Manchester is a city shaped by cotton. From the late 18th century, the manufacturing of textiles in new, machine filled cotton mills transformed the town into a booming industrial centre, creating new patterns of life, generating great wealth for some, and shaping the city’s growth.
Yet innovation and profits went hand in hand with exploitation, on a local and a global scale. In Manchester's mills, thousands of people, including children, worked long, dangerous and exhausting days, providing the labour needed to keep the machines churning out cloth.
Manchester's transformation was also heavily reliant on the transatlantic slave trade, and on the exploitation of millions of enslaved African people who were forced to grow the cotton which supplied Manchester's mills. The story of Manchester's growth into the world's first industrial city cannot be understood without an appreciation of the African men, women and children and their descendants whose labour and exploitation fuelled the city's industrial expansion. This Objects and Stories page introduces some of the major connections between Manchester, cotton and slavery.
Manchester, cotton and the transatlantic slave trade
What the building of ships for the transport of slaves did for Liverpool, the manufacture of cotton goods for the purchase of slaves did for eighteenth century Manchester.
Eric Williams, Historian (1944)
From the 15th century, over the course of more than 300 years, about 12 million African people were forcibly transported under extremely cruel conditions from Africa to the Americas by European slave traders as part of the transatlantic slave trade.
There, millions of them were forced to work on colonial plantations, producing valuable commodities including sugar, tobacco and cotton, which were then exported to Europe.
European countries including Britain made huge profits from this system, whilst millions of African people experienced lives of brutality, the legacy of which still shapes lives today.
We are torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain.
Olaudah Equiano, Formerly enslaved African abolitionist and writer (1789)
Cotton textiles were some of the most in-demand of all goods on the western coast of Africa where European slave traders operated. Slave traders purchased Indian cotton textiles, which they transported to West Africa and sold in exchange for captured human beings.
In the 18th century, the demand for cotton goods as part of the transatlantic slave trade played a significant role in stimulating the early growth of Manchester's textiles industry.
Whilst Indian textiles continued to be traded, increasingly, British slave-traders purchased Manchester-made cotton goods, produced in imitation of Indian textiles, which they loaded onto ships at Liverpool's port and transported to the western coast of Africa to be traded for captured African people. In 1788, Manchester's annual exports of textiles to Africa were estimated to be worth £200,000, around £24 million today.
Some of Manchester's wealthiest and most influential people were involved in the manufacturing and trading of such textiles, which were often known as 'Africa goods', including members of the Hibbert and Phillips families. Some of the Hibberts were also plantation owners who made money from the enslavement of people.
Manchester trade directories from the period list many others involved in supplying textiles for the transatlantic slave trade. Alongside the painter, flour-dealer and hairdresser listed on this page of a 1794 trade directory are Richard Potter, 'check manufacturer' and Richard Powell, 'manufacturer of Africa goods'.
Even after the British slave trade was abolished in 1807, merchants and manufacturers in Manchester continued to supply goods to Spanish and Portuguese slave traders until at least the mid-19th century.
Whilst Manchester produced some of the textiles required by slave traders on the western coast of Africa, in turn, its manufacturers also depended on a supply of raw cotton planted and picked by enslaved African people and their descendants on plantations in the Americas.
By the 1780s, most of the cotton spun and woven in Manchester was grown by enslaved people on plantations in the Caribbean and in South America, including Guyana and Brazil. As demand for it increased, colonial plantation owners intensified their exploitation of land and enslaved people to supply raw cotton to textile manufacturers in Britain.
The African people forced to labour on these plantations enabled the first waves of mechanisation in Manchester and the surrounding region.
As textiles manufacturing in Manchester continued to expand, existing supplies of raw cotton could not meet the growing demand. Manchester's mill owners then turned to the newly founded United States of America, where cotton production through the exploitation of enslaved people would reach unprecedented new levels.
The United States, Manchester and cotton
When I walk through the streets of Manchester and meet load after load of cotton, I think of those eighty thousand cotton plantations... and I remember that not one cent of the money ever reached the hands of the labourers.
Sarah Parker Remond, African American anti-slavery campaigner (1859)
In the United States, which had become independent from Britain in 1776, American planters and landowners saw the rising value of raw cotton, caused by the rapid expansion of textiles manufacturing in Manchester and the surrounding region, and in some other European countries including France, and realised they had an opportunity to make money.
The climate and soil in large areas of the southern United States was well suited to growing cotton. It already had an established agricultural system which relied on the exploitation of enslaved African people to produce crops including tobacco and rice.
In 1786, enslaved people in the United States grew the country's first Sea Island cotton. Sea Island cotton has long, silky fibres, and this type of cotton was highly prized by Manchester cotton spinners like McConnel and Kennedy, because it enabled them to spin the fine, high-quality thread they specialised in.
The demand from Manchester manufacturers led to the planting of Sea Island cotton up and down the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. In 1790, enslaved people produced less than 10,000 pounds of Sea Island cotton. Just 10 years later, they produced 6.4 million pounds.
Find out more about the enslaved people who produced Sea Island cotton on our Global Threads website.
Farther from the United States coast, a different type of cotton, called upland cotton, grew well. Upland cotton's fibres are shorter and attached tightly to their seeds. Even with the exploitation of thousands of enslaved people, this made cleaning the fibres a slow process.
In 1793, Eli Whitney invented a new type of cotton 'gin', a machine whose sharp metal teeth and brushes could quickly remove the seeds of upland cotton (a process known as ginning). His invention transformed cotton production in the United States and shaped the lives of millions of enslaved people. The invention required enslaved labourers to work harder to plant and pick raw cotton and keep up with the gruelling pace of the gins. In the 30 years after the invention of the cotton gin, a quarter of a million enslaved people were forcibly relocated to new cotton growing areas in the United States, whilst between 1783 and 1808, slave traders transported approximately 170,000 enslaved African people into the country.
The United States government also aggressively and sometimes violently secured territories for cotton growing, including forced land acquisitions from Native Americans.
This territorial expansion, and the intensified exploitation of enslaved people for cotton production, fed the mills of Manchester and its surrounding region. By 1860, plantations in the United States supplied almost 90 percent of the cotton spun and woven in Lancashire's mills.
The Liverpool and Manchester Railway, built in 1830, whose Manchester terminus, Liverpool Road Station, is now part of the Science and Industry Museum, sped up the transport of American slave-grown raw cotton from Liverpool's port to Manchester's mills. This was one of the primary drivers for the construction of the railway. Moving cotton by canal boat took up to 12 hours and the new railway reduced the time taken to just under 2 hours. The first 18 wagonloads of goods which arrived at Manchester's Liverpool Road Station in 1830 carried bags and bales of cotton from Liverpool.
The railway made huge profits from its cargoes of cotton and the textiles made from it. Some of the funders of the new railway were merchants or manufacturers making money from the cotton trade, or from the ownership of enslaved people.
As well as carrying cotton, the railway also enabled merchants and manufacturers trading in slave grown cotton, or in the cloth made from it, who wanted to inspect stock, strike a deal, or arrange shipping, to travel by rail between Manchester and Liverpool to do business.
Exploitation and resistance
The millions of enslaved men, women and children who planted and picked the cotton spun in Manchester's mills worked with great skill, strength and speed. Yet they earned no wages, had no freedom, and were brutally treated.
At cotton harvesting time, enslaved people were often made to work on rest days, or during the night.
The hands are required to be in the cotton field as soon as it is light in the morning, and, with the exception of 10 or 15 minutes, which is given them at noon to swallow their allowance of cold bacon, they are not permitted to be a moment idle until it is too dark to see, and when the moon is full, they oftentimes labour ‘till the middle of the night.
Solomon Northrup, Formerly enslaved African American abolitionist (1853)
In pursuit of higher profits, plantation owners demanded ever higher daily quotas of cotton. If they did not pick enough, their overseers frequently punished enslaved people with violence.
No matter how much he longs for sleep and rest—a slave never approaches the gin house with his basket of cotton but with fear. If he falls short in weight… he knows that he must suffer… After weighing, follow the whippings.
Solomon Northrup (1853)
The domestic slave trade also led to great suffering. Bought and sold, families and friends were often split up as enslaved people were forcibly transported to labour on other plantations. Children were even separated from their parents.
Enslaved people rarely had a choice about being photographed. Photographs such as the stereoscopic image below reveal nothing about the ways they resisted and rebelled against their oppressors and fought for their freedom.
Resistance began the moment enslaved people were purchased in West Africa. Despite being highly dangerous, rebellions during the voyage from Africa to the Americas were common. In 1770, enslaved people on board a Liverpool ship called the Unity revolted. The logbook from this voyage is held in the archives at the Maritime Museum in Liverpool.
On plantations, enslaved people could resist by working slowly, damaging property, pretending to be ill, or running away. They also organised open rebellions against their owners, despite the threat of punishment which this type of resistance brought. Owners of enslaved people lived in fear of such rebellions.
Cultural resistance was also important. Despite the oppression and brutality they faced, enslaved people hung on to their cultures and traditions, through religion, music, food, and crafting. They had relationships, raised families and forged communities. Find out more about resistance on our Global Threads website.
Manchester and the abolition of slavery
Enslaved people and free Black people played instrumental roles in the abolition of slavery, both in Britain and in the United States. The British slave trade was abolished in 1807, and in 1833, slavery was ended in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape. In 1837, the British government granted £20 million in compensation to former slave-owners, whilst nothing was paid to the formerly enslaved people who had suffered under the system.
The United States abolished the slave trade in 1808, but slavery continued there until 1865, when it was abolished throughout the nation.
As a city whose prosperity relied on the transatlantic slave trade, and on cotton grown by enslaved people, Manchester had a close and complex relationship with campaigns for the abolition of slavery. In 1806, around 2,000 Manchester people signed a petition in support of the Foreign Slave Trade Abolition Bill, which would abolish the slave trade in Britain. This came in response to an earlier petition against the abolition of the slave trade, signed by over one hundred Manchester merchants and manufacturers. They were worried about the impact that the abolition of the slave trade would have on their businesses.
The issue of slavery was also hotly debated in Manchester during the American Civil War, which was largely fought over the issue of slavery. The war caused supplies of slave grown cotton from the United States to dry up, resulting in what became known as the Lancashire Cotton Famine. Manchester's mill workers experienced a period of great hardship, as mills closed and workers lost their jobs.
Both pro and anti-slavery sentiment existed in Manchester at this time. However, on 31 December 1862, in response to pro-slavery campaigners acting in the city, thousands of working people famously met at Manchester's Free Trade Hall to pledge their support for United States president Abraham Lincoln and the anti-slavery cause.
On the platform at this meeting was African American anti-slavery speaker William Andrew Jackson, who had been formerly enslaved as a coachman by the pro-slavery Confederacy's leader Jefferson Davis. Jackson's campaigning, and the campaigns of other formerly enslaved and free-born African American people who travelled to Manchester, were important in increasing support for abolition in the city.
Find out more
This page has introduced some of the connections between Manchester, cotton, and slavery, but there is much more to be told, including stories about the lives of enslaved people, their resistance and the fight for abolition, and the legacies of slavery in the world we live in today.
We are working to add more pages to our website and our galleries that tell stories about Manchester’s textiles industry and its connections to enslavement and colonialism. You can also explore our Global Threads website, created in partnership with UCL’s Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery, and use the resources below to discover more.
- Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, 1789.
- Samuel Northrup, 12 Years a Slave, 1853.
- Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, 1944.
- Joseph E. Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England, 2002.
- Giorgio Riello, Cotton: The fabric that made the modern world, 2013.
- Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton, 2015.
Books for children
- Julius Lester and Rod Brown, From Slave Ship to Freedom Road, 2000.
- Sarah Coutauld, The Story of Slavery, 2007.
- Malorie Blackman, Unheard Voices, 2007.
- Catherine Chambers and Toby Newsome, Civil Rights Stories: Slavery, 2021.
- David Olusoga, Black and British An Illustrated History, 2021.
- Millie Mensah, Migration Journeys Through Black British History, 2022.
- Global Threads, Reweaving Manchester's cotton connections
- Revealing Histories Remembering Slavery, Cotton and the rise of industrial Manchester
- National Museum of African American History and Culture, Slavery and Freedom
- BBC Bitesize, Atlantic Slavery
- UCL Legacies of British Slavery, Manchester and Slavery 1
- UCL Legacies of British Slavery, Manchester and Slavery 2
- The World Reimagined, Journey of Discovery
- Black History Month, History of Slavery
- Liverpool Museums, History of the Transatlantic Slave Trade
- Discovering Bristol, The Middle Passage