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Meet Dr Cassandra Gooptar and her research on the Guardian

The Guardian newspaper is the latest in a line of established institutions to commission historians to investigate their links with slavery. Dr Cassandra Gooptar played a key role in that investigation. In this blog she talks about her background, what drew her to slavery research, and what she uncovered about the Guardian’s founder, John Edward Taylor.

Cassie Gooptar
Dr Cassandra Gooptar

I have worked at the Wilberforce Institute for about a year as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow conducting research on UK institutions and their links with slavery. Prior to joining the Institute, I worked as a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the University of Dundee on the ‘Founders Project’ which examined the university’s links with historical slavery. I also worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham on the ‘Nottingham Schools, City and Slavery Project’ which synergised the Nottingham Universities and Historical Slavery (NUaHS) projects. These projects, which were studying the legacies of transatlantic slavery, encouraged Nottingham City Council (NCC) to commission a review of the city’s statues, plaques and street-names. I have also worked with Fulham Palace Trust to assist in decolonising its museum’s exhibit material and with the University of Bristol as co-lead of a reparative justice project entitled ‘Bristol, Capital & Enslavement’. One of the most interesting projects I have worked on involved sugar collections in Trinidad and Tobago. I was part of team that conducted interviews with former sugarcane workers and collected oral histories to create a digital archive housed at the Trinidad and Tobago Sugar Heritage Village and Museum. Each and every one of my experiences in this field, both here and in the Caribbean, has been meaningful and enriching.

I was drawn to slavery research through my personal and professional background, specifically, Britain’s legacies of slavery and colonialism. I am an interdisciplinary researcher with an academic background in History, Psychology, Criminology and Law. Personally, who I am, my interests and my passions all stem from my identity as a Trinbagonian. As an Indo-Caribbean woman whose great grandparents came from India to Trinidad to work on sugar cane plantations, I have always had a special interest in understanding how legacies of slavery and colonialism are studied and taught in schools in the West Indies and the UK. What drives me then is a genuine curiosity to better understand my region within the context of colonialism and slavery, to get research on this topic into schools and at the risk of sounding cliché, my love of History.

My experience and networks in this field have allowed me to better understand the gap between the Caribbean and UK in terms of research and knowledge exchange.

Dr Cassandra Gooptar

It has also enlightened me to the fact that there are many things lacking in the academic sector in the UK when it comes to supporting early career researchers engaged in this specific field of research. Additionally, my experiences and personal connection to the Caribbean have reinforced that engagement, consultancy and co-creation with African and African Caribbean communities. My hope is that more research which looks at British institutions and their links with slavery and colonialism will be commissioned and that the outputs of such research will be accessible to various audiences, most importantly students in the UK and the Caribbean.

My research into the links of the Manchester Guardian with slavery through imported cotton began in the autumn of 2020.

John Edwards Taylor
John Edwards Taylor

The ‘Manchester Guardian agreement’, written in 1821, and now housed in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, marked the beginning of the Guardian newspaper. Its founder, the Somerset-born John Edward Taylor, is said to have been spurred on to create it following his experience of the Peterloo massacre in Manchester in 1819.

Taylor’s connection with slavery came through his long association with the cotton industry. Indeed, this was where he had started out as a young boy, apprenticed at the age of 14 to an Oldham cotton manufacturer. But it was through his partnerships in the cotton manufacturing firm Oakden & Taylor, and his dealings with the cotton merchant company Shuttleworth, Taylor & Co., that his involvement in slavery was to develop. That involvement was then to deepen with the role played by Shuttleworth, Taylor & Co. as cotton agents. In this way Taylor became tied to a stalwart of the cotton industry in England, WG and J Strutt, described in one study of the Industrial Revolution as being among England’s largest producers of cotton thread. Strutt and Strutt imported vast amounts of raw cotton - produced by enslaved labour – from the West Indies, Brazil, Guyana, Suriname and the southern United States.

The discovery of an invoice book belonging to the Strutts covering the period 1822-1825 provided further grim evidence of their involvement with the enslaved. This small, unassuming book contained the names of Taylor’s firm along with many others above several numbers and initials. Looking at first glance as if they were the names of the ships which transported the raw cotton, a preliminary check soon revealed that these were in fact the names of enslavers.

Cotton plant
Botanical illustration of Sea Island cotton plant with flowers and bolls. Florilegius/Alamy stock photo

The enslavers were based in the Sea Islands – a narrow archipelago along the coast of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida – which at the time produced the rarest and finest-quality cotton in the world. The enslaved people of the Sea Islands had been forcibly transported from west and central Africa as well as the Caribbean. They and their descendants, the Gullah Geechee people, have lived on the islands for longer than three centuries.

Sea Island cotton was an expensive, high-quality silky-fibred cotton that was much sought after by the British textile industry. It was desired not only for its quality, but because the above-average length of its fibre made it easier to process. As a result plantation owners in the region would experiment with seeds, closely guarding their strains.

The Manchester Guardian was not founded on Taylor’s wealth alone. The eleven merchants and gentlemen that signed up with Taylor in 1821 were: George William Wood; Edward Baxter; Thomas Wilkins; George Philips; TBW Sanderson, Robert Philips; William Duckworth; Richard Potter; Thomas Potter Samuel Pullein; and Thomas Johnson.

Most of these men were elite members of Manchester society, active in key economic, social, cultural and political networks within the city. Nine had clear links with transatlantic slavery, through cotton, railway investments, intermarriage, warehouse businesses, property holdings and the broader textile industry. At least one - George Philips - co-owned an estate in Hanover, Jamaica, named Success, in which the principal crop was sugar. He also inherited wealth from his father that was derived from cotton and other enslaved-produced commodities.

Manchester Guardian agreement
Page one from the agreement dated 28 April 1821 between John Edward Taylor and 11 friends loaning him money to set up the Manchester Guardian. University of Manchester

Finding information about the enslaved people who worked in the cotton fields is extremely difficult, but work continues to uncover the names and stories of those on Success estate and on the Sea Island plantations. By adding to a growing body of work in this field, this research can act as a springboard for further studies, which place at their core the lives, and stories, of enslaved people.

More information about the links that the Guardian’s founding editor, John Edward Taylor, had to slavery, principally through the textile industry, can be found on the first of the Cotton Capital podcast series.

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