The Mersey, the Mississippi, Slavery & the Cotton Trade
Most of them are secret slaves now, imprisoned in the most dreadful conditions.
Theresa May once said it was ‘scarcely believable’ there was slavery in Britain, but the ‘harsh reality’ is that there are people in the UK forced to exist in appalling conditions, often against their will.
Cotton was the main reason why slavery became an open and accepted business.
The Lower Mississippi in America, and the River Mersey in Northern England both played a very important part in the cotton trade.
The Mississippi, a very unpredictable river, flooded frequently, leaving behind the most fertile topsoil in the world, on which the cotton grew, and still does.
On the Merseyside in Liverpool, the cotton was unloaded from ships.
It was spun and woven in the Lancashire mills, then a lot of it was sent back across the Atlantic to where it had been picked. The slaves were all dressed in cotton clothes.
In Manchester, the river provided the power to run the first cotton mills and turn the huge waterwheels. And the canals were also the most important means of transport.
The Great writer HV Morton wrote in his book The Call of England, published in 1928,
‘The old mill stands beside the same stream that gave it power in the days of Arkwright’s water frame. It saw the coming of Hargreave’s ‘jenny,’ Crompton’s ‘mule’ and Watt’s steam engine; it saw the black smoke pall grow over Lancashire; it witnessed that sinful slave trade in children which entangled England’s conscience in the spinning-jenny over a hundred years ago. The stream is now black with the refuse of the works upon its dreary banks, and the old mill, rebuilt many times, has grown great and prosperous.’
He described the mill-
‘Men moved among the machines looking as though their moustaches had been left out all night in a heavy snow-storm.
The raw cotton was pumped into this shop in long, fat, soft, white snakes. The machines did everything it is possible to do to cotton except set fire to it. They teased it, compressed it, drew it out over wire prongs like a thin grey mist, all the time refining it and leading it gently but firmly towards its spinning machines. At the other end of the room hundreds of bobbins revolved violently clothing themselves at each revolution with tough thread.’
The cotton trade was the main reason that the Blues started and evolved, as the slaves used to sing while they picked the cotton, to help them to keep going. It was painful work. Imagine picking roses or thistles by hand, all day and every day.
From the 1930s onwards, the Blues came to England, mainly via Liverpool, brought here by merchant seamen, and African/American GIs during the war. Then we added our English electric interpretations, and sent it back again!
In Lancashire they sung folk songs about their hard life, and clog danced, often on wood so the rhythm could be clearly heard. It’s similar to Irish dancing.
The Mississippi cotton is known as Mississippi snow. It stretches in both directions, growing along the roadsides.
In the Lancashire mills it was literally transformed into snow, covering all the mill-workers with white dust, filling the atmosphere and causing lung diseases.
Black smoke billowed into the Manchester sky, and muck poured into the rivers.
The cotton bales arrived in England, dirty, yellowish and covered with dust.
Gales blew over from America to Liverpool. Around 500 men would wait, shivering by the Mersey in the cold, unwashed and unfed. They would arrive at dawn and stand there, hoping to be chosen for work that day, unloading the ship. Some of them would puff themselves out, trying to make their skinny, underfed bodies look stronger than they really were.
The foreman would appear and point, ‘You, you and you. No, not you.’
Out of the 500 men, around 60 would be chosen, like slaves in a market. The others would go home, to tell their families that they would go hungry for another day.
Cotton-picking slaves weren’t paid a wage, but they were housed, clothed and fed. A free Englishman, often wearing rags, had the right to starve, as they said, and could be evicted from his tiny, overcrowded home for non-payment of his rent, and literally thrown out onto the street.
Beside the Mississippi, the workers toiled in the hot sun every day, often barefoot, walking on the dust and the painful pods.
In the Lancashire mills, they were often barefoot in the freezing temperature, or they wore clogs. The sound of their shoes echoed in the cobbled streets twice a day as they all walked together through the cold drizzle, the women wrapped in shawls.
HV Morton; ‘Suddenly the clogs quicken.
The beat of the marching men and women sounds like the march of a cavalry brigade; hundreds of sharp hooves on the stones. The voices rise up also, now and then some cheery soul sends a great laugh into the air…Sometimes a girl’s voice is raised coyly or in anger, and, in the minutes that follow, the clatter of the clogs turns from a walk to a trot, from a trot to a canter, from a canter to a gallop, and from a gallop to a charge; so that you expect to look out and find them all on horseback! And, at the height of the stampede, the air is cut by the high, undeniable siren of the mill.’
‘The clog came over with the Flemish weavers centuries ago. It was a wooden sabot called the klomp. It has a lining of lambswool to protect the upper part of the foot. Its descendent is not so soft. A hundred years ago there were, at every Lancashire assizes, many charges of murder against men for ‘up and down fighting’ which permitted kicking.’
The noise in the cotton mills was so deafening that the women invented a lip language, holding silent conversations.
HV Morton said;
‘I saw a girl move her lips when we entered. The news spread silently round the shed, so that when we arrived at the far side we were expected!’
In the cotton fields, they sang. Their hands must have been in a terrible state, hardened by constant cuts. But, like the song, they were expected to Pick a Bale of Cotton, every day. The bags, bale-size, are huge, and were heavy when full.
They were lucky to have both their hands. The injuries in the mills were horrific. Missing fingers and limbs were common.
A lot of cotton pickers could earn more money by playing and singing the Blues, or making Moonshine. They were paid a dollar a day for cotton picking. They could collect two dollars a day in donations from playing the Blues, and five dollars a day from selling Moonshine.
Although slavery was finally abolished in 1865, the cotton pickers had no choice. They had to work or they could be arrested off the street and thrown in jail, until the 1960s. They had to stay in their own area, and weren’t allowed to cross the railway track into the town where the white man’s mansions are.
A lot of them were known as sharecroppers, owning a small area of land. They had to pay a large percentage of their profits to their boss.
The commissaries, the general stores, allowed them credit to buy seed, tools, etc. then charged them high interest rates.
In Lancashire, children were cruelly exploited. They were forced to work long hours for a pittance. Their starving families often needed their money to survive. A lot of them sold their own children for 75p.
The child slave trade was a scandal, long after slavery was abolished in 1833. The mill owners could buy children from the workhouses and orphanages from as little as £5 each.
In the notorious Forks of the Road Slave Market in Natchez, Mississippi, slaves were sold from $400, rising up to $1,200 during the Civil War.
Children in the UK, aged as young as seven were manacled round the ankles and forced to work in the mills around 16 hours a day, without a break. Many of them were deformed through standing up too long. If they fell asleep, they were dragged to their feet and their heads were often ducked in a tank of cold water.
They were beaten constantly, often to death. They were locked up at night so that they couldn’t run away.
Small children were ideal for working as scavengers. They had to crawl under the looms to sweep up the cotton waste. If they raised their heads, they could get tangled in the machines.
A young girl called Mary Richards caught her apron in the weaving machine. It sucked her in, spun her round and round, and she came out in bits. She wasn’t the only one.
Stripping the full spools from the spinning jenny was another job given to the children. Their fingers were bruised and skinned by the revolving spools.
If a worker had an accident, their wages were stopped. There was no medical treatment supplied and they received no compensation.
In 1842 a German visitor saw so many people in the streets of Manchester without arms and legs that he said it was like living in the midst of an army just returned from a campaign.
The Mississippi cotton slaves usually received medical treatment if they needed it. When they retired they still lived with their families, who often grew vegetables in their gardens.
The Lancashire Cotton Famine lasted from1861-65, caused by the American Civil War. A lot of the slaves ran off to join the northern States’ Union army. They were paid less than the white soldiers, but they were free!
Cotton production nearly stopped. And the ports were blocked, cutting off cotton supplies to the Lancashire workers, who supported the Union troops and the abolition of slavery.
In the Lancashire streets, people were dying by the hundreds. They had no work and no food. Landlords cruelly evicted them for non-payment of their rent.
America finally managed to send emergency food rations of flour and corn on the George Grisworld Line to help them.
George Washington wrote a letter to the people of Manchester after the war, thanking them for their support of the Union side; support which cut off their livelihoods and killed more cotton workers than the cotton slaves whose freedom they were backing! There’s a statue of him in Manchester with the words of his letter carved around the plinth.
In 1863 a committee borrowed funds from Central Government and created work by commissioning the building of Alexandra Park in Oldham, to commemorate the marriage of Edward, the Prince of Wales, to Princess Alexandra. All the workers had to be out-of-work textile workers.
In ‘The Panic’ as it was called, thousands of desperate textile workers moved away from the area. Some of them went to Scotland to work in the wool mills. The price of fares to America was reduced to just over £3 and a lot of workers who could raise the fare emigrated. Many of them went to live around the Mississippi.
Today there are 31 Manchesters in the USA!
Business was done in the Manchester Royal Exchange and the Liverpool Cotton Exchange. Up to 7,000 men (no women!) in black suits and hats had lunch and dealt in cotton twice a week. It seemed that the ability to tell a good joke, or to ‘spin a yarn,’ could seal a deal.
The Tackler was the local equivalent of Irish jokes. They were the men who ‘tackled’ a tired loom.
Example; A tackler bought a piano. A friend met him one day wheeling the piano on a hand-cart.
‘Hasta sowd it, Dan?’
‘No,’ said Dan, ‘I’m goin’ to have my fost lesson.’
Two tacklers on a camping holiday forgot their pillows, so they found two drain pipes. In the morning one said he had a stiff neck. The other said, ‘I’ve been all reet, Bill. I stuffed mine wi’ straw.’
Promptly at 3.pm, when it was 10am in New York, the New York cotton prices were sent through. They reached Lancashire at 3.02.
Cotton was sold even before it had been planted!
Voices cried, ‘I’ll sell five June!’
‘I’ll buy at seventy-one!’
‘It’s dropped since five!’
‘Up two points since three!’
Don’t ask me what it means. I haven’t the slightest idea!
In Baptist Town, where the famous Blues player Robert Johnson lived and died, they still live in the old slaves’ shacks. The roads are dusty and un-made-up. There are two small stores, both shut when I was there.
In Manchester, the shoppers pass the Big Wheel as they enter the huge modern mall.
Manchester is now a modern, bustling city. The general standard of living has improved immensely. The children wear the latest trainers.
In Baptist Town, 75% of its occupants are unemployed and uneducated.
The children run around barefoot over broken glass from empty bottles.
But they’re free!