Workers and slaves: class relations in South Lancashire in the time of the Cotton Famine

Toole, Janet
June 1998
Labour History Review (Maney Publishing);Summer98, Vol. 63 Issue 2, p160
Academic Journal
This article examines the class relations between workers and slaves during the Cotton Famine in South Lancashire, England. The earliest historians of the British anti-slavery movement tried to ignore the issue of class. Nevertheless, their conclusions were heavily predetermined by their attitudes to it, whether they recognized this or not. Not surprisingly, working-class abolitionism has suffered at the hands of some historians. Frank Owsley concluded in his 1931 study of the American Civil War that the population of Lancashire and all industrial England was politically apathetic, sodden, ignorant and docile, with the exception of a few intelligent leaders. By the mid-nineteenth century, before Britain's intrusions in Africa could refocus anti-slavery there, slavery was predominantly an American problem. Nevertheless, British political culture examined and interpreted the slavery issue for itself. The American anti-slavery movement welcomed this, hoping to use British public opinion to throw, in Richard Blackett's term, a moral cordon around the Southern states. The Cotton Famine has a relatively simple narrative. It is seen as the crisis of the nineteenth-century cotton industry, when the vulnerability of the cotton worker was exposed by the closing of the supply routes from the Southern states. As tensions over slavery had brought the war about, the cotton workers' main functions were considered to be to endure hardships and to align themselves behind the groups set up to organize support for each of the factions of feuding Americans. However a closer look at the Famine's chronology reveals a more complex picture and, if plebeian reactions to it are to make sense, the problems in the cotton industry must be traced further back.


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