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13 November 2014

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You are in: Manchester > Abolition > Manchester and slavery

Mill c. 1830 [courtesy of People's History Museum]

Mill in Ancoats, Manchester, c. 1830

Manchester and slavery

Back in the 1700s, Manchester's prosperous textile industry was thriving on the back of slavery. But it was the city's outrage at this trade in human cargo which sparked the campaign for abolition. Washington Alcott tells this complex story:

Manchester's direct and indirect connections to the Atlantic Slave Trade can be linked to the city’s thriving cotton industry which was built on slave-grown cotton from the West Indies. This cotton was subsequently woven into textiles, a major export item for Liverpool slave traders.

Child mill workers [pic: Manchester City Council]

Textiles: in Manchester's cotton mills

Manchester’s cotton mills produced 'coarse checks' (cloth or fabric with a pattern of crossed lines) and silk handkerchiefs. The industry reportedly earned Manchester up to £200,000 per annum - equivalent to £28 million today: mostly cloth that was traded for captured Africans.

As the demand for cotton cloth increased worldwide, traders responded by importing slave-grown cotton from America. This helped the city to treble its cotton trade in the last quarter of the 1700s. At the same time, the slave trade was booming.

Manchester cotton

In March 1807, when the British government abolished the trading of slaves from Africa, textiles from Manchester were deemed vital to the Liverpool slave trade not only because they were cheaper but also superior in quality to those made in the rest of Europe.

Illustration of slave being whipped

The horrors of slavery

Manchester’s goods were also purchased by Spanish West India Traders and re-sold in Africa. This was done via Jamaica and was considered illegal by the Spanish government but this trading, which lasted some 20 years, allowed some Manchester merchants to continue to profit from the slave trade after abolition. Several mercantile houses can still be seen on Whitworth Street. 

Another reason for Manchester's involvement was that light woven goods were popular on the slave coast of West Africa. Silk and cotton were the most popular of all materials and from the outset, the striped loincloths called annabasses were included in the cargo on slave ships.

"Despite the 1807 Act of Parliament, the Manchester anti slavery movement remained determined in its efforts to end slavery in the British colonies"

Washington Alcott, historian

There were many prominent Manchester families who had direct links with the slave trade. The Hibberts owned sugar plantations in Jamaica. Samuel Touchet (a Manchester MP) was a cotton/slave merchant, with an additional interest in insurance and a partnership in a West Indian business. Others owned plantations or were investors in slave trafficking: these included the Ashworth, Wrigley Armstrong, and Beresford families.

The rise of the anti-slavery movement

Despite Manchester’s direct role in the slave trade, the 1807 Act was strongly influenced by the city's campaigners, influential sections of the clergy and even Manchester cotton merchants themselves. The anti-slave trade movement here showed that they were serious about ending the traffic of Africans, putting pressure on the British government and slave traders through public meetings, petitions, and boycotting the use of sugar.

Thomas Clarkson

Abolitionist: Thomas Clarkson

One of the city’s major efforts in the anti-slave trade movement which immediately sparked renewed national attention was the invitation given to Thomas Clarkson to denounce slavery here in Manchester. Clarkson’s visit was a watershed that energised the anti-slavery campaign across the country. His address on October 8th 1787 at the Manchester Cathedral gave the national abolitionist movement a new focus. From Clarkson’s reception in Manchester and its impact, more local, regional and national anti-slavery lobbying emerged.

Clarkson’s visit added much weight to the formation of a number of anti-slavery organizations in Manchester including: the Anti Society Slavery Union; the Constitutional Society, the Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society, the Emancipation Society, and the Manchester Union. They were well aware of the campaign work of the MP William Wilberforce in parliament. All these factors encouraged the Manchester Anti Slavery Committee to organise a petition in support of Wilberforce calling for the abolition of the slave trade; a monumental drive for a petition against the slave trade collected over 10,500 names - roughly one in five Mancunians.

The Manchester radical abolitionist movement was becoming difficult to ignore. Amongst its supporters were well known public figures such as John Wesley, Dr John and Adam Clarke, among others. Samuel Bradburn, a prominent Methodist, stated in his support of free trade: "I have given up the use of sugar in everything, except medicine; and shall continue till the slave trade is abolished", and urged members of his Methodist conference to abstain from "a drug comprised of the slave dealers' sin and misery." 

Despite the 1807 Act of Parliament, the Manchester anti slavery movement remained determined in its efforts to end slavery in the British colonies (which was not outlawed until 1833).

last updated: 04/11/2008 at 15:08
created: 19/03/2007

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