In curating an exhibition for Black History Month on the topic of the legacies of slavery and abolition in Manchester, I focussed first on the physical space of the Portico Library, the site of this show. The Portico opened its doors in 1806, just months before Parliament voted to abolish the Atlantic slave trade.
The institution’s first chairman, John Ferriar, was a passionate anti-slavery campaigner whose play The Prince of Angola , based on Aphra Behn’s 1688 novel Oroonoko, was designed to promote the anti-slavery cause. Many of his fellow Library member’s names appear on Manchester’s 1806 petition to Parliament supporting the ending of the transatlantic slave trade. Many other early members, including plantation owners, cotton merchants, and Sir Robert Peel (father of the future Prime Minister also named Robert Peel), signed a petition that same year for the continuation of the trade.
Visitors to Bristol can easily find signs of the city’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade through the prominently placed statue of the merchant Edward Colston, and the concert hall bearing his name. In Liverpool, the wealth generated by slave commerce is commemorated by the street called The Goree, named after an island off Dakar, Senegal, which was for centuries the largest slave-trading post in Africa. In Glasgow’s Merchant City, streets named for Jamaica, Antigua, and Tobago indicate the neighbourhood’s development in the eighteenth century by the “Tobacco Lords” and the “Sugar Aristocracy.” But in Manchester, which prior to the opening of the Ship Canal in 1894 was not a port city, the metropolis’ involvement with American and West Indian slavery is less obvious. However, its immense economic and physical expansion in the first half of the nineteenth century was rooted in slave-grown products. “Cottonopolis” was also the site of a deeply-rooted anti-slavery movement, and a number of ex-slave abolitionist activists visited and even resided there.
Looking through Library’s catalogue, I found that slavery and abolition were subjects which had interested the institution’s members from its earliest days. The collection included a pamphlet in which George Hibbert, a leading sugar planter descended from an old Mancunian family, employed graceful, reasoned prose to dismiss the claims of the Society of Friends regarding the evils of enslaved labour.
In contrast, a nearby shelf held Joseph Sturge and Thomas Harvey’s abolitionist text The West Indies in 1837. The authors travelled throughout the Caribbean immediately after Emancipation in response to reports that ex-slaves were still being mistreated by their former owners. A wrenching passage describes their encounter with Susan Mackenzie, an elderly woman who was “almost blind from the effects of flogging”—and who had laboured on a Hibbert plantation.
I was aware as I developed the exhibition that the Portico’s exhibitions usually centre on the visual arts, and thus sought out works of contemporary art which reflected on the history of British slavery. With the help of the Portico’s exhibitions manager, we secured the loan of six works by Mary Evans, a Nigerian artist based in Britain. Evans’ cut-paper “Willow Plates” and “Vignettes” series insert African figures into classically English scenes of domestic tranquillity and imperial triumph. Similarly, but in a different medium, the fabricated books created by Keith Piper for the Victoria and Albert Museum’s commemoration of the 2007 abolition bicentenary include both humorous and shocking illustrations which parody slaveholders’ claims to be sophisticated and enlightened.
A depiction of machine technology becomes a slave’s manual for “the decommissioning of plantation machinery” through sabotage, and images of rococo design are supplemented with equally elegant illustrations of white hands clasping elaborate whips. Evans’ and Piper’s works force the viewer to see white success and black suffering as inextricably connected in this aspect of British history.
The item on display which, to me, best exemplifies these connections is the first UK edition of Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, published in Leeds in 1846. In the frontispiece, Douglass, who spent several months that year living in Manchester, is pictured as a handsome, stylishly dressed man, looking confidently at his reader. This copy, owned by the Institute of Black Atlantic Research at the University of Central Lancashire, features colourful endpapers painted by Lubaina Himid, an African artist resident in England and a current nominee for the Turner Prize. Himid titled this work “Douglass Lapels,” perhaps imagining Douglass as an African dandy.
This image, in combination with Himid’s literal insertion of the work of an African artist into an English book, symbolises the elusive but constant presence of the history of slavery in Manchester.
Natalie Zacek is senior lecturer in American Studies at the University of Manchester. Her work focusses on race, slavery, gender, and material culture, and she is currently working on a study of the cultural role of horse-racing in the nineteenth-century United States.
The exhibition “Bittersweet: Legacies of Slavery and Abolition in Manchester” is on view at the Portico Library in Manchester city centre through 14 October.
Correction: An edit was made to this blog on 10 June 2020 to fix an error. The original version of the blog published on 22 September 2017 stated that the future Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel (1788 – 1850) signed a petition that same year for the continuation of the trade. This was incorrect. It was his father, also called Robert Peel (1750 – 1830), who organised and signed the petition.