A Hidden Alliance
Updated: Oct 23, 2022
We explore the underreported anti-slave lecturing circuit in northwest England and its impact on the working classes.
In a quiet little square surrounded by nondescript office blocks in central Manchester stands a statue of the US president Abraham Lincoln as a testament to its anti-slavery movement and solidarity with the Union during the American Civil War. Beneath the bronzed statue is inscribed the words: 'the support that the working people of Manchester gave in their fight for the abolition of slavery during the American Civil War…'. Part of a letter sent to the working class of Manchester from Abraham Lincoln commending them on their historic act of solidarity against the slave trade. In the early 19th century, Manchester, powered by the extraordinary growth of its cotton industry, became the world's first industrial city. But the cotton industry that fuelled the mills and factories of Britain's industrial revolution came directly from the American South – produced through the labour of nearly two million enslaved African Americans. Despite the British passing the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, which gave all enslaved people in the British empire their freedom after a period of up to six years. The UK remained economically dependent on it. This paradox of British morality and Britain's economic interest came into stark relief in 1861 with the onset of the American Civil War. The Northern and Southern states went into battle over the economic and political control of slavery. Lincoln sent battleships to blockade the southern ports and stop the flow of cotton to Britain and other European countries. Believing that they would see the conflict as an anti-slavery issue rather than an anti-protection issue and not intervene in favour of the South.
The blockade helped tip an already declining textile industry into a more profound depression otherwise referred to as the Cotton famine (1861-65). By the end of 1862, almost half a million working-class Northerners were out of work and receiving some form of poverty relief. In the following year, riots erupted in Stalybridge, one of the worst affected towns, when local officials replaced direct money payments with a voucher system. Soup kitchens were opened to help workers evicted from their homes. As the poverty worsened throughout the region, thousands of unemployed workers left their towns and emigrated overseas to America, Australia, and New Zealand. In fact, by 1864, 1,000 people had left the region. Many mill and shipping companies resented the blockade. They lobbied the British government to intervene in the war and smash the embargo, allowing the precious raw cotton back into Europe. In Liverpool, a city made wealthy by cotton imports, it was said that more Confederate flags were flying along the banks of the Mersey than Virginia. The city was instrumental in running arms to the Confederacy and even built warships for the southern states. British neutrality meant that warships could not legally be made in the country for either side. Even the liberal-leaning Manchester Guardian urged the Rochdale mill workers to drop their support of the embargo. But they resisted, in a meeting at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, on 31 December 1862, despite their increasing hardship, they vowed to support the Union in its fight against slavery. An extract from the letter they wrote in the name of the Working People of Manchester to His Excellency Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America, says: ... the vast progress which you have made in the short space of twenty months fills us with hope that every stain on your freedom will shortly be removed, and that the erasure of that foul blot on civilisation and Christianity – chattel slavery – during your presidency, will cause the name of Abraham Lincoln to be honoured and revered by posterity. We are certain that such a glorious consummation will cement Great Britain and the United States in close and enduring regards. — Public Meeting, Free Trade Hall, Manchester, 31 December 1862.
Yet cotton workers, despite their great hardships, pledged solidarity with the enslaved Africans on the plantations. At one public meeting, several workers declared that they would rather starve than support slavery.
The contributions of Black abolitionists are often overlooked when analysing the abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade in Britain and its empire. But they played a huge role in opening the eyes of the British public to the terror and brutality of the slave trade in Britain and its empire. The Sons of Africa, now considered Britain's first Black political organisation, were instrumental in helping bring the anti-slave message to the English working classes. While working behind the scenes to aid their White allies in getting cases to courts such as the Zong massacre and lobbying pro-abolitionists MPs to pass anti-slave legislation. The Sons of Africa were a group of Black Abolitionists brought together under the leadership of Olaudah Equiano in 1785. Its members were educated Africans in London, including formerly enslaved men like Ottobah Cugoano, Olaudah Equiano, and other leading members of London's Black community. They had strong ties with the Anti-Slavery Society, a British abolitionist group of twelve White Quaker and Anglican men, including prominent anti-slave campaigners Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp. The Sons of Africa referred to Thomas Clarkson as "our constant and generous friend."