Who resisted and campaigned for abolition?

The abolition movement and mill worker solidarity

by Dr Alan Rice

'The sentiment of London was quite against the northern states, but Lincoln found in John Bright and Cobden and in all the men of great affairs in Manchester warm friends and sympathizers. It is owing not a little to the way in which the English cotton spinners stood by us which enabled us to preserve the Union and bring the war to a successful conclusion. For that reason we are very grateful.' John A. Steward in dedicating Manchester's Lincoln Memorial, 1919

Perhaps if looked at from a distance, the economic relationship between America and Britain was strange. At one end, in America, you had this ancient thug-like way of organising work which was cotton slavery. Yet at the other end, in the north west of England, you had all these new machines and inventions that helped process the slave picked cotton.

Despite these differences, Robin Blackburn compares how workers were treated in the two forms of labouring. He says that 'industrial discipline is similar to plantation discipline'. From this we can see that when Lancashire mill workers said that their wage slavery was linked directly to the conditions of the enslaved Africans, their argument is strong. Both systems harshly exploited the labourers involved.

The period of the American Civil War (1861-65) and the subsequent shortage of cotton produced was a tremendously difficult time for the economy of Lancashire and for its workers. Times were so tough that the period came to be known as the 'cotton famine'.

In some Lancashire cotton towns, unemployment due to the absence of raw cotton was extreme. For instance, in Burnley during the summer of 1862, 10,000 out of 13,000 operatives were out of work. This moment was highly important in Lancashire's relationship with cotton and the way picking and processing cotton exploited workers on both sides of the Atlantic. It was during this period that solidarity between working class 'slaves' and American black chattel slaves helped to defeat the pro-slavery southern states.

The sacrifices of the Lancashire workers were used by Abraham Lincoln to internationalise the struggle against the American South and promote it as part of a global struggle for human rights. Radicals in the north west of England went further. They made links between the oppressed working class in Britain and the chattel slaves in bondage in the American South. They spoke of the institution of slavery as a key:

'working man's question, for if it was right for slavery in one part it was right in another; and it behoved the working class to give no help to scoundrels who wanted their work done for nothing' (John Turner from Ashton, 1862).

There were many escaped former enslaved African Americans who toured Lancashire and the rest of Britain to condemn the southern slaving states of America. Just recently in 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