Manchester's Cotton Connections



Walk through the centre of Manchester, down Whitworth street near the train station, or past Ancoats, behind the main shopping area, and you will see plenty of evidence of Manchester's industrial past. A past that connects, through cotton, the slave trade in the West Indies and in America's deep South, the East India Company and a colonised India.

The streets and squares are lined with grade I and II listed 19th and 20th century buildings, many converted to urban loft apartments and city centre hotels. Away from the university and the Exchange Square housing Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, you can still see buildings with their windows boarded up, some with broken window panes, but even in their derelict state, they remain elegant and imposing.

The Royal Exchange, now housing a theatre, high street shops and antique jewellery stalls, was once a colossal trading floor with 11,000 merchant trading members. The original trading board is still present in the central hall. 

Royal Exchange Manchester

Source: Wikipedia Commons, author David Dixon

Asia House, on Whitworth Street, contains urban apartments, with car parking in the basement. The modern, boxy interiors of the 1-2 bedroom apartments belie the beautiful exterior of this early 20th century building which was once a packing and shipping warehouse. 

By the 1850s, the majority of the raw cotton coming to Manchester was being shipped from the American south, and Manchester's cotton industry was both supporting and profiting from African slavery.  The cotton fabric produced in Manchester was traded for more slaves, who were sold on to the plantations. Due to interruptions in the supply and significant disruption caused by the American Civil War, Manchester eventually turned its attention to it's colonised territories, including India. 

Source: Wikipedia Commons

Cotton production in India had been well established for over 200 years, and India had long been exporting fine, hand woven textiles produced by rural artisans. As Britain developed its mechanised textile production, it was able to produce cheap factory made fabric, but the fabric did not compare in quality to the exquisite textiles coming from India. It was only through the imposition of import tariffs and other methods of British protectionism, that Britain was finally able to dismantle an already weakened Indian hand-loom industry. Artisans became beggars, and populations dwindled. 



Source: Johnson and Henderson, Wikipedia Commons 

Fast forward 100 years and today America has its first black president. Although slavery was officially abolished in America in 1808, violence towards black people continued and institutional racism continues to affect African Americans. 

India is now the second largest textile and garment producer in the world. The handloom sector is a significant contributor to the country's economy and Indian designers such as Rahul Mishra and Abraham and Thakore have reframed handloom as a luxury item. 

In Manchester, the warehouses have had their windows repaired and the lights turned on again. They are the only reminder of Manchester's development from a small market town to the first industrial city in the world, through slavery, cotton mills and colonialism.


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