The American Civil War
The American Civil War (1861 – 65) started when President Abraham Lincoln, supported by the northern states of the USA, declared that slavery must not be allowed to spread beyond the southern states where it was already practised. Some of the southern states broke away to form the Confederacy, a new nation of their own. Lincoln led the northern states in a war to preserve the Union and sent battleships to blockade the ports of the southern states. This had unintended side effects on Britain as it stopped the Confederacy from sending its most important export, raw cotton, across the Atlantic. Without these supplies many thousands of mill workers lost their jobs in Lancashire towns where this Cotton Famine caused dreadful suffering.
The dilemma for Britain
The war in the USA placed the British government in a very difficult situation. American cotton was Britain’s most important import, arriving at Liverpool and being woven into cloth in hundreds of industrial mills in and around Manchester before being sold around the world. Britain’s wealth depended on the supply of cotton from the southern states, so some argued that Britain should support the Confederacy. Others insisted that Britain must support the northern states in their attempt to stop the spread of slavery. In the event, the British government decided to remain neutral in the war.
Surprisingly, the strongest British support for the northern states came from John Bright, a Rochdale mill owner and Member of Parliament. He urged the working people of Britain to stand up for the rights of the slaves in the southern states. For many years, historians believed that Bright won the support of the mill workers even though this would hurt their own interests. This view has since been challenged. There is evidence that some of the unemployed petitioned Parliament to support the south and restore the flow of cotton imports. The Public Works Act of 1863 allowed local authorities to provide work for the unemployed but many thousands of families still faced starvation as cotton mills closed or cut production. There were bread riots and some feared an uprising in Lancashire. Increased imports of raw cotton from India could not fill the gap and were of a lower quality anyhow.
American aid to Britain and the arrival of the barrel
When Americans in the northern states learned about the desperate poverty that Lancashire workers had brought on themselves by refusing to support the south, they funded aid shipments to Britain. The most famous of these reached Liverpool in February 1863 carried on board the George Griswold. The ship was greeted with great celebrations as it docked. Thousands of barrels, filled with American flour, were sent to the mill towns. Of all those barrels just this one remains. It was kept for many years at the mill owned by John Bright and his brother before being presented to Rochdale Museum.
Tensions of industrial globalization
The barrel reveals the economic and moral complexities of world trade. Britain had ended her direct involvement in slave trading and slave ownership by 1833, but in 1861 her leaders contemplated support for the slave owning states for economic reasons. Trying to increase imports of raw cotton from India during the Cotton Famine revealed another problem: for years Britain had heavily taxed cotton cloth that was made in India to favour exports of cheap mass-produced cloth from Lancashire. This had stifled the quantity and quality of raw cotton being produced in India. In the next century Gandhi challenged British taxes on cloth and salt production in his campaign for Indian independence. In an echo of the Cotton Famine, he visited Lancashire cotton towns in 1931 to express his sympathy for mill-workers when they were again suffering through the successful boycott of British cloth that he had called for in India.
Web page about the barrel and the Cotton Famine
Follow the “Related items” on the right of the page to see several related images and stories. It is also well worth exploring other tabs such as those at the top of the screen for key stages 3 and 4. Students could use this site for research.
Summary of the Cotton Famine that begins to get beyond the simpler versions of the story
Outline of the Cotton Famine
Outline of the Cotton Famine from a comprehensive website about Lancashire’s cotton trade. It gives examples of how stories of peaceful, self-sacrificial Lancashire support for the northern states are too simple.
The Lancashire Cotton Famine 1861 – 65
Searchable online version of a history of The Lancashire Cotton Famine 1861 – 65 by William Otto Henderson originally published in 1934.
Online exhibition about the American Civil War
The section on Anglo-American relations provides a useful overview.
Gandhi’s visit to Lancashire
BBC article about Gandhi’s visit to Lancashire in 1931.
Collections online for Touchstones
Collections online for Touchstones.
Collections online for the Greater Manchester Museum Group [GMMG]
Collections online for the Greater Manchester Museum Group [GMMG] with other items in the Rochdale collection relating to John Bright and other objects within the 8 museums of the Great Manchester area relating to the cotton industry, including objects like the Spinning Mule designed by Samuel Crompton.