It is the kind of historical artifact that would be easy to miss: an old and fragile little book unearthed in the archives of the Derbyshire Record Office, in the East Midlands of England. The book, a commercial ledger from 1822, holds the names of enslavers who ran cotton plantations on islands along the coast of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

And on one of the browning pages, in elegant, handwritten script, someone has inked the name of the company buying that cotton: Shuttleworth, Taylor & Co.

Cassandra Gooptar, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Hull, knew that firm and had been hunting for any trace of it for five months. The Taylor in question was none other than John Edward Taylor, founder of The Manchester Guardian, now known simply as The Guardian, the most prominent progressive newspaper in Britain for more than two centuries.