Introducing our new project on global cotton connections

The ‘hidden histories’ of Derbyshire Peak District’s global cotton connections

Cromford. Photo licensed under Creative Commons.

Cromford, Derbyshire, site of Richard Arkwright’s Cromford Mill, built in 1771.
Photo by Sam Styles, 2005, licensed under Creative Commons.

Nestled among the small towns and farmland of the Derbyshire Peak District lie sites of the earliest water-powered cotton mills in the world, several of which form the heart of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site. Now partly designated a National Park, this rural part of Britain was once central to the cotton textile industry – an industry closely associated with the ‘Industrial Revolution’ for which Britain is famous. Yet the global connections of this important cotton textile heritage area typically remain hidden to those living in or visiting the region. Heritage sites rarely identify the mills’ sources of raw cotton, which was grown in places like India and Egypt, as well as on slave-worked plantations in the Americas, e.g. in Brazil, the Caribbean and the southern states of America. Which markets these mills served also tends to be hidden from view. Importantly, cotton goods were not only produced for domestic markets but also for colonial ones, including the slave trade and plantation supplies.

Sugar and Cotton Plantation Slaves Auction, New Orleans, March 1855

Broadside advertising auction of “178 Sugar and Cotton Plantation Slaves”, New Orleans, 1855.

Our new project is interested in these global and colonial histories of cotton and their marked absence from the heritage landscape of the Derbyshire Peak District. Concerned that such absences contribute to feelings of exclusion and alienation amongst Black and Minority Ethnic heritage communities already poorly represented as visitors to such heritage sites and the wider countryside, our project sets out to reconnect this important world site of industrial innovation with the people and places involved in cotton textile production in the past and now.

Project aims and activities

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through its Connected Communities Programme, the project, which runs from February 2014 to January 2015, combines archival research with active community engagement. Re-examining archives typically used to tell histories of such prominent English individuals as Richard Arkwright, the project hopes to shift attention to the global and colonial networks of people, places and things on which the business of the Derbyshire Peak District’s mills, and the success of Arkwright and others largely depended. Drawing on archival materials, we will be working collaboratively with individuals from different communities living in and around the Derbyshire Peak District so as to consider how global, diverse heritage perspectives might be better represented in the heart of the Peak District. A key aim of the project is to work together to produce interpretive materials acknowledging cotton’s global and colonial connections to be used in the local heritage landscape of the Derbyshire Peak District.

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