New research from students at The University of Manchester has traced the wealth of five of the most significant founders and funders of the institution to transatlantic enslavement and underpins this new exhibition. Artefacts and objects from the University’s collections tell the story of these connections.
The exhibition invites visitors to examine these rediscovered histories and help us answer the emerging question for the city of Manchester and the University: "What should we do next?"
Founding a UniversityToday’s University of Manchester was founded as two separate educational establishments - Owens College and the Manchester Mechanics’ Institution. Manchester Mechanics’ Institution was founded in 1824 by a group of businessmen and manufacturers, including Sir Benjamin Heywood, James McConnel and John Kennedy.
Heywood’s position as Manchester’s leading banker was built on generations of his family’s profits from slave trading, while McConnel & Kennedy’s mills, the largest in Manchester, spun slave-grown cotton imported from the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia.
Owens College was founded in 1851 with a gift of nearly £100,000 (over £10 million today) from the estate of Manchester businessman John Owens, who invested heavily in importing slave-grown goods from North and South America, as well as cotton manufacturing.
During their research, students discovered that the land on which the University sits was bought by Murray Gladstone, inheritor of considerable wealth from plantation ownership and enslavement of thousands of people of African heritage.
The exhibition showcases the history of the University’s cultural institutions, including the John Rylands Research Institute and Library itself, which was built using a fortune derived from the manufacturer of textiles made from cotton cultivated by enslaved people, and became part of the University in 1972.
Experiences of enslavement and treasures of the collectionsAlongside letters and archival material that detail The University of Manchester’s financial and foundational connections are books and documents exploring the experiences of enslaved people linked to those locations and activities.
This includes Olaudah Equiano and Solomon Northup who published accounts of their first-hand experiences of enslavement and Jack Gladstone, an enslaved man who led a revolt of approximately 10,000 enslaved men and women known as the Demerara Uprising.
Also included are items that show how wealth derived from transatlantic enslavement continues to hold high financial and cultural value in objects owned by the John Rylands Research Institute and Library and Manchester Museum.
This includes a richly-decorated 16th century copy of Shahnamah (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi donated to Owens College by Samuel Robinson. Robinson inherited his wealth from his father, who manufactured textiles specifically to be traded for captives on the West African coast.
This is an important step on a journey we started with the initial research into our links to slavery, which we published last year, in conjunction with seeking the views of staff, students and alumni. Our University is entering its 200 year in 2024 and it is incredibly important that our staff and students have undertaken this research, through our MA in History, and that we continue to be transparent in sharing new findings and perspectives.
Emerging researchers uncovering hidden connectionsThe exhibition has been curated by a team of University of Manchester postgraduate students, academics and curators, with the support of external researchers. Core to the exhibition is research conducted by a diverse team of emerging scholars who undertook the Race, Migration & Humanitarianism: Legacies of Slavery and Colonialism in the Modern World module as part of their MA History. The Emerging Scholars programme provided students with paid opportunities to develop their historical research and curatorial skills with the aim of strengthening pipelines for underrepresented and Global Majority students to participate in academic and heritage work. Blog posts written by the team are available on the exhibition website.
Dr Kerry Pimblott, Lecturer in International History said: " Founders and Funders represents the culmination of two years of research conducted by a team of postgraduate students from The University of Manchester’s History MA programme. The project began in one of our core modules - HIST64101: Race, Migration & Humanitarianism - in which students receive a grounding in the global history of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and colonisation before examining the multiple and complex legacies of these world historic phenomena in the present.
"Since 2021, all students in this module have participated in a series of special workshops to critically examine the legacies of slavery and colonialism in the places they live, study, and work - Manchester and The University of Manchester. In 2022, we launched the Emerging Scholars Programme and recruited six talented postgraduate researchers, including a plurality of Black and other Global Majority students, to lead on the next stage of the research and exhibition curation.
"At the heart of the project is an acknowledgment of the longstanding structural inequalities in the discipline of History which have created barriers to access and participation for Black and other Global Majority students (see, Royal Historical Society report).
"The Emerging Scholars Programme aims to address this ’broken’ pipeline ( Leading Routes , 2019) by providing paid research positions as well as structured mentorship and support from curators and historians based at The University of Manchester as well as the University of Liverpool’s Centre for the Study of International Slavery and UCL’s Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery.
"Recent graduates from the Emerging Scholars programme have gone on to work in the education and heritage sectors and we are looking forward to recruiting more postgraduate researchers to advance this research in the years to come."
Jeevan Kaur Sanghera, MA History graduate and student curator, said: "Working on the exhibition, Founders and Funders , as a student curator was a process of getting to grips with just how embedded enslavement, empire and colonisation were essential to the building of Manchester, ’Cottonopolis’. The social life, politics, intellectual culture, finances and kinship networks of Manchester’s 19th century residents were intertwined with exploitative colonial practices. This included direct investment in slave voyages or through industry, such as cotton production which was directly linked to Transatlantic enslavement and the labour of enslaved people.
"The exhibition does not simply seek to present It prompts its visitors to begin to understand and acknowledge how embedded enslavement was to these people’s lives and their social and financial patronage of Manchester’s culture and institutions."
Professor Nalin Thakkar, Vice-President for Social Responsibility at The University of Manchester, said: "This is an important step on a journey we started with the initial research into our links to slavery, which we published last year, in conjunction with seeking the views of staff, students and alumni.
"Our University is entering its 200 year in 2024 and it is incredibly important that our staff and students have undertaken this research, through our MA in History, and that we continue to be transparent in sharing new findings and perspectives.
"This exhibition, together with other insights, will help inform a broader response being considered by our expert group of staff and students, who are meeting over the coming year to consider how we address our past in positive ways as we enter our third century.