In the Beatles’ idyllic “Penny Lane,” barbers shave their customers, nurses sell poppies, and bankers wander through the pouring rain. But the man who gave his name to the famous street engaged in a far less reputable business.
James Penny was a Liverpool-based slave-ship captain, slave trader and an outspoken anti-abolitionist. In the second half of the 18th century, when Liverpool was a port of call for slave ships traveling from Africa to the Americas and the city’s economy was heavily reliant on the slave trade, Penny was one of seven powerful slave traders who had streets in the city named after them.
Earlier this month, the Liverpool City Council considered a proposal under which streets named after slave traders would be renamed after figures such as British abolitionists William Roscoe and William Wilberforce.
But when the council realized that Penny Lane was among the streets that would have to be renamed, it hesitated. Penny Lane is one of the most significant tourist sites in Liverpool; thousands of people come each year to visit the street made famous in the 1967 Beatles song. In the end, the council decided to leave the name unchanged.
What follows is from the 1789 report of the “Lords of the Committee of Council appointed for the Consideration of all Matters relating to Trade and Foreign Plantations,” made available by the UCLA library. Penny had given lengthy testimony before the commission in favor of slavery and had sought to show, among other things, that the passage from Africa to the Americas was not an inhumane one, as others had charged.
‘As to the Number of Slaves and Sailors he lost in each of these Voyages, he can speak only with Certainty to Four Voyages, from Papers in his Possession -- That the Negroes of some Parts of Africa are subject to more Mortality than others, during the Voyage, from the Difference in their Strength and Constitution -- Those Negroes from the Gold Coast and Whydah, who feed on Indian Corn, have in general little or no Mortality -- That upon an Average he estimated (from his own Experience, and from the best Information he has collected from others, conversant in the trade) that the Mortality is about one Twelfth Part.”
” ... THAT HE FOUND himself impelled, both by Humanity and Interest, to pay every possible Attention both to the Preservation of the Crew and of the Slaves.... The Slaves here will sleep better than the Gentlemen do on Shore -- That the Slaves in general do not show any great Concern on their first coming on Board -- They frequently express Fears, from an Apprehension of being eaten; which it is the Business of the Traders to remove -- That with respect to the general Manner of treating them on Board, they are comfortably lodged in Rooms fitted up for them, which are washed and fumigated with Vinegar or Lime Juice every Day, and afterwards dried with Fires, in which are thrown occasionally Frankincense and Tobacco -- They lie on bare Boards, but the greatest Princes in their own Country lie on their Mats, with a Log of Wood for their Pillow -- the Men Slaves are fettered when they first come on Board, from prudential Motives -- but during the Passage, if they appear reconciled to their Condition, their Fetters are gradually taken off -- The Women, Youths, and Children are always at Liberty, and are kept in separate Apartments -- The Whole of the Slaves are brought upon Deck every Day, when the Weather permits, about Eight of the Clock -- If the Weather is sultry, and there appears the least Perspiration upon their Skins, when they come upon Deck, there are Two Men attending with cloths to rub them perfectly dry, and another to give them a little Cordial -- The Surgeon, or his Mate, also generally attends to wash their Mouths with Vinegar or Lime Juice, in order to prevent Scurvy. After they are upon Deck, Water is handed to them to wash their Hands and Faces.”
” ... THEY ARE AMUSED with Instruments of Music peculiar to their own Country, with which he provided them; and when tired of Music and Dancing, they then go to Games of Chance -- The Women are supplied with Beads, which they make into Ornaments; and the utmost Attention is paid to the keeping up their Spirits, and to indulge them in all their little Humours.”
”... THAT IN TIME OF WAR he has sometimes disciplined Part of the Negroes as Marines, and has had such Confidence in them, that he has frequently been upon the Quarter Deck in the Middle of them, when they have been armed, and have been entrusted with Powder and Balls -- That after good Treatment he has frequently seen them perfectly reconciled to their Condition, and in Appearance as happy as any of his Crew -- Is of Opinion, That the Treatment of the Negroes, on Board Ships in general employed in this Trade is equally proper and humane with that he has just now described ... he does not think any Regulation made by Law would have the Effect of enforcing a kinder Treatment for them.”
” ... 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 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.”