The University of Manchester and its early benefactors
Paper by Dr Natalie Zacek, Senior Lecturer in American Studies and Professor Nalin Thakkar, Vice-President for Social Responsibility.
In recent years, the historical funding of institutions around the world, especially from wealth generated from enslaved peoples of African descent, has been the focus of increased popular and scholarly attention. Britain, its institutions, and its people played a regrettably active role in the transatlantic slave trade and in plantation slavery, and benefited from the wealth produced from these activities.
British universities were among the organisations that, while seeking to make positive contributions to society, received, largely in the form of charitable bequests, wealth produced by the labour of enslaved peoples of African heritage.
As institutions committed to the pursuit and discovery of knowledge and to public debate, many British universities have begun to investigate the origins of funds they received, and whether some may have been generated through historical slavery.
For almost two centuries, The University of Manchester and its predecessor institutions have sought to push the frontiers of knowledge, and have taught generations of students who have gone on to become leaders in their fields. As we continue to make a positive contribution to the world, we also need to look back and examine the ways in which our founders and predecessors’ past actions have fallen far short of the way we would have wanted them to have behaved.
As we continue to make a positive contribution to the world, we also need to look back and examine the ways in which our founders and predecessors’ past actions have fallen far short of the way we would have wanted them to have behaved.
This is important because some events that happened in the past are not acceptable by modern standards and that this is not separate from contemporary realities and lived experiences of inequality and racial discrimination today on campus and in wider society. These histories have deep legacies that have had a cumulative negative impact over time, in addition to newer forms of racism and inequality.
This is not only about acknowledging this disturbing aspect of our past, but also committing to collaborative and long-term work of addressing inequalities today in areas such as our research, student and staff recruitment and progression, degree awarding gaps, university operations on modern slavery and work to promote equality, diversity and inclusion more broadly.
As part of these broader commitments in our Race Matters Report (PDF, 1.15 MB), we have therefore facilitated research to determine connections between the University’s predecessor institutions and historical slavery.
The connection of universities to wealth generated through enslaved labour is contextualised within the relationship between the British economy and slavery throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
Many British cities, whose economies were based on international trade, had connections to slave-generated wealth. The University of Manchester is part of a city that was the home of the industrial revolution, which we know was fuelled by colonial expansion and racial slavery, to which most members of its merchant class had a connection.
Manchester’s significant involvement in the cotton trade and the geographical locations with which the city traded, meant that a significant number of its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century merchants had connections to slavery. These people invested in industries that used slave labour or through ownership of slaves elsewhere in the world, most prominently in the British colonies in the West Indies.
Manchester’s significant involvement in the cotton trade and the geographical locations with which the city traded, meant that a significant number of its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century merchants had connections to slavery.
We also know that slavery affected large parts of the world, reflected in the global nature of attempts to understand the impact of industrial capitalism and colonialism on the experiences of people of African descent. Around the world, many institutions and sectors of the economy had links to slavery, particularly cotton, food production (sugar, coffee and cocoa), tobacco, and shipping.
In the UK, a significant amount of research has been conducted on British slave-owners and the way in which the wealth generated by enslaved labour was transmitted to Britain, most notably by the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership, based at University College London. One of the Centre’s outputs is an online database of Britons who were compensated through public funds for the loss of their enslaved labour force after Emancipation in 1834. The database illuminates the large volume and variety of individuals and the scope of the sectors of British society and the economy which were involved in slavery.
The University and its predecessor institutions
Our research thus far indicates that donors to the University’s predecessor institutions, those which later became the Victoria University of Manchester and UMIST, did have connections to slavery, though much further research is necessary.
For example, we have identified that some of these people invested and/or participated in commercial relationships with the southern United States and the West Indies, in which commodities such as cotton and sugar were produced on plantations through the labour of enslaved people of African descent. In addition, other donors or officers of the early University of Manchester had closer connections to slavery, for example through their ownership of enslaved persons or their financial contributions to transatlantic slaving voyages. For both groups, some of the wealth that enabled them to donate to our predecessor institutions was derived from the slave trade and from commerce in slave-grown commodities.
Specifically, our preliminary research has revealed the connections between the following donors or officers of predecessor institutions and transatlantic slavery:
- Benjamin Heywood, who is considered to be one of the founders of the Manchester Mechanics Institution which went on to become UMIST, provided funds for its establishment and was its first Chairman and President. The Heywood family were highly active citizens in Manchester and were involved in many aspects of civic life. They are known to have had connections to slavery, including through their investments in more than a hundred slave voyages.
- Robert Philips provided funds to establish the Manchester Mechanics’ Institution. His wealth was based on his family’s connection to slave-produced products from the West Indies.
- John Leigh Philips, of the same family as Robert, collected specimens of natural history which became the major focus of the Manchester Natural History Society. The Society transferred its collections to Owens College in 1868, and these collections are now part of the Manchester Museum. Philips’ success in textile manufacturing rested on slave-grown cotton.
- William Langton donated £5,000 for a fellowship in his name. His wealth was derived from a co-investment in slavery with the aforementioned Heywood family.
- William Gladstone purchased land for Owens College and was made a trustee in 1871. The Gladstone family, which included the former Prime Minister, had extensive slave ownership over several generations and received substantial compensation for this ownership following Emancipation.
- John Rylands, one of mid-Victorian Britain’s leading cotton manufacturers, amassed a vast fortune from his firm’s use of slave-grown crops. After his death, his widow Enriqueta drew on this wealth to pay for the building and collections of the John Rylands Library.
- John Owens and his father, Owen Owens, traded in cotton and other commodities grown on plantations of Brazil and the US. The majority of John Owens’ estate was used to establish Owens College, a predecessor of the Victoria University of Manchester. Slave-produced goods were integral to his business activities.
In addition to these individuals, our research has revealed the connections to slavery and slave-grown commodities of several other smaller donors to our predecessor institutions, who will also be subject to further investigation, as part of our ongoing work on this subject.
We are a local institution with a global reach, and our connection to historical slavery is a topic on which many in our community inside and beyond the University will wish to engage in active conversation as we learn more about our own history.
In 2019, the University became a member of Universities Studying Slavery network in order to contribute to and benefit from connection to a worldwide consortium of institutions which are also actively examining their pasts.
We study this history not just because we are curious, but out of a desire to understand how the legacies of slavery and colonialism have shaped our institution indelibly. We are a local institution with a global reach, and our connection to historical slavery is a topic on which many in our community inside and beyond the University will wish to engage in active conversation as we learn more about our own history. This knowledge helps provide a foundation from which to begin new conversations about the type of changes we need to make today to address ongoing racial and ethnic inequalities.
A new conversation
The past is highly active in our present lives, and the University is mindful of the ways in which these – now unacceptable – events continue to affect the lives of many people around the world, including within our own University.
In the UK, awareness of these issues has been stimulated by knowledge about the roles of people such as Cecil Rhodes and the Bristol philanthropist and slave-trader Edward Colston. These and other activities have resulted in ongoing calls for universities to address their connections to racial inequalities, colonialism, and the benefits they accrued through their connections to slavery.
Our Professor of Public History, David Olusoga OBE, says that history is “complex, plastic and ever-changing... [an] endless task of reshaping and expanding our view of the past”.
There are many implications, responsibilities and opportunities for the University as we seek to develop our understanding of our past. For example, how can we ensure that many of these silenced or marginalised voices are better heard, understood, and reflected in our own history and through the physical fabric of our campus?
What can we learn from other universities in the United States, which have perhaps more direct relationships to the history of slavery?
How can we ensure that Manchester’s and the UK’s colonial history is better foregrounded in our research, teaching and outreach work?
And, as we gain further knowledge, what additional responsibilities does this convey upon our University?