The Triangle Trade and the English Export Ceramics Industry

On day ten of our journey through England, we came upon this mid 18th century punch bowl made in Liverpool. We saw this object at the Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent, and it evoked a range of reactions from those of us who gathered around it. When you first look at this object, what do you see?

Punch bowl, tin-glazed earthenware with the inscription “Success to the Africa Trade George Dickinson.” Made at Pennington’s Works in Liverpool, 1760-1770. Courtesy of The Potteries Museum.

Does the tin-glazed earthenware surface elegantly mimic porcelain? Is the deeply rounded form and high sides suggestive of its social purpose? Does its hand-painted, cobalt blue decoration appear to celebrate the strength of English ships and their mastery of the seas? Deborah Skinner, curator at the Center for Museum & Heritage Management and our guide through the Potteries Museum, called our attention to its inscription. Hand-painted on the bottom edge of the punch bowl are the words “Success of the Africa Trade George Dickinson.” It commemorated the success of Captain George Dickinson, a slave trader running goods and enslaved people between the Britain, Africa, and the West Indies. In our introduction to British ceramics, this punch bowl opened our eyes to a surprising connection between the growth of the English export ceramics industry and the slave trade.

Throughout our trip, we asked ourselves about the factors that facilitated the growth of different industries across the county. Staffordshire’s proximity to vast quantities of coal to fire pots and budding system of canals connecting it to Bristol allowed for the growth of its ceramics industry. But what does this have to do with the Triangle Trade? As Deborah Skinner explained to us, the transformation of Bristol from a sleepy seaside town to a booming trading center came about, in large part, through its role as a port in Atlantic and global trade networks. Bristol had a large shipyard and constructed ships for the slave trade; it also served as a launch point for those expeditions. Paired with its role importing colonial American and Caribbean sugar and tobacco while exporting British goods, Bristol quickly became a key port for industries seeking international consumers, including the Staffordshire pottery industry. Later, Liverpool grew in size and prominence, eclipsing Bristol, as a trading port based on capital gained through Atlantic trade of people and goods.

Map of Bristol in 1820. Courtesy of British History Towns Atlas.

This history, however, was not nearly so straightforward. Far from universally celebrating the city’s success and wealth born of the Triangle Trade, producers of British ceramics also used their goods to dissent and spread antislavery messages. While at the World of Wedgewood, we came upon a medallion portraying a supplicant slave. As an ardent antislavery advocate, founder Josiah Wedgewood used his craft and influence to spread the political messages and visual culture of the antislavery movement. He disseminated and gifted such medallions to people within his social sphere. In sharp contrast to the punch bowl produced in the same period, this ceramic object demonizes rather than celebrates the success of the slave trade.

Supplicant slave medallion. Made at Wedgwood Factory, Staffordshire. Courtesy of World of Wedgwood.

In this sense, Staffordshire ceramics embody many dimensions of 18th century British trade. Further, as objects conveying powerful political messages on both sides of the debate over slavery, the ceramics we saw served as political actors in their own right. At Winterthur we are taught and encouraged to look closely at objects to make connections between places, people, ideas, and practices. Needless to say, the ceramics at Stoke-on-Trent inspired a lively conversation for our group!

By Allison Robinson, WPAMC Class of 2018

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