"We Are All Implicated in the Legacy of Slavery"

A review into the Guardian’s historical connections with slavery in the Americas has led to the Scott Trust, owners of Guardian Media Group, issuing an apology and outlining a programme of restorative justice for the next decade. Professor Trevor Burnard, Director of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull, reflects on Manchester’s heritage as the centre of cotton production in the 19th century and highlights the historic, human cost of cheap tea, sugar, coffee, tobacco and chocolate.

The Guardian is a bastion of liberal thought and has been ever since its founding in Manchester in 1821 in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre, in which troops fired upon and killed unprotected protestors demanding the reform of parliamentary representation. Its founder, John Edward Taylor, was a moderate supporter of reform. His famous successor as editor and eventually owner of the newspaper, C.P. Scott, moved the newspaper leftward, becoming the principal defender of Liberalism and the great Victorian Prime Minister, William Gladstone.

As is well known, however, Gladstone’s radicalism was underwritten by the origins of his fortune, which came from his father, John Gladstone, the owner of 2,000 enslaved people in Demerara, now Guyana. What is less well known are the links that Taylor and the eleven men who joined him in putting up the funding for the start of the Manchester Guardian had with slavery in the USA, in Brazil and in the Caribbean.

Most of these links were indirect and were connected to Taylor and his friend’s occupations as cotton merchants. Manchester was the centre of cotton production in Britain, an activity that accounted for 11 percent of Britain’s GDP in the 1840s and nearly one-third of all Britain’s factories. Indeed, Manchester and cotton were so synonymous that the rapidly growing city was nicknamed `Cottonopolis’. Cotton was sourced from the cotton plantations of the American South. Almost all cotton before the 1860s was grown by enslaved labourers of African descent, living in terrible conditions and subject to harsh discipline. One of the links with slavery that the founders of the Guardian had, however, was direct: Sir George Philips, a founder, was an enslaver of 108 people as co-owner of a sugar plantation in Jamaica.

The Guardian has recently acknowledged how it its founders were not just liberal reformers but were, as cotton merchants, implicated in multiple ways with slavery in the Americas and thus partly responsible for the sufferings of millions of American enslaved people. Ole Jacob Sunde, chair of the Scott Trust, said: “The Scott Trust is deeply sorry for the role John Edward Taylor and his backers played in the slavery economy, which was a crime against humanity. We recognise that apologising and sharing these facts transparently is only the first step in addressing the Guardian’s historical links to transatlantic slavery.”

It is now embarked upon a major programme of restorative justice, in Manchester and the world. As part of its ambitious plans to acknowledge and remedy the part of its history associated with slavery, it has partnered with the Wilberforce Institute, where I am director, at the University of Hull, to do more research on the historical contexts of the Guardian’s legacies of slavery. The Wilberforce Institute is proud to be associated with the Guardian in this brave and pioneering examination of its past involvement with American slavery.

What is especially noteworthy about the Guardian’s brave willingness to address for a contemporary audience how its admired founders derived much of their wealth from involvement with slavery in the Americas is that it is willing to show how widespread Britain’s involvement with slavery was in the nineteenth century and how implicated all Britons were in that institution, even after Britain had abolished the slave trade in 1807 and had led the world in abolishing slavery in the British Empire in 1833.

It was through both colonial slavery in the Caribbean, the Cape and Mauritius before 1833 and also through the cotton industry’s reliance on slavery in the USA that the fruits of slavery were transferred to metropolitan Britain. The founders of the Guardian, as Manchester cotton merchants, may have been more connected to American slavery than most of the population but just about everyone in Britain, even abolitionists such as William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and Thomas Fowell Buxton, who were working extremely hard to rid Britain of its involvement in the sin of slavery, profited from the labour of enslaved people.

They did so through the cotton clothes they wore and the sugar they used in their recipes for cakes and puddings. As Sir Roderick Floud, a distinguished economic historian, wrote on 20 March 2023 in response to a recent letter in the Guardian by John Cookson, arguing that his working class ancestors working in the mills of Manchester and Salford should not have to contribute to reparations for slavery because their ancestors neither owned enslaved people or profited from slavery: “Everyone in Britain and the rest of the developed world has benefited from at least 200 years of cheap tobacco, coffee, chocolate and, above all, tea and sugar, produced by slaves or indentured labourers (or, today, low-paid workers) in conditions even worse than those his forebears experienced in Manchester and Salford in the 1840s.”

What the Guardian is doing in its commendable programme of restorative justice is following Floud’s argument. It is true that those people who directly benefited from slavery should make more of a contribution than others to reparations for the harm done to enslaved people. That is the reasoning behind the very generous and inspirational gift by Laura Trevelyan and the Trevelyan family – a family as devoted to liberal ideas as William Gladstone and C.P. Scott and with a distinguished record of public service – to give to the people of Grenada money as recognition of the large sums their Trevelyan ancestors were awarded by the British government as compensation for owning over 1,000 enslaved people in 1833.

As Nic Madge writes in another letter in response to Cookson, “Only a minority of British people participated directly in slavery, but we have all benefited to a greater or lesser extent from Britain’s prosperity generated by the Industrial Revolution.” Through restorative justice programmes such as that advanced by the Guardian, our moral responsibility for slavery, then and now, can be shown. Their actions are a progressive and real, not symbolic, action, by a progressive newspaper, perfectly in keeping with the liberal instincts of their nineteenth-century forebears.

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The Wilberforce Institute research and announcement by the Scott Trust about the Guardian’s founders’ links with slavery.

The Wilberforce Institute research into the Guardian’s historical connections with transatlantic slavery in the Americas.


This article by Professor Trevor Burnard was originally published by The Yorkshire Post. The views or opinions expressed by individuals do not necessarily reflect those of the University.

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