Greater Manchester’s historical involvement in the slave trade is one that has been largely unexplored in comparison to Britain’s port cities, such as Liverpool and Bristol. However, the economic rise of Manchester and the North West during the 18th and 19th centuries is intrinsically linked with the slave trade.
A series of exhibitions and events across Greater Manchester in this bicentenary year seeks to uncover the region’s involvement in the slave trade as well as its contribution to slavery’s ultimate abolition.
Revealing Histories sees eight museums and galleries across the region (see below for list) join together to explore and commemorate the lasting legacy of the slave trade.
Emma Walker, chair of the Revealing Histories marketing group explains: “Revealing Histories takes a fresh look at the collections of these museums and galleries and the buildings they are housed in, revealing hidden histories of the region’s involvement in the slave trade.
“The project includes exhibitions, discussion and debate groups, citywide tours and creative youth partnerships. Public interaction plays an essential role in our year of activity,” she adds.
During the slave trade period, British ships transported an estimated 2.8 million African slaves. The North West of England built its new industrialised economy around this trade. Slavery boosted the textile industry, which was the engine of the Industrial Revolution.
Goods from Greater Manchester, primarily cotton textiles, were in great demand in West Africa and were traded for slaves throughout the 18th century. By 1770 one third of Manchester textiles were sold to the African market.
After the British abolished the slave trade in 1807 and subsequently slavery in 1834, they continued to import slave-grown raw cotton from the United States. This was produced by black slaves on plantations across the Southern States. Whilst the slave trade involved the purchase and shipment of perhaps 50,000 slaves a year before 1807, American cotton in 1861 was being grown by up to 2.5 million slaves.
Cotton and the businesses and products associated with it influenced the lives of virtually everyone living in Greater Manchester: directly through working in the cotton mills or by trading in cotton and indirectly through wearing cotton clothes, or working in businesses associated with cotton wealth such as banking. Several prominent Manchester families also owned plantations or were involved directly in slave trading through organising or helping finance slaving voyages.
By 1801, as a result of dramatic economic growth, Liverpool and Manchester were the largest provincial cities in Britain. The prosperity of industrial Greater Manchester is reflected in its built environment, through the mills and warehouses in which the cotton was produced and stored as well as the museums and galleries built to showcase this wealth.
The region was also home to a strong and active abolitionist movement. Manchester was at the centre of the anti-slavery movement during its early days. In 1787, 10,000 people – two thirds of Manchester’s male population – signed a petition against the slave trade.
In 1807, 439 mill owners petition against the abolition bill – within a few hours a counter-petition had 2,354 names. The abolition of slavery was a key issue in the general election of 1831, following the Great Reform Act, which gave Manchester political representation in Parliament for the first time.
“Revealing Histories illustrates the pervasive effect of the slave trade on British life beyond the port cities. Understanding the history of the slave trade and its legacies give it a contemporary resonance, and can be used to alter people’s perspectives and prejudices,” concludes Emma.
Details for the whole year of Revealing Histories events across Greater Manchester can be found at www.revealinghistories.org.uk or contact T: 0161 238 4540 to receive an event programme.
Participating galleries and museums across Greater Manchester
Bolton Museum & Archive Service, Le Mans Crescent, Bolton BL1 1SE T: 01204 332211
Gallery Oldham, Oldham Cultural Quarter, Greaves Street, Oldham OL1 1AL T: 0161 770 4653
Manchester Art Gallery, Mosley Street, Manchester M2 3JL T: 0161 235 8888
Museum of Science & Industry, Liverpool Road, Castlefield, Manchester M3 4FP T: 0161 832 2244
People’s History Museum, The Pump House, Bridge Street, Manchester M3 3ER T: 0161 839 6061
The Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL T: 0161 275 2634
The Whitworth Art Gallery, The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M15 6ER T: 0161 275 7450
Touchstones Rochdale, The Esplanade, Rochdale OL16 1AQ T: 01706 924492