Africa, the arrival of Europeans and the transatlantic slave trade

Revealing Histories trail and exhibition at the Manchester Museum

The Revealing Histories trail and exhibition at the Manchester Museum was a low cost, low tech intervention using the theme 'Remembering Slavery' to revisit the Museum’s displays and raise questions about the objects and the way they are interpreted. We hoped to catch people’s attention with the large vinyl panels attached to the glass and engage visitors in a debate, not just about the subject of the slave trade, but also about the Museum and its role in the modern world.

In researching the exhibition we discovered a wide variety of objects and specimens with direct connections, from slave-grown crops like sugar cane and cotton, to shackles and overseers’ whips. We also found trade goods such as ivory, metal tokens and beads; elaborate Ashanti weights for measuring gold, and ‘ring money’ – brass manillas that look like bracelets. We also uncovered some less obvious links:

  • Botanical specimens were collected by working-class plantsmen like John Nowell, who was a hand-loom weaver. Many cotton workers in Manchester supported the abolition of the slave trade, despite the threat to their jobs from an economic depression.
  • During the American Civil War in the 1860s, an ornithologist called Henry Dresser was hired by a Liverpool textile merchant to smuggle slave-grown cotton out of the Confederate States. While he was there, Dresser collected hundreds of birds and their eggs, which later became part of the Museum’s collection.
  • Two late 1800s carved wooden figures from the Niger Delta show that trade with Africa did not stop after abolition. The man is carrying a traded rifle and the woman a bottle of imported gin. The man is also wearing a ‘Billy Coke’ hat, which was fashionable in England at the time.

These connections show that all our lives are intertwined however far apart we are in time or space. Attitudes and opportunities today are still shaped by events that took place centuries ago.