It was Christmas 1923 and the owners of the African Oil Nuts Company and Miller Brothers had a great festive idea. For their card to friends and family back home, why not paint Merry Xmas on the bodies of their African workers. You really couldn’t make it up!
At the Maritime Museum in Liverpool, England, there is a photograph in the slavery section of the museum that will make your jaw drop. Nigeria was a British colony and many enterprising English folk went out to the colonies to set up businesses and exploit the natural and human resources. The attitude to their local staff may have been benevolent but it was also demeaning and Africans were certainly not regarded, even as late as the 1920s, as equals.
Britain had outlawed slavery before the United States and a hundred years before, its navy had patrolled the seas stopping slave ships and liberating their occupants. But a few years earlier, Britain had been the greatest profiteer from slaves. It had operated something referred to as the “slave triangle” – with Liverpool as one point of that triangle.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, manufactured goods were sent to Africa to trade with local chiefs and obtain their war captives and other unfortunates as slaves. These were then shipped to the Americas – north and south – to work on plantations. Then the produce of these plantations – sugar and cotton being the most important – were shipped back to Britain’s industrial factories before being bought as finished goods by consumers – or sent to Africa to begin the triangular cycle again.
With the end of slavery, shipping millions of Africans to the Americas ceased. But exploitation and supremacist racist attitudes did not. This photograph of Nigerian workers turned into a human Christmas card evidences that. The European couple are Mr and Mrs Baxendale of Miller Brothers looking a bit sheepish.
Miller Brothers was a Liverpool based trading company and the Baxendales had journeyed out to the Nigerian town of Badagry to manage its affairs. One can only imagine what was going through the minds of their workers as they were humiliated in front of the camera.