The past is not another country: Manchester’s colonial roots

It’s lockdown, again, and I’m going for lots of walks, again. I tend to walk down the Bridgewater Canal, away from town towards Dunham. Or down the old, abandoned railway line that runs west from Timperley, through Broadheath and towards Partington. They’re getting a little repetitive, these routes, I’ll be honest, but in a world of ever-rising daily deaths and fascist rabbles storming the Capitol they offer a welcome break. Fresh air, at least.

We all need time to turn off. Nevertheless, the problems of the present don’t come from nowhere. These spaces I walk through have pasts tied to the industrial revolution, empire, and exploitation, with much to tell us about our city and society today.

Bridgewater Canal

The canal opened in 1761. It was one of the first ever truly man-made canals, supposedly, and one of the greatest built in the eighteenth century, kicking off ‘canal mania’ – not Manchester’s most thrilling creative era.

At first, the canal facilitated the transportation of coal from the Duke of Bridgewater’s mines in Worsley to the coal yard at Castlefield bowl. But, in 1776, the canal was extended to Runcorn, and so raw cotton – much of it picked by slaves in the West Indies and America – entered the country in Liverpool and began travelling down the canal to Manchester.   

On the way down the canal, it would have passed Dunham Massey: the beautiful old stately home surrounded by deer-filled grounds and the former seat of the Earls of Warrington and Stamford. Warrington married Mary Oldbury in 1702 and it made him rich. Oldbury had inherited £5.5m in today’s money from her father, a merchant who made his fortune plundering with the East India Company, forerunner to the British Empire proper. Various descendants of the couple would also go on to work for the East India Company.  

Dunham Massey

It’s a popular spot, Dunham Massey. Its lands remain gated, pristinely maintained and situated in one of Greater Manchester’s whitest, wealthiest areas. For three centuries a statue of an African man kneeling with a sundial on his head stood outside the Georgian house. Last year, in the wake of Edward Colston’s toppling – and to much culture war furore among the right – the National Trust removed the statue.

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The charity said they didn’t wish “to censor or deny the way colonial histories are woven into the fabric of our buildings”, but had taken the decision to “move [the statue] safely from its previous location while we make plans to address it in a way that fully acknowledges the appalling histories of slavery and the slave trade”.

There is a not-so-subtle difference between stating ‘the presence of this statue was a moral outrage, we apologise, and have removed it accordingly’, and ‘this statue has been removed because it has caused “upset” and “distress”‘.

Statue at Dunham Massey

In Manchester, colonial histories are woven into the fabric of the city. This we cannot ‘censor’ or ‘deny’. In the city once nicknamed ‘Cottonopolis’, raw cotton came in via canals and was traded at the grand old Royal Exchange. The exchange’s first iteration was built by the Mosely family – of Oswald and British Union of Fascists fame. Cotton came from America, it came from India, it came from the West Indies, Brazil, Egypt. Before the American Civil War, Lancashire imported three-quarters of all cotton picked by American slaves.

Closer to home, industrial and imperial Manchester was, it should be noted, a place of great poverty and exploitation, with very little relief or support for the local population. The surrounding areas – North Cheshire, Lancashire and Derbyshire – were rife with suffering.

The wealth that built the Royal Exchange and Dunham Massey was as rooted in slavery and empire as it was in the newly-urban poor. The great transportation of raw materials enabled by ships and canals and railways served to suck wealth from colonies into the industrial cities of Britain. Profits were based on exploitation.

Lake at Dunham Massey

Recognising this is important. But for places like Manchester and institutions like the National Trust (or, indeed, those who write about them) confronting the past cannot be enough. Because talk of confronting the past suggests that the problem of racial inequality is a problem only of the past and can mean we ignore the need to confront racial inequality in the present.

 “The past is another country; they do things differently there”, wrote L.P. Harvey, in a quote oddly (but perhaps unsurprisingly) reminiscent of the famous Tony Wilson line: “this is Manchester, we do things differently here”. Both imply an attitude that can quickly get self-congratulatory.  

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Last month, The Greater Manchester Race Equality Panel met for the first time. The 24-member panel of experts committed itself to “providing insight and input to the Independent Inequalities Commission report into systemic racism in Greater Manchester” and “responding to and shaping the planned Race Equality Policing report from Greater Manchester Police – one of the pledges made in response to the Black Lives Matter movement”.

Andy Burnham said: “we have not been good enough making the changes that are needed to eliminate discrimination and ensure fairness […] this panel will now be a platform to bring about further more substantial change and to turn our words into actions”.

This is a welcome start, although it is this business of turning words into actions that will define the panel, Burnham, and also – you sense – our city and generation in years to come. Structural change will depend on ambitious policy.

Bridgewater Canal bridge

Of late, the hostile environment, the Windrush scandal, Grenfell, racial bias in policing, the resurgence of anti-immigrant rhetoric and the disproportionate impact of Covid on ethnic minority communities have all served as reminders – for those in need of reminding – that bigotry, racism and power imbalances remain baked into our society.

The exploitation of labour at home and abroad for purposes of profit continues today: just last summer it was revealed that factory workers in Leicester’s textiles industry were being paid well under minimum wage to produce garments for Boohoo, a brand based in Manchester.

Colonialism casts a long shadow, something the National Trust has recognised. Something – when we live and work and walk in spaces that sit in that same long shadow – we should all recognise, too.

Words are not actions: shows of solidarity are not restorative justice. After abolition, the British government paid compensation to slave owners whose profits they curtailed. We have never acknowledged our collective debt to those who were actually enslaved in the same way.

There is a strong case for compensation to be paid out and we should be willing to make it; our country and our city – like America – was built on the ‘original sin’ of exploitation.

We have all been watching the scenes in Washington this last month: a different country, but similar in uncomfortable ways. The attitude of ‘this is not us’ cannot be good enough. Maybe the past is another country, but – to quote Steve Hanson, the sociologist, rather than the ex-Liverpool centre back – “that foreign land is also always with us”.

Photographs taken by Joe Ronan