Cottonopolis: lessons for environmental science through the hidden histories of Manchester

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Arts Languages and Cultures


Within its much celebrated 'innovative past' Manchester - and its industries, private businesses, universities, and cultural institutions such as museums, libraries, art galleries, and observatories - were key hubs in the expansion of UK's colonial aspirations. This project interrogates Manchester's role as the first industrialising city, and the dominance of the expansion of global cotton markets through environmental science, which ultimately provided the cultural and scientific authority that underpinned colonial expansion, frontier agriculture, and colonial urbanization. In this project 'cotton' is a starting point from which to unsettle the celebration of Manchester's history as a city of science and innovation, challenging us to rethink the history of the first industrial city as a global socio-environmental history with a colonial legacy for the environmental sciences. Cotton, which fueled Manchester's growth, never grew in Britain. Rather, it was the expansion of the British Empire, across North America, Asia, Australia, and Africa that allowed for cotton to grow on colonised lands. Cotton irreversibly modified landscapes, waterscapes, and labouring lives in Britain's colonies. The environmental sciences, such as botony, soil science, hydrology, entomology among others, were at the forefront of re-creating colonial environments. Through the histories of cotton, we will reveal the socio-environmental legacies of industrial Manchester and the environmental knowledge and impacts this legacy created. Alongside, drawing from the ecological legacies of cotton, the project will ask how environmental science can acknowledge its colonial pasts, give visibility to these hidden histories, and create new frameworks for knowledge and of equality. Together, the project seeks to bring alive these hidden legacies of cotton, with a view to re-casting the future of environmental sciences in Britain and beyond.


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