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."
The Sons of Africa conveyed their anti-slave messages to the public and elites through a variety of ways to help them accomplish their goals. They wrote letters, for example, to the MP Sir William Dolben. They often sent letters opposing slavery and detailing conditions of the Middle Passage to newspapers to help provoke debate. Shortly after his correspondence with them and a visit to see a slave ship being fitted out, Dolben proposed a Parliamentary bill to improve the conditions on slave ships. The Slave Act 1788 was the first law passed to regulate the slave trade, establishing standards of how many slaves could be carried in relation to ship size.
Both Equiano and Cugoano wrote books detailing the hardships and suffering they had experienced as slaves. Cugoano was the first African to publicly demand the end of slavery and to challenge the perceived justification for enslaving Africans. He wrote: "if any man should buy another man... and compel him to his service without any agreement of that man... it is the duty of the man who is robbed in that manner to get out of the hands of his enslaver." The group also held public lectures. They worked closely with the Anti-Slavery Society and frequently lectured to their membership base. But unlike them, they didn't just confine their messaging to the English middle classes and actively targeted the working classes of the new industrial cities such as Liverpool, Bristol, and Lancashire by hosting lectures and writing letters to newspapers describing their enslavement and the brutalities of the slave trade.
"The Sons of Africa were just as energetic as white abolitionist... the records of their activities are far from complete and much about them remains unknown."
By the late 1700s and early 1800s, the anti-slave lecturing circuit had become a mainstay of the abolitionist movement. In the 1800s, many abolitionists who were former enslaved Africans such as William Wells Brown, Henry Box Brown, Sarah Parker Redmond, Frederick Douglass, and James Watkins also visited the northwest of England to campaign against slavery in America. James Watkins escaped from slavery in the USA and became well known throughout the northwest of England through his public lectures on the horrors of slavery. Like fellow escapee, Henry Box Brown, Watkins had come to England because of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which was a law that declared all runaways, even in free states, should be returned to their owners. Formerly enslaved James Watkins came to live in Bolton and his landlord, a printer, agreed to publish his autobiography. This biography is now held at Bolton Museum & Archive Service. Watkins visited local millworkers to petition their support for the anti-slavery movement, emphasising the connection between the cotton industry and slavery. Watkin's anti-slavery campaign amongst local workers did not fall on deaf ears. The workers gave him their support. He made the plight of enslaved people known across many areas of the borough.
There were many escaped former enslaved African Americans who toured Lancashire and the rest of Britain to condemn the southern slaving states of America. In the Oldham Archives, the narrative of one escapee, James Johnson, a 'colored Evangelist,' has been discovered.
Probably the most famous of these touring former slaves was William Andrew Jackson. He escaped from slavery as the coachman of southern leader Jefferson Davis. He was a great speaker and used his speaking skills to rouse people into supporting the anti-slavery northern states of America. He was widely praised by Lancashire workers. 'I hope you will not allow any temporary suffering to lead you to give your sympathies to the enemies of human freedom on the other side of the Atlantic; I hope we shall prove there is something we love better than cotton, that is liberty of the human race.' George Thompson at a meeting in Stockport, 1861.
Henry 'Box' Brown was born enslaved on an American plantation and worked in a tobacco factory. In 1849 Brown's master refused to buy Brown's wife when she and their children were put up for sale, and they were sold to a man in North Carolina. This act prompted Brown's determination to escape from slavery, and a scheme was hatched to post him to Philadelphia in a box. Helped by the free black American, James Caesar Anthony Smith, Brown was posted from Richmond in Virginia to the city of Philadelphia. The 350-mile journey took 27 hours to complete. In Philadelphia, the box was opened, and Brown jumped out and declared, 'Good morning, gentlemen!' as if he had arrived on a train. The story of this journey to freedom caught the public's imagination, and Brown became well known, joining the abolitionist lecture circuit and calling himself Henry Box Brown to commemorate his escape.
Brown and James Caesar Smith toured the north of England with an exhibition called 'The Mirror of Slavery.' He spent the next 14 years lecturing and re-enacting the manner of his escape. By 1865 interest was lessening in stories of the American slavery experience due to the abolition of slavery after Lincoln's victory in the American Civil war.
Historian Robin Blackburn has compared how workers were treated in the two forms of labouring – saying that 'industrial discipline is similar to plantation discipline.'
Although some northwest workers supported the southern 'slave' states, the majority supported the 'anti-slavery northern cause, despite it meaning that they might suffer unemployment. The many well-attended meetings in communities throughout Lancashire show the extent of their support for the northern states. It was where many made the connection between the chattel slaves in the Americas and their own position of 'wage slavery' in poor conditions in the mills. Midway through the Cotton Famine, Abraham Lincoln sent over an aid package containing boxes of bacon and bread, bags of rice and corn, and 15,000 barrels of flour to help feed the starving people of Lancashire in recognition of their support of the northern states. Its arrival in Liverpool in February 1863 was greeted by an enthusiastic pro northern public meeting of between 3-4,000 people. The only surviving item, a flour barrel, is in a collection at Touchstones Rochdale.
On 14 August 2016, a plaque created by BBC History was unveiled to commemorate the Rochdale mill workers who supported the struggle against slavery during the American Civil War. It is located by a road still called today what is was known as then –"Cotton Famine Road." The road was cut across the landscape by unemployed workers from Lancashire in a public works scheme – a response to the humanitarian crisis that was unfolding in the region.