It is the kind of historical artifact that would be easy to miss: an old and fragile little book unearthed in the archives of the Derbyshire Record Office, in the East Midlands of England. The book, a commercial ledger from 1822, holds the names of enslavers who ran cotton plantations on islands along the coast of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
And on one of the browning pages, in elegant, handwritten script, someone has inked the name of the company buying that cotton: Shuttleworth, Taylor & Co.
Cassandra Gooptar, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Hull, knew that firm and had been hunting for any trace of it for five months. The Taylor in question was none other than John Edward Taylor, founder of The Manchester Guardian, now known simply as The Guardian, the most prominent progressive newspaper in Britain for more than two centuries.
“In that moment, what I realized is that we can now connect the founder of The Guardian to the enslaved people of the Sea Islands,” Ms. Gooptar said in a recent call from Trinidad, where she grew up. “It proved that he was importing cotton, picked by slaves, for profits.”
Ms. Gooptar’s efforts were commissioned by The Guardian itself, and her findings were the foundation of a somber series, “Cotton Capital: How Slavery Changed the Guardian, Britain and the World.” The project included video essays by historians, portraits by leading Black artists, a podcast and a newsletter.
The project also looked beyond Mr. Taylor and into the original investors of the newspaper, nine of whom, research revealed, profited from the slavery economy. There were also deep dives into the history of the people who were enslaved.
“We were originally told by historians that it was unlikely we’d learn a lot of details about the plantations themselves, aside from a broad sense of the geographic area,” said Maya Wolfe-Robinson, the editor of “Cotton Capital.” “Then these links to the Sea Islands and a plantation in Jamaica were discovered, and at that point we realized there was an opportunity to use all our journalistic tools.”
The Guardian rummaged around its archives and found that the paper, while staunchly abolitionist, had published editorials sympathetic to enslavers. It supported, for instance, government payouts to slave owners as compensation for lost “property.”
The project is one of the most thorough and public of the reckonings underway as Britain begins the halting, occasionally criticized and, many say, long overdue process of confronting the gruesome history of slavery in its past.
For decades, Britons have focused with understandable pride on the pioneering role the country played in stamping out slavery, most notably when Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. Almost entirely missing from conversations and curriculums, however, are the spectacular sums that poured into Britain through slavery for roughly 200 years.
“Britain constructed, very successfully, a narrative in the 19th century, which became dominant for 150 years,” said Nicholas Draper, a historian and a co-author of “Legacies of British Slave-Ownership.” “We say that slavery was a terrible thing, but we were responsive to it, we did away with it and we expunged that stain from the British nation.”
The United States is still grappling with its own account of slavery, a story that lurks behind bitter and highly polarized debates over affirmative action, police brutality, wealth inequality, even which books are stocked in high school libraries. What isn’t up for serious discussion is that a huge number of Americans benefited from enslaving other Americans.
By contrast, academics say, many Britons have learned only recently how many town fathers and aristocrats got rich from slavery. Though it came late to the trade, and initially trailed rivals Spain and Portugal, by the 18th century the country was the biggest shipper of captive Africans in the world.
Those facts weren’t much discussed until the murder of George Floyd, in May 2020, and the global spread of the Black Lives Matter movement. A number of British corporations soon issued public apologies for their connections to the slave trade. A pub chain, Greene King, revealed that its founder, Benjamin Greene, had been given the equivalent of about 500,000 pounds, or $633,000, in today’s money by the British government after the abolition of slavery, to compensate him for losses incurred when he gave up plantations in the West Indies.
“It’s inexcusable that one of our founders profited from slavery and argued against its abolition in the 1800s,” Nick Mackenzie, the Greene King’s chief executive, said in an article in The Telegraph.
That same month, the Bank of England apologized for the “inexcusable connections” involving its former governors and directors to slavery. Lloyd’s of London, the insurance giant, apologized for selling coverage to participants in the slave trade. The company said in a statement, “This was an appalling and shameful period of British history, as well as our own.”
The cascade of apologies was followed by a backlash. It seemed to reach maximum decibel levels in September 2020 when the National Trust, the country’s conservation society, published a list of 93 of its properties with links to slavery and colonialism, including the country home of Winston Churchill. Andrew Roberts, one of Churchill’s biographers, denounced the charity’s “latest excursion into wokery.”
The Guardian’s “Cotton Capital” series provoked glee among the paper’s ideological opponents and had its share of critics, too. Some historians thought the effort was both commendable and a little late. Others praised discoveries like Mr. Taylor’s slave-trade links, but they argued that Manchester’s roots in slavery were well known, making the series feel a bit like a gratuitous smear.
“The claim that we never talk about slavery in Manchester, that befuddles me,” said Jonathan Schofield, a tour guide and historian of the city. “What we don’t do enough, funnily enough, is celebrate the good stuff. There’s a house in St. Ann’s Square in the city, which is where Frederick Douglass lived in the 1840s and his freedom was bought by Northern England people, mainly Greater Manchester. Why haven’t people been talking about that?”
Actually, many locals here say they learn plenty about Manchester’s abolitionist leanings while growing up. Everyone, it seems, knows that during the U.S. Civil War, a group of mill laborers gathered at a place called Free Trade Hall to draft a letter to President Abraham Lincoln, saying, in essence, we stand with you, even though the blockade imposed on goods from the Confederacy had caused mills in the city to shut down, inducing what became known here as the cotton famine. The president was touched enough to write back.
“Under the circumstances,” he said, “I cannot but regard your decisive utterances upon the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country.”
There is a statue of Lincoln in the middle of Manchester today, with words of the letter on a plaque on the pedestal. There has been less rumination about places like the Royal Exchange, an immense cathedral of commerce, with tons of marble and soaring classical columns, a short walk from the statue. Members of the exchange once controlled nearly half of the world’s 130 million cotton spindles.
Today, it is home to the Royal Exchange Theater, which sits like an oversize lunar space module in the middle of the ground floor.
The only hint of the Exchange’s roots in slavery is a recent addition, a poem titled “Holding Space” that was written by Keisha Thompson, a 33-year-old Mancunian, as Manchester residents are known. It is printed on a large canvas and hangs on two sides of the theater’s walls. Two years ago, the theater’s artistic directors commissioned her to write it, which she did after rummaging through the Exchange’s archives.
“Hold up,” the poem starts, “this is not your normal exchange.”
One recent afternoon, Ms. Thompson stood near her poem, amid the seats in a cafe beside the theater, where ticket holders were milling around before the start of a show. When she was growing up here, she said, her father taught her about the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, something few of her peers knew about because it wasn’t discussed in school. And of course she knew that Manchester’s fortune was made from cotton. There were eventually more than 2,400 mills in the area, turning Manchester into the world’s first industrial city and earning it the nickname “Cottonopolis.”
Somehow, only later did the obvious become clear: Much of the cotton milled in this city was picked by slaves.
“I think it’s because Manchester has a reputation as a city that pushed for abolition,” she said. “So there was this ability to say, ‘Sure, we were in the cotton industry, but we pushed against slavery.’”
What Ms. Thompson and her classmates didn’t learn in school includes the exceptionally violent tale of plantation life in British colonies like Barbados, St. Kitts and Jamaica. To quash the ever-present threat of a revolt, punishment was sadistic and frequent. In Jamaica, new arrivals were so famished and overworked that about half of them died within two or three years, said Vincent Brown, a history professor at Harvard.
“The crop was so profitable that high turnover in the lives of the enslaved was merely considered the cost of doing business,” he wrote in an email.
By the early 19th century, slave-grown cotton was the most lucrative cash crop on earth, and the south of the United States became its leading exporter. Much of that cotton landed in ports in London, Bristol and Liverpool, where it was offloaded and sent to mills. This is where Manchester comes in. Before cotton, it was a tiny, provincial town.
“If you had told a Mancunian walking the street in 1780 that this place would be known as the second city of England, he or she would have laughed at you,” said Natalie Zacek, senior lecturer of American history at the University of Manchester. “Cotton made everything possible here.”
Some of the mills are now tourist attractions, including the Quarry Bank Mill, which sprawls across verdant land about a 30-minute drive from Manchester’s center. It may be the most bucolic former sweatshop on earth.
Opened in 1784 by an Irish immigrant, Samuel Greg, it was staffed largely by children who worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week, and were not paid, unless they put in overtime. Among the many disturbing displays here is a one-page inventory from Mr. Greg’s plantation in the West Indies, which itemizes 146 “Negroes” above a list of livestock, including mules, cows and oxen.
“It’s a very blunt record of people as objects, and it’s very dehumanizing and hard for people to see,” said Katie Taylor of the National Trust, which owns the mill. “But it’s our responsibility to present the family as openly and honestly as we can.”
The presentation at Quarry Bank is far darker today than it was when generations of schoolchildren made trips here in the past. Mr. Draper, the author and historian, said this spirit of self-examination and candor was becoming a cultural norm.
“That’s not because of external pressure,” he said. “It’s because employees are saying, ‘We can’t go any longer in this spirit of willful denial and ignorance.’”
The Scott Trust, which owns The Guardian, said it expected to invest more than £10 million, or $12.8 million, in descendant communities linked to the founders. The Guardian’s editor in chief, Katharine Viner, apologized on the newspaper’s behalf in a statement ruing that “our founder and those who funded him drew their wealth from a practice that was a crime against humanity.”
None of this flatters The Guardian, but Ms. Wolfe-Robinson, the editor of “Cotton Capital,” said you couldn’t choose a version of the past based on how it made you feel.
“We know the story of the millworkers here who came out in solidarity during the Civil War,” she said. “But did you know that The Guardian published an editorial that said the election of Lincoln was an ‘evil day’? We are adding information, we’re adding context. Doesn’t that paint a fuller picture? Doesn’t that mean we can have a richer understanding of our past, and therefore our present?”