History Opinion

Slave ships on football shirts are the perfect symbols of racism

Photo credit: “Manchester United” by .sanden. is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

As a lifelong United fan, it was a strange experience to find out that the ship on the badge has links to slavery. It shows just how embedded the histories of slavery are in the present that you can go decades without seeing what should have been blindingly obvious. The first time I noticed there was a ship was when one of our Black Studies students raised the issue with the ship on the badge. I later visited the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool and saw a picture of a slave ship that had been doctored to remove the boats with enslaved Afrikans being ferried on board and air holes at the bottom of the ship. The ship looked remarkably similar to the one I had worn on my chest for years and the Whitewashing of history was a metaphor for the badges of the clubs.

Manchester is not a port like Liverpool but just like cities like Birmingham that doesn’t mean it has no links to slavery. My hometown, Brum, made the shackles and guns necessary to enslave Afrikans and its industry was made possible by the wealth and the commodities produced on the plantations. Our hometown hero is none other than James Watt who is celebrated for inventing the steam engine. What is far less celebrated is that the first people to buy the steam engine were enslavers in the Caribbean to refine sugar. Watt was pro-slavery because it was essential to his business model and the steam engine really took off when it was used to manufacture cotton.

“… the Whitewashing of history was a metaphor for the badges of the clubs”

Manchester’s links to slavery are the cotton that built the city. In the late eighteenth century, Liverpool became the premier port for enslaved-produced goods, including imports of cotton from US plantations. It was only after the canal was built from the port to Manchester in 1772 that the city of my favorite football team began to grow. As I covered in the New Age of Empire (courtesy of Eric Williams’s classic Capitalism and Slavery), just a decade after the canal was built it created 200,000 jobs dependent on the system of slavery. The city grew six-fold between 1773 and 1824 based on the import of raw cotton, which grew from £11 million to £283 million between 1784 and 1832. Britain may have eventually abolished slavery in 1838 but the imports of enslaved-produced cotton in the US continued to grow until the US Civil War in 1865. The facts here are simple, Manchester would not exist as it does without slavery. Like the rest of the country it is the original sin, the foundation stone of our current prosperity.

The ships on the club badges are inspired by the Manchester coat of arms, which was created in 1842 when the city was dependent on cotton produced by the enslaved on US plantations. The coat of arms also includes a bee which is, as the Guardian writer Simon Hatterstone points out also linked to cotton the “bee is the worker, the hive the mill, the honey the cotton.” The globe in the symbol also gives the game away given where they were getting their cotton from. For historian Jonathan Schofield to defend the ship as a “symbol of free trade” calls to mind Walter Rodney’s comment that “this kind of argument is worth noting more of an example of the distortions of which White bourgeois scholarship is capable than as something requiring serious consideration.” Local Labour MP somehow came to the conclusion that the campaign to change the badge was “crazy” because “Manchester had nothing to do with the slave trade.” There are always reminders of why my next book is The Psychosis of Whiteness.

“The ships on the club badges are inspired by the Manchester coat of arms… created in 1842 when the city was dependent on cotton produced by the enslaved on US plantations”

I am in two minds about the clubs’ changing their logos. On the one hand, it should be pretty straightforward that any corporate brand should not want to be associated with the slave trade, particularly given how many of their players and fans are descendants of those who were enslaved. I certainly don’t feel as comfortable wearing a United shirt as before. The clubs are worth billions and it really wouldn’t be too difficult to take the ship off the logo. If Black Lives really do matter then this would be a pretty easy step. But on the other hand, it is too easy to rebrand and get some good publicity. In the post-George Floyd era, we have already seen this approach from too many companies, as we were critical of recently. The clubs might have started after slavery had ended but they could not have come into being without the racism that built the modern world and they continue to benefit from an economic system of White supremacy. If they were to change their badges, spare a thought for the sweatshop workers who would be making sure they are attached. A slave ship is an honest emblem to wear on a football shirt (not just for the Manchester clubs), so perhaps they should double down and United should change its mascot from a red devil to a White one.

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