Dane Yates, Salford Socialist Alternative
Throughout the most recent wave of Black Lives Matter uprising against racial oppression, statues and memorials have come to play an important and somewhat polarising role. Statues dedicated to racists and slave-owners have understandably become the target of many protesters. In the United States the situation is much clearer as the offending statues are usually generals, politicians and other key figures from the Confederacy, who fought in the American Civil War to continue the ‘right’ of White capitalists in the southern states to own predominantly Black slaves, and put them to back-breaking work in the cotton fields of the South.
What may have come as a surprise to some, however, is that in this country there are also numerous, otherwise inconspicuous, statues and monuments which quietly pay tribute to a darker side of British history; a history of racist imperialism and oppression, linked in no small way to the international slave trade. On 7th June the toppling by protesters of a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th century slave trader from Bristol, made international headlines. This act came after many years of campaigning to have the offensive statue removed. Some who oppose the bringing down of these statues state that they are an important reminder of our history ‘good and bad’. It is perhaps ironic that the action of removing this particular statue has done more to teach of Britain’s role in the slave trade, than the statue managed in the 125 years since its erection.
Manchester, in comparison to cities such as Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, has a less direct link to slavery, and as such there are fewer monuments in the city that pay testament to this part of British history. There are, however, many monuments to industrialists-cum-philanthropists, who are lauded in local history for their charitable donations to the city of Manchester, including financing almshouses, libraries and children’s street missions. Some of these figures are seen to have held ‘radical’ politics. Yet what is ignored about them is that as industrialists, and so capitalists, they put the people of Salford and Manchester to work in some of the most deplorable conditions imaginable, in their mills and factories, all in the pursuit of profit. The money that they then leisurely invested back into public institutions was made by the toil of the workers of both cities.
Manchester 'clothed the World'
By the late 18th century, Lancashire imported around three quarters of all of the raw cotton grown on American slave plantations. This was at a time when, through the booming mills, it was said that ‘Manchester clothed the World’. In fact Manchester’s cotton mills generated up to £200,000 per year (the equivalent of £28million today), yet the workers living in the squalid dwellings of Manchester and Salford wouldn’t have felt much of the benefit; and the Black slaves who had originally picked the cotton on the other side of the Atlantic obviously wouldn’t have received as much as a cent of these profits.
On a pedestrian side-street, around 200 yards from the steps of Manchester Town Hall, stands another statue, one no less connected to the history of slavery. The statue is of 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, who was President during the American Civil War when his Northern Union fought against the southern Confederacy, who’s rebellion was based on continuing the ownership of slaves, something that the Northern Union was trying to abolish. At the base of the statue is inscribed an extract from a letter of gratitude that Lincoln wrote to the ‘working-men of Manchester’. It is important to examine why this letter was addressed to the workers of the city, rather than the mill-owners, local politicians or just the region in general.
During the course of the Civil War, Lincoln placed blockades on Confederate controlled ports which were key in exporting the raw cotton destined for Manchester’s mills. This drop in the access to raw materials saw around 60% of mills in the area stand idle, having devastating effects on the lives of the workers and becoming a contributing factor to the Lancashire Cotton Famine 1861-65.
British capitalists supported the Confederacy
This also began to have an effect on the profits of the capitalists in northern England. Shipping barons in Liverpool openly sided with the Confederacy; it is said that at the time there were more Confederate flags flying on the banks of the River Mersey than in the entire state of Virginia. These shipping bosses organised warships for the Confederate army and ran merchant ships which attempted to circumnavigate the blockade. In Manchester the mill owners formed an alliance to lobby the British government to deploy the Royal Navy to smash the Union blockade, a move which would’ve effectively put Britain on the side of the slave-owners’ revolt. The industrialists and philanthropists, including some of the so-called ‘radical’ Liberals of Manchester, showed their true colours to the cause for abolition, as soon as it began to impact on their profits.
For the workers suffering the material effects of blockade it was a different matter. Meetings of workers were organised across the region, some attended by Abolitionists from the United States. At one meeting in Ashton-under-Lyne veteran Chartist, Ernest Jones, told a crowd of mill-workers, understandably worried about the loss of work and prospects during the blockade, “...the South is your enemy - the enemy of your trade, the foe of your freedom, a standing threat to your property. Slave labour is direct aggression on freedom across the world. The key that shall reopen our closed factories is the sword of the victorious North.”
Workers pledge solidarity
On New Years Eve 1862, as the effects of the Lancashire Cotton Famine were really beginning to take hold, a meeting of workers was held at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. The meeting pledged support to the Union and an opposition to slavery, a letter was written to Abraham Lincoln stating that; “[for] The Working-Men of Manchester, England. Justice demands for the black, no less than for the white, the protection of the law.”
The ‘liberal’ Manchester Guardian advised workers not to attend the meeting at the Free Trade Hall, telling mill hands that they were better off dropping their support for the embargo - a craven attempt to rally support amongst the workers for the position of their capitalist bosses. This call, however, fell on deaf ears as many workers attended. During the meeting these same workers showed an act solidarity with the Black slaves of North America by passing the following resolution:-
This meeting, recognising the common brotherhood of mankind and the sacred and inalienable right of every human being to personal freedom and equal protection, records its detestation of negro slavery in America, and of the attempt of the rebellious Southern slaveholders to organise on the great American continent a nation having slavery as its basis.
These meetings in Manchester were mirrored by well-attended meetings of mainly working people across the country. Though the epicentre of further action was based in the mill towns of Lancashire. Riots broke out, the largest of which happened in Stalybridge (now Greater Manchester) where some 7000 starving workers rose up against the conditions they were subjected to whilst living off the miserly relief of the Poor Law. When small amounts of cotton - which had been stockpiled by speculative merchants and sold at inflated prices - did make it to the mills, the workers refused to handle it, only too aware that the last hands to touch this cotton were those of slaves. Even under the conditions of abject poverty, the workers’ support for abolishing slavery was resolute.
This was recognised in a letter addressed to Abraham Lincoln from the International Working Men’s Association (also known as the First International) which amongst others bore the signatories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, that stated
The working classes of Europe understood at once, even before the fanatic partisanship of the upper classes for the Confederate gentry had given its dismal warning, that the slaveholders' rebellion was to sound the tocsin for a general holy crusade of property against labour, and that for the men of labour, with their hopes for the future, even their past conquests were at stake in that tremendous conflict on the other side of the Atlantic. Everywhere they bore therefore patiently the hardships imposed upon them by the cotton crisis, opposed enthusiastically the proslavery intervention of their betters — and, from most parts of Europe, contributed their quota of blood to the good cause.
The British ruling class were sceptical of the ‘freedom and democracy’ of the northern Union, they understood only too well how British industry benefited from American slave labour, by way of cheaper cotton. The government was at an impasse, they knew that to support the British capitalists and side with the Confederacy could come at the cost of lighting a revolutionary movement across the country. In fact, the actions of the British workers (in supporting Black slaves in America) led to a nervous government passing the Second Reform Act. This enfranchised some workers for the first time and doubled the electorate. The passing of this Act highlighted the bourgeois fears of a movement engendered by the fight against slavery. Trotsky later observed that the “revolutionary victory on American territory gained the vote for a section of the British working class (the 1867 Act.)”
Whilst statues, monuments and memorials across the country can be argued to attest to both ‘good and bad elements’ of history, it is no surprise that the overwhelming majority of statues to so-called ‘great men’ at times open the door to some of the more uncomfortable, and often buried, parts of British history. By contrast there is a noticeable lack of monuments and memorials to the role played throughout history of the working-class; a role which often consisted of shows of exceptional solidarity with workers around the world. It was such a show of solidarity from the mill-workers of Manchester that lead to Abraham Lincoln to write ‘I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the working-men of Manchester are called to endure in this crisis’ continuing, ‘Under the circumstances, I cannot but regard your decisive utterances upon the question as an instance of sublime heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country.’