Although it was not as beloved as the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, the Great Exhibition of 1862 in London was extraordinary, as I noted in a previous post.
In addition to celebrating industrial and artistic achievement, the Exhibition also hosted meetings of several international groups. This included the International Congress of Charities, Correction and Philanthropy. On June 13, the speaker was Sarah Parker Remond.
A free person of color born in Massachusetts, Remond was anti-slavery from an early age. It is reputed that she made her first speech against the practice when she was 16. Her parents were successful business people. They were active in anti-slavery societies, and made sure their children got a good education, despite the lack of good schools for non-white children.
Sarah was already known as a lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society (founded by William Lloyd Garrison) before she was asked to go to London in 1858. Her intention was to get a better education, and she enrolled at the Bedford College for Women while continuing to lecture. While she was there, the American Civil War began.
Her speech at the Exhibition in 1862 emphasized support for emancipation, and by implication the Union blockade against the Confederacy. Britain had declared itself neutral in the conflict, and British ships continued to bring in products to northern ports. She pointed out how the British cotton industry used the products of slaves, although Britain itself had outlawed slavery in 1824. The British Parliament had further passed the Slavery Trade Act of 1873 and were actively involved in confiscating slave ships, but were continuing to benefit from the manufacture of cotton grown by slaves in America. She said,
Let no diplomacy of statesmen, no intimidation of slaveholders, no scarcity of cotton, no fear of slave insurrections, prevent the people of Great Britain from maintaining their position as the friend of the oppressed negro, which they deservedly occupied previous to the disastrous civil war.
This was despite the fact that she recognized that:
Thousands among the commercial, manufacturing, and working classes, on both sides of the Atlantic, are dependent upon cotton for all material prosperity. . .
As the result of the efforts of Remond and others like her, Britain respected the Union blockade of the Southern states. But the result of the decline in raw cotton importation was mill closures and starvation in places like Lancashire. There it’s become known as the Lancashire Cotton Famine.
In 1862, as now, the problem was not just that economic strain had thrown people out of work. It was that there was not enough of a social safety net to provide for them when they lost their jobs. The British government engaged in some compensation experiments, including minor funds distributed directly (similar to today’s stimulus checks), but it was minimal and in many cases never reached the people who needed it. The new Poor Laws had funded workhouses rather than “outdoor” relief to help people at home. Ultimately, some relief occurred when the government provided money to local councils, who then created new opportunities for employment in public works. But that wasn’t until 1864. Before that any efforts were supported primarily by private charity (similar to today’s GoFundMe), partly out of a suspicion of increased government activity*.
In 1862 the issue was the moral culpability involved in profiting from slave labor. Now it is the moral culpability of forcing workers into plague conditions. Jobs that take place indoors have the greatest risk of infection, while those outdoors have the least. Safer jobs could include massive infrastructure repair on America’s roads, bridges, and parks. Designs could be implemented to move commercial, educational, and political enterprises into better ventilated conditions.
Perhaps public works, and a bit of advice from Miss Nightingale (see previous post), might be an answer beyond 1864.
* Hall, Rosalind. “A Poor Cotton Weyver: Poverty and the Cotton Famine in Clitheroe.” Social History 28, no. 2 (2003): 233.