By Renée S. Gordon
“The sun never sets on the children of Africa.”
The earliest documentary proof of sub-Saharan Africans in Britain is of their presence in the early second Century in a military colony in Carlisle. Less than 50 years later, 253-58, a North African division of Roman legionnaires was sent to England with the express purpose of guarding Hadrian’s Wall and seven centuries later there is evidence of Moroccan prisoners being transported to Ireland by the Vikings. The oldest, authenticated, physical record of the presence of blacks is that of a young girl’s skeleton dating from 1000 AD found 150-miles from Manchester in Norfolk.
John Hawkins led England’s first slave voyage in 1562. He captured and traded for 300 backs in Sierra Leone. By the time Britain declared the trade illegal at least 10 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic Ocean with a low estimate of 2 million failing to survive the voyage. More than 1.5 million enslaved were carried to North America’s British islands but census figures reveal that the total black population was only 600,000 by 1807.
The United Kingdom (UK) interprets the story of its role in the slave trade in ways that the United State doesn’t. They have taken a holistic look at slave trafficking in the 18th and 19th Centuries and, even more impressively, at the economic implications and benefits for institutions, individuals and the country as a whole. While Liverpool was the epicenter of the slave trade, Manchester, known as “Cottonopolis,” was the industrial ground zero for the profits of the cotton industry.
Manchester’s story is remarkable and is not only the story of the “detestable trade,” but also, true to Mancunians natural radicalism, a tale of the birth of British abolitionism. Manchester is indeed magical and as you walk its streets many of the relevant sites remain intact and evoke a sense of the era when cotton was king and drove the world’s economy.
Oddly enough the best orientation for this tour is a quick trip to Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum (ISM) located along the Albert Docks. The 8-acre dock area on the Mersey River inlet was opened in 1846 with more than 1 million feet of floor space in five warehouses. The ISM, located on the upper levels of the Maritime Museum, presents an outstanding historical overview of the international slave trade from its inception to modern slavery through state-of-the-art exhibits, innovative presentations, videos, artifacts, interactive stations and dioramas. There are three thematic galleries, “Life in West Africa”, “Enslavement and the Middle Passage” and the “Legacies of Slavery”.
The initial exhibits are displays of African artifacts that lead to a reconstruction of an Igbo family compound. Information in this area relates to the fact that Africa’s archeological record is the oldest in the world with stone tools dating from 2.6 million years ago. Highlights of the museum include gold artifacts from ancient kingdoms, a harrowing 360 degree theater experience that puts you in the hold of a slave ship, an interpretation of slave rebellions beginning with the first one in 1522 and a Klan outfit from 20th Century New York. The view from a window on the tour route directs your attention to George’s Dock where slave ships were unloaded, the European answer to Africa’s Gorée Island. www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism
Manchester seems always to have been involved with the textile industry, first wool, but by the 17th century also silk and cotton. Early mills needed fast-flowing water to turn waterwheels to power the machines. In 1781 the first steam-powered cotton mill was built by Richard Arkwright in Manchester. It was the first factory of its type and served as a prototype for other mills heralding the Industrial Revolution. The mechanization of the textile mills allowed mills to move away from water sources and into the cities and increased production by functioning 23 hours a day.
Manchester’s economy thrived on the mills and their connection to the African slave trade. In the beginning the raw cotton came from plantations in the West Indies, as demand grew cotton was obtained from the American South. The cotton was brokered in Manchester and sold to mills. Manchester’s mills wove it into fabric and goods that were traded in Africa for slaves as well as coarse annabasses, the loincloths worn by the captured. It is estimated that the city earned the equivalent of $50 million in modern currency.
The Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) on Liverpool Road is situated inside and around the world’s oldest commercial railway station. The complex consists of 15 galleries including the Making of Manchester, a model of “The Baby,” the first computer with a memory and storage and a working textile mill. A highlight of the tour is an interactive walk thru trail that explains how cotton was traded and its affect on the slave trade. This is a must. It is free and has access for the disabled. www.mosi.org.uk
Situated on St. Ann’s Square are two important slave trade landmarks, the Cotton Bud Fountain and the Royal Exchange. The fountain, a giant cotton boll, was erected to memorialize Manchester’s dependence on the cotton trade.
The Royal Exchange was the site of cotton trading in the 18th and 19th centuries. The first Exchange opened in 1729. There was need for a larger building erected in 1809, expanded in 1849 and after Queen Victoria’s 1851 visit it became the “Royal” Exchange. During WWII the building was bombed but did not cease operation until 1968. In 1973 the Royal Exchange Theater opened as the largest theater in the round in the world. This futuristic stage is suspended from the ceiling. Once the largest commercial building in the world, this glass and steel roofed structure is worth a visit.
Manchester played a role in the early abolitionist movement when Thomas Clarkson spoke there in 1787 after being physically attacked in Liverpool. His speech was delivered in the cathedral, the largest meeting space in the city at the time. As a result of his speech 20 percent of the people signed a petition in support of abolition. The city continued its support through boycotts, meetings, petitions and lectures. Henry “Box” Brown arrived to lecture and made his home in Manchester.
When the Civil War started and the South wanted England’s support the mill workers of Manchester wrote a letter to Lincoln expressing their support for the Union cause. He responded, thanking them for their refusal to process American cotton. To commemorate this event a bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln, inscribed with the words of the letter, stands in Lincoln Square. Directly behind him is what was the Calico Warehouse complete with original glass roof. More than 85 percent of the world’s finished cotton was stored there.
In the 1850s Manchester was the largest textile city in the world and a walk along Whitworth Street is a step back in time. These architecturally unique multi-story buildings functioned as warehouses, offices and inspection stations. The street has been designated a conservation area.
The People’s History Museum is committed to interpreting the history of Britain’s working class. It is located inside the only surviving Edwardian Pump House. Reopened in 2001, the museum artfully presents an overview of the revolutionary and reform history of Manchester. Information is discover through opening doors and drawers and peering at artifacts. A gallery is dedicated to the abolitionist movement and allows you to meet” those dedicated to the cause. www.phm.org.uk
Our last three stops are in districts outside of the City Centre. All three are easily accessible, unique and very much worth the effort.
Samuel Greg’s 1783 Quarry Bank Mill & Styal Estate is located in Styal. Greg was also the owner of a Dominican sugar plantation and slaves’ clothing was manufactured in his mill. Tours of the six major sites include the original 32 ft. high waterwheel, the worker’s village, the 1790 Apprentice House and Garden and the functioning mill. An authentically clad docent guides you through the life of a child worker on Apprentice House tours. Contracted children older than seven were fed, clothed and made to work six days a week from 6 AM to 8 PM. They slept in a dorm, two to a bed, with fresh sheets once a month and new straw once a year. Quarry Bank was considered a model mill because Greg was so humane. www.nationaltrust.org.uk
A must visit is the original Stockport Air Raid Shelters. Work started on these shelters in September 1938 and a portion opened in October 1939. The tunnels are 7 ft. high, 7 ft. wide, 40 ft. underground and nearly 1 mile long. A designated route takes you into the hospital, canteen, first aid station, toilets and the detention area. Interesting things you see along the way are a baby’s gas mask and the bunk bed area. By war’s end the tunnels could accommodate up to 6,000 people. This is a totally unique experience and one I highly recommend. www.airraidshelters.org.uk
Nearby the air raid shelter is the Stockport Hatworks, a working hat factory and the world’s only museum dedicated to the industry. For more than 200 years Stockport was the center of the hatmaking industry. Tours begin with a 10 minute orientation film and proceed to a series of dioramas that depict it as a cottage industry. The third area is the workroom floor where hats are still made by hand. For years hatmaking was hazardous because workers breathed in fibers and were prone to tremors and depression because of exposure to the mercury salts rubbed into the fabrics, hence, “the Mad Hatter.”
The cowboy hat Americans believe was first created by John Stetson was not. He was sued by Christie’s hat shop that proved they made it first and they won the suit. The Stockport Hatworks makes hats for many western movies and made cowboy hats for John Wayne. They have a shop on site. www.hatworks.org.uk
Manchester, England is not just a perfect destination but it is also an ideal base for exploring the Lake District and Liverpool. Daily flights leave Philadelphia. What are you waiting for? www.visitmanchester.com and www.visitbritain.org
I wish you smooth and liberating travels!