A tale of two cities and slavery

by Kathleen LaCamera

St. Petersburg Times - published 27 February 2000

In Manchester and Liverpool, England, stand reminders of their part in the African slave trade and a brave stand against it that won Abraham Lincoln's admiration.

MANCHESTER, England -- I was about to give up the search for a parking place on a busy Saturday afternoon in the center of Manchester, one of northern England's busiest cities.

Brought up in St. Petersburg, I've lived here for the past seven years. Even so, I still cannot get used to the wretched "one-way systems" that take traffic from one end of a downtown area to the other without allowing you within 25 meters of a parking space.

So I was particularly amazed to find a quiet city square with not only a parking space, but also a large statue of "my" President Abraham Lincoln. A street sign proclaimed this "Lincoln Square."

Curiosity aroused, I strained to read the inscription etched in the pink marble plinth on which America's 16th president stood. The statue commemorates a protest by Manchester mill workers who boycotted cotton from the Confederate States during the American Civil War. It was, the stone records, "a heroic decision."

Now I was really intrigued.

Several days later, a visit to the local tourist office yielded the information that Lincoln's statue was inextricably linked not only to Manchester but to the port of Liverpool, 30 miles away. It turns out that the Liverpool I always thought was famous for being the birthplace of the Beatles was even more famous for cotton a century earlier.

Victorian Manchester was the center of a booming textile industry supplied with raw materials from Liverpool docks. Liverpool merchants traded in goods from all over the world, including cotton grown and harvested by slaves on plantations in the American South and the Caribbean. You can still tour one of the best surviving textile mills, just outside Manchester in Styal village: Quarry Bank Mill was owned by generations of the Greg family until 1939. Britain's National Trust now manages the extensive complex, which boasts a huge water wheel, working looms and weaving machines, and an apprentice cottage where child workers lived under a harsh regime.

Quarry Bank and other Manchester mills were operating at full tilt when the Civil War broke out. Almost overnight the vital river of Southern cotton became a trickle, when Lincoln introduced the Union blockade of Confederate ports.

To help fill in a good bit more of the story, I took an easy 45-minute drive west to Liverpool's Maritime Museum, along the city's waterfront. The museum houses an award-winning exhibition chronicling Liverpool's central role in the cotton and slave trade.

So central was 19th century Liverpool to the cotton industry that the world price for cotton was set at the Liverpool Cotton Exchange. The Albert Dock area, now a major tourist attraction housing Liverpool's Maritime Museum, a Beatles' Museum, cafes and shops, was originally financed from the profits made from slavery.

The permanent Trans-Atlantic Slavery exhibit was opened here in 1994 by noted American poet Maya Angelou. It houses a full-scale model of the galley of a slave ship. Walking through it, visitors begin to imagine how brutal the conditions must have been.

The ship would have sailed from Liverpool to Africa's West Coast, where the captain would have loaded kidnapped Africans, like cattle, into the galley. In chains, with little food and no sanitation, many captives did not survive the two-month passage across the Atlantic to the New World.

Merchants traded those who did survive for cotton, rice, tobacco and other goods. Thus loaded, the ships headed back to Liverpool, where the goods would supply manufacturers across Europe, including Manchester textile producers like the Greg family at Quarry Bank Mill.

The importers and exporters made fortunes. By the late 1700s, Liverpool was responsible for more slaving voyages than any other European port. Even after Britain outlawed slavery in 1806, the port of Liverpool traded in goods produced by slaves well into mid-1800s.

I took advantage of guided "Slavery Trail Walks," which are offered every Saturday and Sunday almost year-round. They begin in front of the Maritime Museum, and the two-hour tour costs just 1.50 pounds, or about $2.75. My tour was led by expert Dorothy Kuya, through the parts of the city that still reveal links to Liverpool's "slaving past."

We saw buildings decorated with carved African faces and streets named after famous slave trade merchants. We even learned that many Liverpool banks, including Barclay's Bank, got their start when rich slave merchants needed a place to invest their growing wealth.

Across the Mersey River, we could see a complex with the name Cammell Laird Shipbuilding, Engineering and Repairs. It was founded by two merchant captains and is still doing business today. Not only did these shipbuilders get their start through the slave trade, but also during the Civil War, they supplied war ships to the Confederacy. The infamousAlabama, which sunk 30 Union ships blockading Southern ports, was built by Cammell Laird.

Toward the end of our tour, we walked into a quiet, colonial square and spotted an American flag in front of a building. This was Rumford Place, which had been headquarters for the Confederate government in Europe. Writing home, one Confederate agent noted that there were more Confederate flags flying in Liverpool than in Richmond, Va. A sign on the side of the building now calls it Alabama House.

Although Britain was officially neutral during the war, Liverpool wholeheartedly supported the Confederacy. So the Manchester mill workers had taken their stand against Confederate cotton, imported by blockade-running Liverpool merchants.

On Dec. 31, 1862, a group of workers gathered at Manchester's Free Trade Hall and voted to boycott all cotton from the Confederate States as a show of support for President Lincoln's emancipation of slaves in the Confederacy, at the beginning of that year. This decision almost certainly resulted in great hardship for the workers and their families, who would have had no other way to earn a living.

In an 1863 letter to the "working men of Manchester," Lincoln termed this action "an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age."

It turns out that the statue in Lincoln Square, sculpted by George Bernard, was a rather awkward gift from Charles Taft, brother of President William Howard Taft. Londoners, for whom it was originally intended, found it too rough and downright common for their Parliament Square. But Mancunians, as Manchester residents are called, again saw things differently and offered the statue a home.

How many Manchester workers took part in the boycott or what happened to them, no one seems to have recorded. But their certain sacrifice is acknowledged in the quiet square that now lies under Lincoln's gaze. I'm grateful to have stumbled across it -- to have found a bit of history from where I've come, wrapped up in where I am.

If you go

You can fly directly to Manchester's International Airport from a number of U.S. cities as well as connect through London. Liverpool is a 45-minute drive from Manchester's airport.

For more information about Lincoln Square, Quarry Bank Mill and a variety of guided tours and walks, contact the Manchester Visitor Information Centre, Town Hall Extension, Lloyd Street, Manchester, UK; call 011-44-161-234-3157; fax 011-44-161-236-9900; the Web site is http://www.manchester.gov.uk/24hrcity. For information about the Merseyside Maritime Museum (http://www.nmgm.org.uk), Slavery History Trail Guided Tours and the Albert Dock area, call Liverpool Tourist Information at 011-44-151-709-3631.

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