When nineteenth century Manchester’s merchants and manufacturers picked up their newspapers, they would eagerly flick to the trading pages, where the latest lists of imports, exports and prices provided vital business intelligence. Each day, they pored in detail over news from North America and the Caribbean and the slave-produced products that underpinned a large proportion of Manchester’s economy.
Manchester consumed a wide variety of products produced by unfree people labouring on New World plantations. As well as the cotton that fed the mills and tobacco for smoking, foodstuffs like sugar, coffee, cocoa, and spices were a key part of daily life for Mancunians.
But while prosperous Mancunians flourished and feasted, people of African origin who were forced to produce the raw materials that fed industrial Britain’s insatiable appetites needed great creativity and persistence to maintain a decent diet. The legacy of their ingenuity is imprinted on Caribbean cuisine and culture and connects Manchester to the brutal system of slavery.
Who profited from the slave trade in Manchester?
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Manchester became world-renowned for its textiles industry. Less known today is the essential role of many of Manchester’s leading textile manufacturers and merchants in the slave trade. The Hibberts were a wealthy Manchester family who rose from modest linen drapers to become prominent Africa and West India merchants, slave traders, plantation owners and leading politicians in both Jamaica and the UK.
Cotton textiles were in huge demand in West Africa, which Liverpool slave traders rushed to meet using Manchester textiles. From the 1700s, the growing Hibbert family business specialised in making Manchester checks and imitation Indian cloths, a large share of which were destined for this trade. Many of these textiles were traded in exchange for enslaved people.
A view of king street from 1825.
The eldest Hibbert son, Thomas Sr., moved to manage business interests in Jamaica in 1734, becoming one of the island’s leading merchants and plantation owners. Another family branch set up in London, where George Hibbert would become an M.P and the most powerful West India merchant in the UK. A further branch remained to run the Manchester textile business, which in the mid-18th century, held offices at 49 King Street. The original building no longer exists, but we can piece together an idea of what the area looked like at the time.
Members of the Hibbert family owned various large sugar and cotton plantations in Jamaica. In 1820, Thomas Hibbert Jr. owned Agualta Vale Estate, on which 340 people were enslaved, Robert Hibbert owned Albion Estate, where 512 people were enslaved and Great Valley Sugar Estate where 445 people were enslaved and Robert Hibbert Jr. owned Coventry Pen and Georgia Estate, where 113 and 390 people respectively were enslaved.
What was daily life like on a Hibbert sugar plantation?
“In order to prevent any interruption of [the harvesting process … the enslaved people’s] labour, during crop time, is … equal to six days and three nights in the week. It seldom happens that [those supplying the mill] get a whole night’s rest at one time.”
Reverend Thomas Cooper, Facts Illustrative of the Condition of the Negro Slaves in Jamaica, 1824. Full text here.
The most important crop introduced to the Caribbean was sugarcane. Between 1770 and 1820 there were 680 sugar plantations in Jamaica alone. From 1817, Reverend Thomas Cooper stayed at Robert Hibbert Jr’s Georgia Estate for three years and described some of the backbreaking labour that those enslaved on the estate were forced to endure.
Anyone who was caught flagging at work, or deemed guilty of another offence, could be punished severely at the overseer’s discretion.
“O massa! [master] O massa! One Monday morning they lay me down, And give me 39 on my bare rump. O massa! O massa!”
Extract from a song that Reverend Thomas Cooper observed an enslaved woman singing. Full text here.
“Sunday is not a day of rest and relaxation to the plantation slave; he must work on that day, or starve.”
John Steward, A View of the Past and Present State of the Island of Jamaica, 1823. Full text here.
Under law, Sundays were meant to be free of forced labour on behalf on enslavers, but that didn’t mean that this was a day of rest. This was the only day that enslaved people had time to visit markets and work on their provision grounds – pieces of land set aside to cultivate their own food. Even though it was illegal to make people work on Sundays, this was often ignored.
“Though this is done in defiance of the law … I never heard of an information being laid for that offence, as those planters who do not put their mills about, wink at it in others, and no clergyman or other religious person would venture, I think, to inform, as he would be met with insult, or some worse injury, for his conscientious interference.”
Reverend Richard Bickell, The West Indies as They Are, or A Real Picture of Slavery, 1825. Full text here.
Richard Bickell observed boiling houses operating illegally throughout Sunday mornings on one of George Hibbert’s estates. Hibbert was an M.P. in London and the Agent for Jamaica, the official representative of the Jamaica House of Assembly to Parliament. Clearly, he felt he had the power and position to ignore the law.
After boiling, sugarcane was shipped to Britain to complete the refinement process and be enjoyed as a luxury. Coastal Liverpool was the northern centre for the early sugar refinement industry but Manchester also had its own sugar houses near the old quay on the Irwell.
The planters’ feast
“The [white] men in this country … eat like cormorants and drink like porpoises.”
Lady Nugent’s Journal of Her Residence in Jamaica from 1801 to 1805.
The exploitation of enslaved Africans made the Hibberts, and other merchants and enslavers, incredibly rich. Sugar, rum, tea, coffee and meat were all freely available to the planter class of the Caribbean and extravagant dinner parties and drinking sessions were a regular occurrence. At one dinner party that Lady Nugent attended, a single course consisted of: turtle, mutton, beef, turkey, goose, ducks, chickens, capons, ham, tongue, crab patties, and more.
While wealthy planters feasted, enslaved people fought to survive. Using innovative methods they managed to transform their bland and meagre food provisions into flavourful and nourishing meals. Through food, enslaved communities performed everyday acts of defiance, carving out small freedoms for themselves and maintaining and creating cultural practices.
Provisions and provision grounds
In Jamaica, plantation owners usually provided enslaved people with a small number of salted herring each week, which were often rotten by the time they came to be used. Sometimes small amounts of rum or sugarcane were also offered as an incentive during crop time. Heavy labour meant that field labourers’ diets were often deficient in calories and protein. Enslaved communities therefore relied greatly on their provision grounds and their own ingenuity to feed themselves and their families and provide surplus for market.
For those living near the coast or rivers, fish and seafood provided an important source of protein. Enslaved communities were highly innovative, producing traps from whatever materials were available. Wicker traps would be plaited from wild canes, using plantain skin as bait. Enslaved people also hunted wild animals, foraged plants, and stole from fields and stores to feed themselves.
Sunday markets provided an opportunity to trade food that people had grown or caught for money, foodstuffs, and other items. This was an important source of freedom and personal agency.
People travelling to market in trinidad, about 1830.
Markets were also a rare chance for enslaved Africans to meet, socialise and exchange news. As a result, they became centres for building friendships, community relationships, and resistance, with traders providing networks between plantations, and aiding runaways and uprisings.
The intense complexity of Caribbean slavery, and the movement of large numbers of people from multiple locations in Africa, Europe, and Asia, created a rich admixture of cultures and people. This interchange and creation of new languages, foodways and traditions is known as creolisation.
As enslaved people from societies across West Africa mixed with European colonisers, and the remaining Indigenous communities, a new society was formed. This coming together of diverse populations, languages, cultures and cuisines into new forms is known as creolization.
Enslaved people, manufactured goods, and raw materials were not all that was transported across the Atlantic – many new plants were also introduced to the Caribbean.
The record above, from colonial botanist Thomas Dancer’s 1792 catalogue of Jamaican plants (full text here), notes that enslaved Africans on the Hibberts’ ships carried ackee seeds to Jamaica. Their foresight and resourcefulness in extreme circumstances has left a major impression on national cuisine – today, ackee is Jamaica’s national fruit.
Fou-fou and loblollie were West African dishes that enslaved people continued to eat in the Caribbean. Fou-Fou is made of boiled yam, cassava and plantain, all pounded into a soft dough. This was cheap and filling, and could be made with fish (tum-tum) or served with sauces, if available.
Loblollie was similar, but made instead with corn and boiled into a porridge-like consistency. In the early days of the Caribbean plantation system, loblollie was often given to enslaved workers. However, Africans preferred their corn roasted in full, fresh ears, and were recorded complaining:
“O! O! No more Lob-Lob.”
Richard Ligon, 1657.
Also roasted on the fire was plantain, introduced to the Caribbean from Africa. This was sometimes eaten as a lighter lunchtime meal in the baking sun.
Sharing Indigenous knowledge
“The cassada, or cassavi, is a root of great value. When unprepared, or even when the juice is extracted from this root, it is deadly poison … After being drawn out of the ground, it is scraped clean and washed, then grated … The juice is afterwards expressed, by means of pressing the grated cassada in a bag or strainer, made for the purpose. After being dried in the sun, it is put into a large pan … and a fire is made underneath this pan; then putting in the grated cassada, they turn it frequently for some time, until it becomes as dry as kilndried oatmeal, and it is then a very wholesome article of food.”
Mrs Carmichael, wife of a plantation owner, 1834.
Africans learnt how to process cassava safely from indigenous methods. This was an arduous and potentially dangerous process. However, the plant became a staple because it was very hardy, grew in poor soil with little water, and was rarely affected by storms. The resulting grain was often baked into a flatbread called bammy in some islands, which is still popular today.
Creativity and resourcefulness
The main meal of enslaved people on a plantation was usually a flexible recipe based on some kind of starchy stew. This was filling, required minimal supervision and could include whatever was available. Working with limited resources, enslaved people managed to adapt and season the dish to their tastes.
“[The dish] consists of green plantains, eddoes or yam, made into soup, with an abundance of creole peas or beans, or the eddoe leaf, the calialou … The soup is boiled very thoroughly, and forms a substantial mess, being of the consistency of thick potatoe soup. It is well spiced with country peppers; and cooked, as they cook it, is a most excellent dish indeed.”
Mrs Carmichael, 1834.
Off-cuts of meat might flavour the dish, while salted proteins, and herbs grown in provision grounds, seasoned the stew. Local peppers added the fiery kick typical of both Caribbean and West African cuisine.
“In the old days massah would have an after crop fete. He would have a big cooking, with a hog or two slaughtered. Of course the best bits were going to massah. It was only the head, the feet and the tail that was given to the slaves.”
George Leacock, the descendant of an enslaved woman.
This story has traced a tangled legacy. Manchester manufacturers and merchants played an important role in the very trade which dragged people into enslavement and enslavers, such as the Hibberts, forced thousands to labour to build huge wealth which they reinvested into their businesses and into the UK economy.
Yet, this story also shows how people of African descent carved out means within the oppressive plantation system to feed themselves nourishing and flavourful food. The forced migration of enslaved people, and with them, the traditions and foods of their homelands, created a new cuisine, borne from a drive to survive and to preserve African heritage, and foods which continue to be enjoyed as staples of Caribbean culture.
Find out more
Future Learn, Creoles, Criolisation and Atlantic Colonial Society.
Revealing Histories, Smoking, Drinking, and the British Sweet Tooth
Revealing Histories, Sugar Nippers
If Those Walls Could Talk, Hidden Histories: 35 King Street Manchester.
Tony Talburt, The Food of the Plantation Slaves of Jamaica, 2004.
Cristine MacKie, Life and Food in the Caribbean, 1991,
Kamau Braithwaite, Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820, 2005.
This project has been supported by the UCL UK Office, supporting the development of collaborations and research impact across the UK.