- How money from slavery made Greater Manchester
- The importance of cotton in north west England
- The Lancashire cotton famine
- Smoking, drinking and the British sweet tooth
- Black presence in Britain and north west England
- Resistance and campaigns for abolition
- The bicentenary of British abolition
The American Civil War and the Lancashire cotton famine
Statue of John Bright
John Bright: Quaker
John Bright, the son of a cotton manufacturer, was born in Rochdale in 1811. He received a Quaker education at schools in Lancashire and Yorkshire, an education that helped develop a passionate commitment to ideas of political and religious equality and human rights. Bright came to national fame as one of the leaders of the Anti-Corn Law League in the 1840s. He was a forceful and popular public speaker, and though he never held major political office he was one of the most influential politicians of the Victorian era.
Slavery was an anathema to the Quakers who provided many of the leaders of the early anti-slavery societies. Bright opposed slavery on moral grounds and was a fearless supporter of Abraham Lincoln and the northern states in the American Civil War.
In Bright’s words the southern slave owners were responsible for:
‘the most stupendous act of guilt that history has recorded in the annals of mankind’.
Support for the North in the American Civil War
He played a crucial role in ensuring that the country did not support the southern slavery states at a time when there was considerable sympathy for the Confederacy in Britain. Bright wrestled with the dilemma that the thriving Lancashire economy was one of the principal reasons why slavery was able to flourish in the USA and elsewhere. If Lancashire cotton mills, including his own family’s mills in Rochdale, did not rely on American cotton, then one of the pillars supporting the slavery economy would have been removed. He argued strongly to develop alternative supplies of cotton, encouraging its cultivation by free labour in countries such as India.
Speaking in 1861, Bright spelt out the underlying problem facing the Lancashire cotton industry:
‘Now I am going to transport you, in mind, to Lancashire, and the interests of Lancashire, which, after all, are the interests of the whole United Kingdom, and clearly of not a few in this metropolis. What was the condition of our greatest manufacturing industry before the war, and before secession had been practically attempted? It was this: that almost ninety per cent of all our cotton came from the Southern States of the American Union, and was, at least nine-tenths of it, the produce of the uncompensated labour of the negro. Everybody knew that we were carrying on a prodigious industry upon a most insecure foundation; and it was the commonest thing in the world for men who were discussing the present and the future of the cotton trade, whether in Parliament or out of it, to point to the existence of slavery in the United States of America as the one dangerous thing in connection with that great trade; and it was one of the reasons which stimulated me on several occasions to urge upon the Government of this country to improve the Government of India, and to give us a chance of receiving a considerable portion of our supply from India, so that we might not be left in absolute want when the calamity occurred, which all thoughtful men knew must some day come, in the United States.’
Public opinion in Britain shifted during the American Civil War, becoming more sympathetic towards the northern states, though in Lancashire the disruption of cotton supplies from the southern states brought immense hardships. Thousands of cotton operatives were made unemployed or worked only part-time.
Bright and Manchester
Bright’s relationship with Manchester was a stormy one, and in 1857 he failed to be re-elected as its MP because of his strong condemnation of the country’s participation in the Crimean War. He was however respected by many for following his religious principles and his forthrightness in expressing his moral position.
By the 1870s Manchester’s attitude towards him had changed to such an extent that he received the extraordinary honour of having a statue of himself placed in Manchester’s new town hall whilst he was still alive. Following his death in 1889, Manchester took the step of commissioning a second public statue. This marble statue was placed in Albert Square in front of the town hall, where it was unveiled in 1891. The sculptor was Albert Bruce Joy who also carved a statue of Bright for Birmingham, the constituency that he represented from 1857 until his death. These were not the only public monuments. Rochdale honoured Bright with a posthumous statue in 1893.