A three-masted vessel adorns the city’s buildings and both teams’ crests. But is it an emblem of a crime against humanity?
Wed 19 Apr 2023 01.00 EDT
I got my first Manchester City football badge when I was a little boy. It was gorgeous – a golden ship in full sail on the top half of the crest, the red rose of Lancashire on the bottom half, all framed in sky blue. The ship made a huge impression. It reminded me of the Blue Peter badge and pirates. Pirates were exciting. They did as they wanted, plundered what they fancied and ruled the waves. Everybody wanted a parrot on their shoulder and a patch on their eye.
With time, the badge became soaked in nostalgia. Golden ship – first match, Colin Bell, the smell of Bovril, cigarette smoke, frozen breath, Wembley 1976, Dennis Tueart’s overhead, the romance of winning the League Cup, even if it happened only once. The badge represented the City of my childhood. Over the decades, it changed. In the 1990s, a monstrous golden eagle was introduced. It towered over the poor ship and had an unfortunate whiff of nazism about it. Thankfully, in 2016, the eagle was eradicated and the City badge returned to the reassuring certainties of the old days. The golden ship regained its prominence and the red rose returned.
In half a century as a City fan, I never asked a question about the significance of the ship.
The Guardian last month published uncomfortable findings about its relationship with slavery. John Edward Taylor, the cotton merchant who founded the Guardian, had partnerships with companies that imported vast amounts of raw cotton produced by enslaved people in the Americas. At least nine of his 11 backers also had links to transatlantic slavery. One of the original investors, Sir George Philips, co-owned a sugar plantation in Jamaica run on slave labour. The Guardian documented its own relationship with trade, plantations and slavery unsparingly. And ships were at the heart of almost every story.
By the time the Manchester Guardian launched in 1821, the slave trade had been abolished in Britain for 14 years. But the cotton merchants were still profiting from slavery. Raw cotton picked by enslaved people in the Americas, the Caribbean and Brazil was shipped to British ports, turned into goods and textiles in the Lancashire mills, then sent around the world to be sold. Ships were not only a symbol of Manchester’s trading nous; they were also a symbol of exploitation.
Even then, it took someone else to point it out to me. My friend Joe asked me to look at the ship in the City badge. It was just like the ships in the stories I had been reading about. These three-masted ships travelled the seven seas, picking up cargo and depositing it. Until the end of 1865, when slavery was abolished in the US, that cargo was often produced by slave labour. Sometimes, the cargo was the slave labour.
The ship has nothing to do with football and everything to do with the business from which Manchester made its money. The product of slavery became so subtly embedded in our culture that we celebrated it in our club badges even without realising it.
The historian David Olusoga said he experienced cognitive dissonance when he was asked to become a member of the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian. He immediately thought of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre and heroic resistance, blanking out the possibility that the Guardian had profited from enslaved workers. And so it was with me – I saw the ship as a beautiful, decontextualised image.
Once seen, the ship can’t be unseen. There it is in the Manchester United crest, hovering above the famous red devil, and on Manchester’s coat of arms, adopted in 1842, when the city was still a borough. Sure, the slave trade had been abolished 35 years earlier in the British empire, but Manchester and its satellite towns were thriving thanks to the business that merchants were doing with slavers and plantations in the Americas. By the 1850s, with the number of cotton mills peaking at 108, Manchester had become known as Cottonopolis.
The ship still adorns many of the city’s prestigious old buildings – the stained glass at the entrance to the Technical school (now part of the University of Manchester), the Corn Exchange, the Midland bank (now Hotel Gotham), Refuge Assurance (now Kimpton Clocktower hotel). You can’t move for symbolic ships in Manchester city centre.
The most popular story is that the City and United badges celebrate the Manchester ship canal. It makes perfect sense (City changed its name from St Marks, West Gorton to Manchester City in 1894, the year the storied canal opened, while Newton Heath became Manchester United in 1902) – but it’s not true. The ship – in fact, the whole crest – was stolen from the city’s coat of arms. What difference does that make? The ship canal is unsullied by associations with slavery; the Manchester coat of arms is not.
Few English football clubs feature ships or boats on their badges. Those that do have an obvious explanation: Tranmere’s warship signifies the town’s shipbuilding heritage; fishing town Grimsby has a trawler; and Plymouth’s Mayflower commemorates the Pilgrims’ ship that set sail for the new world. The football clubs of port cities directly implicated in the slave trade – Bristol, London and Liverpool – steer clear of ships as motifs in their badges (although the Bristol Rovers flag features a pirate).
Manchester and the Manchester clubs have largely been able to avoid such associations. The city is inland and was never directly implicated in the slave trade; Liverpool did its dirty work. By the time Manchester became the third-biggest port in the country, thanks to its canal, slavery was long done and dusted. Yet, when the coat of arms was devised, the city was booming off the back of enslaved labour in the US.
It is a sensitive subject in Manchester. In 1993, the Guardian asked whether the ship might have had its day as the enduring icon of the city. But the council was bullish. “Aware that comments about slavery persuaded Atlanta to remove the old Confederate design from its flag, Manchester’s city council is denying that a sailing ship on its coat of arms is ‘connected with the slave trade’,” the paper reported. The then council leader, Graham Stringer, did what Manchester politicians have always done: proudly talked up the city’s history of resistance and radicalism. “We certainly won’t be hauling down our colours. We are proud of our tradition of leading the attack on forms of oppression ranging from slavery to apartheid.”
Thirty years on, I ask Stringer, now a Labour MP in Manchester, if he remembers this. Of course, he says. He tells me it was a campaign led by Militant, the British Trotskyist group, keen to prove that it cared about racism as well as the class struggle. Has his opinion changed on the issue? “No,” he says. “I don’t think there is any evidence that the ship on the Manchester coat of arms is anything to do with slavery, and I think the campaign of the Guardian is besmirching a rather proud history of radicalism that Manchester has got, right up to the present day, in terms of being way ahead of the game in terms of all sorts of anti-discriminatory policies.”
Jonathan Schofield, a historian of the city, says the ship nods to the city’s aspiration: “It is a symbol of free trade. The idea is that we will have equality throughout the world because people will have the same rights to do business with each other. That is what the ship stands for.”
Stringer and Schofield think the Guardian is being hard on itself, Manchester and the ship. But it is a question of interpretation. The ship, as they say, does represent trade. But that trade was linked umbilically to enslaved labour. It is also right that some of the Guardian’s founders campaigned against slavery. Yet this did not stop them profiting from it. While the Guardian did campaign against slavery, it also supported the £20m payout (equivalent to at least £17bn today) to enslavers, for their loss of “property”, that was part of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.
After the Guardian investigation, a reader wrote an impassioned email to the team behind it. “As someone from the diaspora of Jamaica, I have been on a mission to hopefully force the change and removal of slave ships featured on both Manchester City and Manchester United’s club logos, plus the City of Manchester council,” it began. The reader said that while “our ancestors are screaming for justice”, they are “mocked by the very tools (ships) of the trade that decimated the African population”.
The Manchester poet Lemn Sissay understands the power of symbols. He says it is time people began to question the ship. “If slavery is part of what made Manchester great, then Manchester needs to know it and name it, from the ships on the football shirts to the cotton mills of the Industrial Revolution. We are all looking closer and the day will come. The question for those dragging their feet is this: are you going to be part of the problem or part of the solution?”
Visual symbols are rarely nuanced. They do not come with explainers or caveats. Their raison d’être is to be unambiguous. This makes Manchester’s ship even more perplexing. The city has so much to be proud of, yet it continues to define itself with an image marking the most suspect activity in its history.
This is the city that fought for suffrage, resulting in the Peterloo Massacre, which in turn led to the founding of the Guardian; the city that gave us Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes; the city that led the fight for the abolition of slavery. In 1845, Friedrich Engels wrote: “Manchester … is the seat of the most powerful unions, the central point of Chartism, the place which numbers the most Socialists.” Perhaps most importantly in this context, this is the city where mill workers, themselves working in horrific conditions, expressed solidarity with enslaved people.
On 31 December 1862, cotton workers met at the Free Trade Hall and agreed to support the Union in its fight against slavery. In the name of the “working men of Manchester”, they wrote a letter to President Lincoln, saying: “The vast progress you have made in the short space of twenty months fills us with hope that every stain on your freedom will shortly be removed, and that the erasure of that foul blot on civilisation and Christianity – chattel slavery – during your presidency will cause the name of Abraham Lincoln to be honoured and revered by posterity.”
In January 1863, Lincoln thanked the cotton workers of Lancashire for their support, calling their act of solidarity “an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country”. While Manchester celebrates this with a statue of the president in Lincoln Square, it also continues to pay homage to the ships that enabled slavery. Andy Spinoza, the author of Manchester Unspun: Pop, Property and Power in the Original Modern City, says: “The origin stories told in Manchester’s heraldic coats of arms and the two football club crests are not ageing well in the age of do-the-right-thing soul-searching. Of course, Manchester’s ship was not celebrating the slave trade. But now that the history of slave-picked cotton has been spotlit, it will be fascinating to see if city leaders respond to moral pressure. Any change in the city’s coat of arms might well force the clubs to follow.”
Manchester is home to some of the world’s great poets, musicians, scientists, artists, inventors and football clubs. It is famous for solidarity, innovation, resistance and reinvention. Yet the city still chooses to use the three-masted ship as its totem.
It is not enough to say that slavery had been abandoned in Britain by the time the image was introduced into the coat of arms. Profiting from slavery, however far from home, is still profiting from slavery. Besides, it is not as if Manchester is struggling for a symbol. Alongside the ship, there has always been the bee.
The globe at the head of the 1842 coat of arms is filled with bees. Like everything else in Manchester, the image is tied to cotton. Indeed, it can be seen as an extended metaphor for the industry – the bee is the worker, the hive the mill, the honey the cotton. As a symbol, it has long transcended the dark satanic mills to which William Blake referred in And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time, the poem that became the hymn Jerusalem. After the Manchester Arena attack of 2017, the bee was reclaimed as the city’s emblem. Nothing represented the spirit of Manchester better. The bee symbolised industry (in the best sense), team work, solidarity, creativity, sweetness, regeneration, nature, fertility, prosperity and generosity. You name it – all that is good about the world is summed up in the bee.
But for now, at least, the ship appears to be staying. Manchester city council’s deputy leader, Luthfur Rahman, says: “Manchester’s past is a complex mix of stories, lives and voices, and we’re in the middle of a long-term project that began in 2020 to highlight and reflect on aspects of the city’s past, including the city’s black history and connections to the slave trade. Working alongside Manchester Histories, our universities and other partners, including local communities, our focus is on education and learning, rather than eradication of the city’s past.”
As for City and United, the clubs say they don’t want to comment, but I understand that they have no intention of abandoning their ships.
For Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, it is all about the bee. He tells me that he wanted to call his joined-up transport system Beelines, but was prevented by copyright. Instead, he opted for the Bee Network. After the Arena bombing, like many other people, he got himself a bee tattoo, inked discreetly on his inner arm. “I go into schools and ask students what the bee represents and they all know about worker bees. Then I ask what else it can mean and they start talking about equality and diversity. It’s a brilliant symbol.”
As for the ship, Burnham is a clever politician; he doesn’t want to burn bridges. “It’s not for me to mess with the badges of our clubs, nor the crest of the council,” he says. “But it is my job to help build a positive, shared, modern Greater Manchester identity and that is what I hope the Bee Network will do. The bee is a symbol of a place where people work for each other and no one is more important than anyone else. This is how we roll, and it’s why the bee is so widely and enthusiastically embraced. It’s a true reflection of who we are and how we think.”
This is hard to say about the ship. To discard it would be to acknowledge formally what it represents and to own the city’s history. To replace it with the bee would be to honour our common humanity, rather than our capacity for oppression. What better way to start than remaking the city’s coat of arms and football badges?
A multi-lingual talent head, Allen is fluent in languages such as Spanish, Russian, Italian, and many more. He has a special curiosity for the events and stories revolving in and around US and caters an uncompromising form of journalistic standard for the audiences.