of housing, the shipping company wanted rid of some troublemakers –in any case, a decision was made that the Chinese men had to leave.
People were snatched into cars in the street. Others set off to look for work at the docks and never came home. Despite married men having a right to stay, they were packed off along with everyone else. Their wives, partners and children – who have uncovered this shabby tale – were left without a word, without any money coming in, without a link to the Chinese community.
Just as in the years of empire, the centuries of slavery, Britain plunders the world. People as well as goods are treated as chattels – used and disposed of at the convenience of state and capital.
A hostile environment
As we absorbed this tale in the museum, another visitor voiced her shock:
“They would never get away with that now.”
But they would. They do.
There are currently an average 12 of immigration raids per day across London. As part of Theresa May’s “hostile environment” for undocumented migrants, people are taken from their homes and workplaces to detention centres, where they can be held indefinitely. Some are later deported on specially chartered flights, while many more are carried on regular scheduled flights.
Since 2014, the government has been deporting people before their immigration appeals have been fully heard. After a protracted legal battle, this has been found to be unlawful, but not before families have been split apart, and their access to justice denied.
No one is illegal
I will be taking my Borders Kill banner to the Brighton Pride parade tomorrow, to join Lesbians & Gays Support the Migrants (Brighton). Their contingent is a necessary reminder that Pride is rooted in campaigning for justice, and that governments, police, immigration services and multinational corporations will not think twice before criminalising our brothers and sisters if it suits them. They are no allies of mine.
As we come together at Pride to celebrate the fact that our love is no longer deemed illegal, we need to reflect on where the focus of that state oppression has relocated. We will march not only because we are proud to be who are we, but because we are proud to defend the rights and freedoms of those other communities that are now criminalised by the state and demonised by the mainstream media.
We are proud to march alongside and in solidarity with Brighton’s migrant communities and to oppose racist immigration raids, detention and deportation across the UK. With this year’s parade being sponsored by Gatwick Airport (where migrants are routinely deported and detained) our message is more crucial than ever.