A dramatic soundscape that mixes enigmatic synth, eerie folk music and the percussive thunkings of factory machinery and cotton weavers’ clogs – Cotton Panic! is more of a narrative concert than traditional theatre – a concept album with integrity.
Cotton Panic! tells the story of the 1861 Cotton Famine that struck Manchester during the American Civil War. Manchester at the time was a major manufacturer of cotton garments, and the majority of the cotton came from American plantations. As slaves were emancipated and plantations in the northern states were shut down, Manchester began to starve.
Crucial to the show’s emotional power is the moment when the citizens of Manchester signed a declaration in support of the emancipated slaves, despite the famine. The declaration ends with the words “Onward, ye free men of the north and downward you southern men who want slavery.” In the current climate, there is a temptation to hear the chant as the cry of modern north of England against the Westminster powers that have ignored it for so long. The end of Cotton Panic! even draws parallels with the modern day Black Lives Matter movement and the rise of Donald Trump.
But these comparisons should not be invested in too heavily. The inequalities in our country and our own time, though very much real, are hardly comparable with the Atlantic slave trade. In exemplifying Manchester’s “sacrifice” during the war we risk asserting a narrative about the abolition of slavery in which the white man is the hero.
The message of the show is more egalitarian than heroic though, and by showing the correspondence between the citizens of Manchester and key figures in the abolitionist movement in America, it demonstrates how interconnected the world was, even two hundred years ago. Overall, it demonstrates the need for collective effort in the face of international dilemmas. No country is ever really an island, and society is only bettered by the hard work of soft hands.
- Ciaran Grace
Links relevant to this diagnosis:
The Lancashire Cotton Famine - Radio 4
The Haitian Revolution:
The Emancipation of Russian Serfs - History Today