This week The Guardian published an article which claimed Manchester’s football clubs should remove the famous ship from their badges. The ship – which also features on the council’s Coat of Arms – was labelled as a symbol of slavery by journalist Simon Hattenstone. It shouldn’t be surprising The Guardian has managed to find something to be offended by when examining Mancunian symbols, it appears their job is to create issues where they don’t exist.
Not that slavery didn’t exist back when the ship symbol was adopted, nor an attempt to marginalise the effects of an abhorrent trade. Any suggestion that slavery should be celebrated or held aloft would rightly be condemned. But the Cult of Virtue Signalling has run into the problem all conspiracy theorists face: they only take the pieces of evidence which fit their narrative, discarding the rest.
This means everything presented lacks context. In the delicate case of slavery mentioned here, which happened in the nineteenth century, there should be consideration given to judging people by the standards of the day. A previously written piece on this site recalled how there were calls to remove several of Sir Robert Peel’s statues because his family profited from the slave trade. At the time, his father was breaking no recognised laws. By the standards of his day, there wouldn’t have been many complaints.
However, his son – Sir Robert – voted for its abolition. Yes, it can be argued he benefitted from the slave trade but the resulting power and influence helped bring about its end. He’s also the creator of the modern day police force, and brought in the Factory Act to minimise the working hours of women and children and introduced basic safety standards.
So, a pretty mixed bag, that’s impossible to reach a conclusion by wiping him from history. In comparison, the Manchester ship debacle created by The Guardian is easier to decipher.
Slavery had already been abolished when the ship was introduced as a city symbol. There is the misconception its existence is to mark the Manchester Ship Canal, but this isn’t the case. It was representing free trade. Manchester famously became the worker bees of the Industrial Revolution. Sadly, it’s less known just how prominent those workers were in ending slavery abroad.
Hattenstone would have you believe a booming Manchester was created off the backs of cotton slaves in the United States. This is false on two accounts. Firstly, Britain had also been using cotton from within its own empire, namely India. More importantly, Mancunian workers took a strong stance against the American Confederates. Liverpool had already been seduced by the wealth from “slave trade money” as the University of Manchester explains.
It was in Manchester where workers supported Lincoln and the American slaves and refused to conform to Confederate pressures. This even led to riots. The strength of character and principles cannot be overstated here. These were people who risked their very existence, struggling through a cotton famine, in order to enact a change for the better. A change that was on the other side of the Atlantic.
Are we to believe that workers who risked their livelihood to oppose slavery, later raised no objection to the city using a symbol celebrating the act? Or is it plausible that the ship’s inclusion was about free trade all along?
It would be ignorant to say Manchester – and Britain as a whole – didn’t at various points in history benefit from slavery. Where possible, appropriate reparations should take place. But The Guardian can’t pick a tiny snapshot of a situation, and make a large sweeping statement.
The Cult of Virtue Signalling should stop looking for extraneous links in an attempt to remove historical symbols and put some effort into preventing modern day issues.
Why isn’t Hattenstone demanding Manchester City council close all the Nike stores in the area? His paper, The Guardian, wrote in 2001 that Nike couldn’t guarantee its products wouldn’t be made using child labour. Does anyone recall a twenty-year campaign from The Guardian to end child labour? Is it too far away from these shores to take an interest in? Because distance didn’t stop the ship symbol wearing workers of Manchester taking a personal stand against an issue on the other side of the world.
Do we excuse The Guardian because it’s socially acceptable to wear Nike trainers in spite of the links to child labour? On this issue, it must be okay to pass judgement based on the premise: we can only judge people based on the times they live in. This seems like double-standards.
Instead of trying to reinforce questionable links to slavery in Mancunian symbols, why isn’t The Guardian combating modern day slavery? There were 5,144 recorded offences in the year ending 2019. It’s safe to assume the real numbers dwarf this as organised crime makes it difficult for victims to escape.
Energy should be spent on real issues instead of creating strawman arguments where people in authority are too scared of opposing the view in case its weaponised against them politically.
Wouldn’t it be better to educate the people of today how we benefitted from slavery, acknowledge that evil, then explain how it was abolished and ultimately opposed in Manchester on behalf of those on another continent? That Manchester’s Ship is now a symbol of free trade, open shores — an open world, where every person is equal.