CONTENT NOTE: This poem contains offensive racist terms
In the year of grace eighteen sixty-two,
A wail of want filled the country through,
A want of cotton, or something to do—
But which nothing, save cotton could give.
Spinning and weaving were both at a stand,
Shuttles and spindles through all the land
Were stilled as if hushed by a magic wand,
Or as if workmen had ceased to live.
Machines were still’d as if turned to stone,
Tho’ the bright warm sun on the factory shone,
Lighting the place which needed no light,--
For it might have been dark as the darkest night.
And no ne have suffered the more,
For the fires of the engines had long gone out,
And the factory hands were wand’ring about,
Begging or starving the latter no doubt—
Some who never had starved before.
But now they must learn to starve or beg
And crave for the coin which is called a “meg,”
And forget that they once were men
Who never had begged, or sought relief
From the parish for they had just as lief
Have turned a prig or a regular thief,
As have asked for a half-penny then—
But pride must fall when the stomach craves,
And all must bow like willing slaves,
To nature’s most terrible law;
For disease, and hunger, and pain and want,
Are enough the stoutest heart to daunt—
And death makes the place his daily haunt
Watching for victims with greedy maw.
Cotton! more cotton’s the wailing cry
Which for many a day has gone up on high
From those who have prayed at all—
And cotton’s the cry which the winter’s blast
Has carried from men with unbroken fast,
As they thought of the future quite aghast;
But no one has answered their call.
For the state of things in the world called new,
Is such a state as the world ne’er knew
Since Cain killed his brother Abel.
Brothers are shedding their brother’s gore,
And the more they spill seem to crave the more,
To deluge the country from shore to shore
With human blood—oh! never before
Did ever a page of a nation’s lore
So closely resemble a fable.
And the state of things in the world called old
Is a state of things which must be told,
How cotton is gambled, and bought and sold
Thus making distress the greater—
How fortunes are made and won in a day,
As easily made as the making of hay,
By cargoes well bought while yet on the way
From Surat, Sea Island, or else Bombay,
By the cunning speculator.
For cotton like money is gambled and won,
From the time when the blacks in the broiling sun,
Pick it from plants as if it were fun,
In spite of the driver’s whip,--
Which ceaselessly plays about their backs
As if they were only used up hacks—
And so you might from the number of whacks
Given every hour to these toiling blacks
Who don’t seem to care for the strokes one flip.
For Topsy and Tom, Sukey and Sam,
Do not know they are sons of Ham,
Everlastingly doomed for perdition;
Know nothing alas! of that slave, at all,
Sent back to his master by Bishop Paul;--
Know nothing of Moses or how with an awl
The Hebrew slaves were pinned to the wall
For trying to change their condition.
So the cotton is picked, and packed, and ginned,
And afterwards blown to our shores by the wind
If not otherwise blown to the bottom;
White and fleecy, though black men had
And many a nigger boy stole from his dad,
Who is left to pine for the loss of his lad,
And on Africa’s shore perhaps go mad—
E’er we get this crop of cotton.
Long ere its [sic] docked the gambling begins
A gambling that’s viewed as the least of sins
Ever sinned since the time of the fall—
For quite forgot are the starving poor
Thronging around the workhouse door
A sight that ought to the very core
Make hearts to ache, and tears to pour,
If we had any feeling at all.
But no—Oh! no—It is cotton to buy,
But it as low and sell it as high—
As conscience will let you do;
Run up the price till it stops the mills,
Causing at once a thousand ills,
But crowding your ledgers, and filling your tills
With golden coin and bankpost bills,
For cotton’s your fount with its golden frills—
The many may starve but what care you?
Yet it is not cotton that’s gambled and won
And I trow it’s not cotton that’s even spun,
But the threads of human lives;
For had it but stayed in other lands,
Or blocked in the briny ocean’s bands,
It then had not been changing hands
Making harder stern poverty’s gyves.
Liverpool men could not then I ween
Traffic and trade in poverty keen,
Causing the lean to be yet more lean,
By dealing in cotton on ‘change,
And many a Lancashire home would be
Not a home of poverty painful to see,
Where hunger is breakfast dinner and tea,
And a meal on event that is strange.
But no—Oh! no—It is cotton to buy,
Buy it as low, and sell it as high
As gamblers on ‘change will give,
And think, --never think,
Of ought but the chink—
Of how a poor spinner’s to live.
And thus we see that this wail of want,
For many a day will continue to haunt
Like a spectre fiend with aspect gaunt,
The home of the spinner and weaver.
Be it e’er so loud, it will not daunt,
The cotton-lord from making a vaunt,
He’s wholly exempt from the dreadful taunt
Of being a man-bereaver—
Let nevertheless his prayers at night,
Will be clogged by his sin, in their upward flight,
That is if the world e’er saw such a sight,
As a dealer in cotton engaged in a right
Only performed when the heart is aright
With his fellow man, and in God’s own sight,
And not a deceived deceiver.
But the day will dawn for the factory hands,
And the looms get to work with shuttles and bands,
For cotton is coming from other lands
Than America termed the South,
India and Egypt have planted the plant,
And until that day we’ll try if we can’t
Fill every hungry mouth.
Manchester, 23rd April, 1863.SENOJ TREBOR.



Publication:The Wrexham Advertiser, and Denbighshire, Flintshire, Cheshire, and North Wales Register

Published in:Wrexham

Date:Saturday, May 02, 1863

Keywords:hunger, industry, war


This extraordinarily long and detailed poem (in the context of newspaper publication) from the Wrexham Advertiser, is clearly written by somebody called Robert Jones in Manchester. It is distinctive in that it tells the story of the cotton famine in the past tense for part of its narrative, and sustains an unusual rhyme scheme of (broadly) AABCCCB throughout. However, the number of those A and C rhymes varies arbitrarily, and this often means quite long sections on of the poem written in ‘monorhyme’, which is highly unusual, and has the effect of building up tension. The poem details the plight of the working population of the northern cotton districts, but is international in its sweep, speculating of the acquisition of cotton from elsewhere that warring America, and describing the conditions of slaves in the southern states of that country. It is here where the poem is offensively racist not just in its language, but in its assumption of the ignorance and acceptance of African Americans. There is also a reference to the familiar racist trope of the Curse of Ham (Noah’s son) – a common justification of slavery at the time. Given that this poem was written in Manchester four months after President Lincoln’s famous letter to the city commending its support for abolition, its publication provides interesting context to prevailing views, and suggests they were not as universally liberal as is sometimes portrayed. The dehumanisation of African-Americans here seems to be part of the call for recognition of the suffering of Lancashire’s white population. – SR