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  • Writer's pictureCamille Smith

How can Manchester reckon with its Colonial Past?

Updated: Apr 11, 2022

By Camille Smith, Structural Racism Researcher

In June 2020, at the height of Black Lives Matter protests in the United Kingdom, four protesters tore down the statue of Edward Colston (a prominent 17th and 18th century British slave trader) in Bristol. The statue was then thrown into Bristol’s harbour.

Credit: “Black Lives Matter Protest, Bristol, UK” by KSAG Photography.

The act sparked debates across the country on how Britain can reckon with its colonial and slave-trading past. Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted that the Black Lives Matter protests had been “subverted by thuggery” and that those responsible for the unrest should be brought to justice. Home Secretary Priti Patel referred to the statue’s tearing down as “utterly disgraceful” and as being a distraction from the protests’ initial aims.

On the other hand, Professor David Olusoga, Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester, told BBC News that the statue should have been taken down long before as Colston was not someone worthy of celebration. Prof Olusoga, an expert on empire, race and slavery, supported the protesters and even gave expert evidence during their trial. Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol and the first directly elected black mayor in Europe, could not condone the tearing down of the statue. Indeed, his role as political representative makes it tricky to condone what was widely considered criminal damage. As a citizen, however, he hopes the event will spark a wider discussion in the city about its past and on how to move forward.

Almost two years on, the protesters who toppled the statue – now renamed the “Colston Four” – were found not-guilty on the charge of criminal damage. While the tearing down of the statue is merely a starting point, it points to a pressing need to address this country’s imperial history in a constructive manner.

Manchester’s Fraught History: Between Active Involvement and Strong Opposition

Statues and monuments of slave traders and other individuals involved in Britain’s colonial past are far from a rare occurrence, instead being present all across the nation, as the crowdsourced website “Topple the Racists” shows. Manchester itself is not absolved of the responsibility to address this oft problematic past. A statue of former Prime Minister Robert Peel, whose family’s wealth was derived in part from slavery, still stands in Piccadilly Gardens. In June 2020, a petition was created calling for the statue’s removal, arguing that it perpetuates the city’s dark colonial past. Yet a counter-petition for it to remain garnered hundred of signatures, highlighting the complex and ongoing disputes over slavery and racial justice that afflict the United Kingdom, even into the 21st century.

Apart from these individual statues, Manchester’s reputation as an old textile industrial city has a lot to do with slavery. Indeed, these companies and workshops were able to exist in the first place because of imported slave-grown cotton from the West Indies, arriving to the United Kingdom through Liverpool. Manchester’s cotton industry is thought to have generated about £200,000 a year (roughly £28 million nowadays). Relics of Manchester’s industrial past are still visible in the city centre’s architecture, such as the buildings on Mosley Street and Portland Street.

Credit: Stephen Richards / 113-119 Portland Street, Manchester

Additionally, there are a number of famous Mancunian families who have hugely benefited from their involvement in slavery, including the Heywood, Lees and Beresford families. However, the most prominent of these is the Hibbert family. The son – William Tetlow Hibbert – helped to create the Colonial Banking Company of the West Indies, precursor of Barclays Bank. University College London’s Legacies of British Slave Ownership project indicates that two managers, a subscriber and three directors were either slave traders or received slave compensation from the British government. In 2007, New York-based Restitution Study Group demanded that Barclays Bank pay reparations for its involvement in slave trade but Barclays denied any involvement. Today, Barclays Bank has a market capitalisation of $44.9 billion, and is still yet to pay reparations.

At the same time that Manchester was enriching and developing itself as a result of manufacturing slave-laboured produce, the city’s working-class communities also organised themselves in opposition to these practices.

Manchester’s buildings and streets indicate the city’s duality and fraught history with its past. They are both symbols of its colonial roots and of its working-class solidarity. On Rooley Moor Road, Rochdale, there is a historic Victorian stone road called the ‘Cotton Famine Road’. At the start of the American Civil War in 1861, the Rochdale cotton workers sided with the Union and supported the abolition of slavery, refusing to use cotton produced by slaves in the southern states of America which weakened the Confederacy. The Union’s blockade of Confederate ports had caused shortages in cotton supplies leading to the ‘cotton famine’ which adversely affected thousands of livelihoods. In response to the support given by Manchester’s workers, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter thanking them which can be found inscribed on his statue in Manchester city centre.

Manchester also welcomed abolitionist Thomas Clarkson in an anti-slavery meeting in 1787 in what would become Manchester Cathedral. After his visit, more focused and dedicated anti-slavery activism developed across the Lancashire and Greater Manchester regions with the creation of organisations such as the Anti-Slavery Society Union and the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. Following Clarkson’s visit, the Manchester Anti-Slavery Committee organised a petition calling for the abolition of the slave trade which collected over 10,500 names.

Manchester also welcomed prominent African-American abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, who spoke about the evils of slavery from first-hand experiences in a number of meetings as the Anti-Slavery League in 1846, and Sarah Parker Remond who appealed to mill owners and cotton workers to support the anti-slavery movement in 1859.

Credit: “Fredrick Douglass as an older man: 1880 ca.” by Washington Area Spark.

What next?

Manchester, like many other areas of the United Kingdom, has a conflicted past when considering the slave trade, and more broadly racism. Whilst working-class solidarity should be acknowledged, it should in no way obscure the active involvement of Mancunian slave-traders and plantation-owners. Ultimately, whilst reckoning with Britain’s colonial past is something that ought to be done at a state-level in a systematic manner, it is still possible to address individual areas’ past at the local level. It is the region’s and its inhabitants’ duty to reckon with this past and attempt to move forward in a constructive and dialogic manner, conducive to future race relations.

There are a number of ways this can be achieved. Through education, for example, by creating new curriculums that address colonialism and slavery. More locally, in Manchester, Revealing Histories is a collective partnership of eight museums and galleries aiming to highlight the city’s and its region’s past links with slavery and colonialism. Although the partnership provides additional resources for Key Stage 3 and 4 teachers, there is still potential for a local partnership between schools and Revealing Histories. The people working on the project could potentially visit schools across Greater Manchester to share their work and exchange with students. This would move away from the more abstract and generalised way of learning about slavery of the national curriculum by providing a more precise understanding of slavery’s local histories.

Whilst education is a very important aspect to consider, it ought to go hand in hand with other economic changes and policies. Although, slavery and colonialism may seem to be a thing of the past for some of our politicians, there are still lasting consequences. Among those, the question of enduring wealth inequalities along ethnic lines requires consideration. The latest figures for the United Kingdom (2016 to 2018) show that the median total wealth for families whose household head is from the “Black African” group was of £34,000 whereas a family with a household head from the “White British” group was of £314,000. Moreover, “households with a White British head were approximately nine times as likely to be in the top quintile of total wealth (wealth above £865,400) as those of Black African ethnicity.” In the North West, home-ownership rates for ethnic minorities are 44%, compared to 66% for “White British” communities. Between 2001 and 2011, employment inequality for the “Black African” group increased across all districts in Greater Manchester. People do not have the same access to vital economic and social resources, and the increase in these inequalities should be taken more seriously in a supposedly “developed” country.

A number of solutions have been put forward to redress these stark inequalities. One of the most controversial measures concerns financial reparations. Most views in favour of reparations are argued on the international scale and relate to country-to-country reparations. But there are still some debates in some countries, especially the United States, about potential reparations for slavery to individuals. Nine states have apologised for their participation in the enslavement of Africans. Some non-profit organisations have also filed lawsuits against corporations who had been involved in slavery. Other pro-reparations groups such as The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America consider that compensations should be given in the form of community rehabilitation and extra funding towards community groups instead of individual people. On the other hand, in the United Kingdom, the issue of reparations seems more muted. In 2006, Tony Blair expressed “deep sorrow” for Britain’s role in the slave trade in a heavily-criticised statement. Later, in 2007, Ken Livingstone then-Mayor of London apologised for London’s role in the transatlantic slave trade and called for the creation of a UK-wide Annual Slavery Memorial Day. British debates are less radical and usually only involve public apologies. There is a potential to address reparations on a more local level by involving local community organisations.

Racial disparities need to be addressed jointly at the local and national level. This cannot be done without drawing upon the knowledge and the experiences of local community groups. Coming back to the Hibbert family mentioned above, a direct partnership between the family’s National Trust property and local Mancunian organisations fighting racial inequalities could be set up. Indeed, William Hibbert purchased land in 1797 and built a country estate – Hare Hill – in Over Alderley, just outside of Greater Manchester. The Estate is now managed by the National Trust. There is potential for a partnership between the National Trust and local organisations whereby the National Trust could donate part of their revenue to local organisations fighting inequalities.

The Walled Garden, Hare Hill Credit: By Trevor Harris,

Another potential partnership could involve the Smithills Hall in Bolton. The Hall is owned by Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council, and was previously owned by the Ainsworth family who were slave owners in Honduras, a Central American nation. They were able to establish a bleaching business in 1739 with the money made from slave trading. Part of the revenue made from people visiting the Hall could be redistributed to local organisations fighting against racial inequalities. This could also open up the possibility of involving more local councils and local government bodies since the Bolton council would be involved.

Smithills Hall, BoltonCredit: By SG2012

Although there are practical difficulties to this proposition, for example, how much revenue will actually be available to redistribute and which organisations the money should be donated to, etc., it is still worth considering in order to understand how we in Manchester, and more broadly on a national level, can address our past and redress the inequalities that to this day persist. This is especially pertinent given the unpredictability of the current national government on certain culturally controversial issues, rendering it impossible to predict future policy on this subject. As such, regional authorities should seize the initiative on confronting their area’s troublesome past. I implore Greater Manchester to do so.

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