Why was cotton so important in north west England?

Manchester, cotton and anti-slavery

by Terry Wyke

Manchester played an increasingly active part in the anti-slavery movement.  After the passing of the 1833 act, local abolitionists reacted to the disappointment that slavery was being continued by clandestine means in British colonies. Meetings were organised, protests made and petitions raised.

Pro and anti-slavery

A new generation of women also came forward, meeting in sewing circles, organising bazaars to raise money for the cause.  It is important not to exaggerate the numbers actively involved in the different abolitionist groups in the town. There was certainly sympathy for the cause but there was also the reality of the cotton industry. Fewer Lancashire businessmen were benefiting directly from ownership or investments in slave plantations, but the majority of the cheap cotton imported into Lancashire was slave-grown. By the 1850s some three-quarters of all Lancashire cotton was supplied by the slave states of the American south. This reliance on the USA left Lancashire vulnerable. If the American cotton crop failed or the supply was interrupted, then the consequences would be felt across the world, but above all in Lancashire.

Nonetheless the Lancashire cotton industry was regarded with immense pride.  Within the lifetime of the older inhabitants of the cotton towns, the apparently eternal tasks of spinning and weaving by hand had been brought to an end, replaced by machines that produced as much in one hour as a handworker could produce in a single month.

Sarah Redmond African American

The fact that American cotton was not produced by free labour was still not widely discussed. Sarah Redmond, a free African American, was one of a number of lecturers who came to Britain to raise awareness of the campaign to abolish slavery in the slave states. Speaking at the Manchester Athenaeum (now part of Manchester City Art Gallery) in 1859 she called on women in particular to raise public opinion and support the work of the American abolitionists. She reminded them of the terrible abuses suffered by female slaves, and that Manchester’s own prosperity was based on slave-grown cotton.

‘We have states where, I am ashamed to say, men and women are reared, like cattle, for the market. When I walk through the streets of Manchester and meet load after load of cotton, I think of those 8,000 cotton plantations on which was grown the 125 millions of dollars’ worth of cotton which supply your market, and I remember that not one cent of that money ever reached the hands of the labourers.’

When she returned later in the year to speak at the Athenaeum she observed that in all the towns in which she had lectured, it was in Liverpool and Manchester that she discerned the ‘pro-slavery spirit of America.’ It was a blunt observation that perhaps some of her audience would have acknowledged in private if not in public. 

American Civil War

It would take a great shock to change the slave system in America. That shock was the Civil War. The Lancashire cotton industry was already experiencing problems of overproduction, but the banning of exports by the Confederate states followed by the blockading of the southern ports by the northern states created a crisis that was a painful reminder of just how much its economy depended on American cotton. The crisis made slavery more than a peripheral social question. Although Lancashire was later to represent the crisis as one in which its moral principles were tested, a crisis in which cotton workers were depicted as willing to suffer in order to ensure the freedom of four million enslaved Africans, the cause of the slave-owning southern states was not without its supporters in Lancashire. As cotton imports plunged and unemployment rose, the task of survival squeezed noble intentions. Above all, the cotton famine highlighted Lancashire’s over reliance on American cotton. The long recognised need to find alternative supplies of cheap raw cotton became a subject that demanded urgent attention.