Foreword by Ian Cameron
It’s my pleasure and privilege to introduce this study report into the Manchester Lit & Phil’s links with the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
The Lit & Phil is a venerable institution, dating back to 1781. Manchester then was the beating heart of the world’s first industrial revolution, powered by technical innovation, surging capitalism and mass migration from agricultural labour to coal-powered factory production. And this global powerhouse was fed by cotton, hand picked by enslaved Africans who were sold into bondage, transported across the ocean and incarcerated for life on plantations in the West Indies and the newly independent USA.
The Lit & Phil was established to promote learning and exchange ideas. Our members were successful, educated men (and at that time they were all men!) who understood how the world worked. They understood the economics of the triangular trade; they understood the opportunities and risks of industrial development; they knew from their classics and history that slavery had existed since the beginning of recorded time and that the trade had intensified and flourished through multiple networks worldwide. They may too have dabbled in new quasi-scientific theories that sought to establish racial hierarchies.
These issues of commerce, history and science would no doubt have been used to explain and to justify the concept and practice of slavery. But we can imagine that debate at the Lit & Phil had another dimension. We know that there were progressive members of our Society who questioned the existence of slavery from a moral and philosophical standpoint. Their views came from their religious beliefs, particularly from the nonconformist churches that flourished in the new industrial towns. They came too from the humanitarian concepts that were emerging from the age of enlightenment. The rights of man were set out in the works of social philosophers and fervently promoted by radicals and revolutionaries on both sides of the Atlantic.
Many of our members supported abolition and some became leading abolitionists. Others undoubtedly benefitted from the trade, directly or indirectly. It would be fascinating now to have an insight into the conversations and arguments that must have taken place at the Lit & Phil, between abolitionists, apologists and those who were caught in the middle. In recent times our members had tried to uncover some of the details, but with little success. A more purposeful and systematic approach was clearly needed.
Following the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 our then President, Dr Susan Hilton, and Vice President Prof Tony Jackson commissioned the Institute for Black Atlantic Research at the University of Central Lancashire to carry out a study into the Lit & Phil’s links with the Transatlantic Slave Trade. We now have the study report before us and can look forward to better understanding our shared history as we explore ways to develop an appropriate and effective response to calls for a revaluation of national attitudes towards history and race.
The Transatlantic Slave Trade was abolished in 1807, but slavery in the USA continued until 1865 – producing cotton to be sent to Manchester. This report, addressing the period 1780-1865, is a major achievement and I must take this opportunity to thank Prof Alan Rice of UCLan who led the study team, with lead researcher and writer Dr Andrea Sillis, ably supported by Drahoslava Machova, Dr Stephanie Monro and Kirsty Roberts. I should particularly thank Dr Sillis, who contributed an extra 43 days of work on a voluntary basis. They put in a remarkable effort, not only to work their way through what is left of our archives, but also to explore the public records and other external links that provide a broader picture of some of our early members and their activities.
The potential scope of investigations is huge, but we wanted to go public with our research as soon as we were able. It was decided, therefore, that this initial study would focus on those members of the Lit & Phil who had links, direct or indirect, with the profits from slavery. We plan to pick up the thread in a second phase, which will focus upon the lives and activities of our abolitionists, offering a more complete view of the Lit & Phil’s position on the question of slavery.
It will, of course, be appropriate to consider both study phases together, but we decided to use this first phase to invite an early response. We propose to develop that response in consultation with those whose lives may have been directly impacted, through racism and inequality, by the legacies of transatlantic slavery.
Our first step has been to consult a number of eminent Mancunians with an interest and expertise in the subject who generously agreed to review this report and to advise on next steps. One of those reviewers, peace activist Prof Erinma Bell MBE, has been kind enough to provide the written comments that are reproduced alongside this report.
Based on all the advice received, we now plan to reach out to Manchester’s diverse and underprivileged communities to develop mutually beneficial relationships and collaborations. We know that the diversity of our current membership and activities is inadequate and we will work hard to understand why that is and to fix it. We will build on our history of discussion, mutual learning and social interaction to open new opportunities to further engage with the past and, looking forward, to promote inclusivity, equality and respect for diversity within society at large.
So, there are exciting and demanding times ahead for the Lit & Phil and this report represents an important step on that journey. I hope you find it interesting and informative. And if you think you might be able to contribute in any way to developing or implementing our response, we would love to hear from you.
Ian Cameron, President
8 June 2023
Read the report
Read the media release