In Glasgow the part of the city nearest to the old medieval centre is branded as the Merchant City, celebrating the merchants and tobacco lords whose wealth led to the rapid growth of the city. Watching the film "12 Years a Slave" at the cinema recently I was struck by the fact that whilst the characters in the film were labouring away in the sugar fields and cotton plantations, their produce was then traded to the great and the good of my city. We have streets named in honour of the tobacco lords, but I struggled to find any mention of the role of the slaves in creating this wealth. I decided to try to write down here what I have found out on the subject, which seems so absent from the city history as to almost amount to a denial that it happened.
At the end of the 17th century Glasgow was not a large place. It was centred on the High Street where a cathedral had by then stood for 500 years. The nearby University of Glasgow, founded in 1451, was already 200 years old. However over the next 100 years the wealth and importance of the city would explode. Firstly driven by trans-Atlantic trade then manufacturing, invention and engineering. By the time of the Victorian era Glasgow would be known as the “second city of the Empire”. The medieval heart of the city, from Glasgow Cathedral down to the banks of the River Clyde would come to represent the shabby, ramshackle past and a new town would be built westwards by the wealthy merchants, laying out new streets running down from their mansions. Eventually as industrialisation encroached further into the old town even the University would up sticks in 1870, whilst Lord Kelvin was still teaching there, and follow the growth of the city west to Gilmorehill where it still stands. In the 18th and 19th century Glasgow was supplying doctors, soldiers, engineers and innovation to all corners of the Empire.
The old aphorism that “Glasgow built the Clyde and the Clyde built Glasgow” reflects the fact that Glasgow created a navigable channel for the larger sea-going vessels into the city to meet the demands of trade, and this river became the centre for industrial Glasgow with shipbuilding and associated industries meaning that a city of 77,000 people in 1801 had by 1939 grown to a city of 1.2 million citizens. So whatever way you look at it, the trade of the 17th and 18th century kick-started the growth of the Glasgow’s embryonic infrastructure. Firstly with sugar, then tobacco, cotton, linen and locally manufactured goods. When you look at that list it all seems quite innocuous, until you reflect on where the sugar, tobacco and cotton came from that generated the vast fortunes for the merchants. The clues are in any Glasgow map with its Kingston Bridge, Virginia Street and Jamaica Street. Trade, initially using the satellite ports of Greenock and Port Glasgow and then later with the deepening of the Clyde, the Broomielaw in Glasgow itself, built the city.
I have visited the International Slavery Museum in the Maritime Museum at Liverpool, and I understand that Bristol’s Museum marks the city’s major role in the slave trade. In Glasgow we have large signs marking our Merchant City, but nary a word about what these merchants traded. In Scotland we tend to see ourselves as the oppressed colony of the English, without reflecting much upon our role in the “triangular trade” or as overseers and masters on the plantations. Robert Burns had already put down his nine guineas deposit for passage on the Nancy in 1786 as a job awaited him, a 3 year contract as bookkeeper on an estate in Jamaica. But for the success of the poetry of his Kilmarnock edition that autumn, our national bard would have earned his crust on a plantation in the West Indies.
Until the Union with England in 1707, Scotland was theoretically banned from trading with the English colonies. However covert trading links were established, especially to Virginia, New Jersey and Carolina. Forced emigration, many of them Covenanters, in the 1670s and 1680s led to many Scots moving to Virginia and Maryland and family connections played an important role in the growing trade links. The level of trade at this time led to four sugar refineries being built in Glasgow between 1667 and 1700. Two of these were soon producing rum from the molasses they produced, others specialised in sweets, candy, treacle and syrups.
|Map of Candleriggs from 1760, Wester and North Sugar Houses near |
Trongate at the bottom and Ramshorn Church at the top
With the collapse of the Darien scheme and the signing of the Act of Union in 1707 the Scottish merchants now had access to new trade routes. One part of this was the "Triangular Trade" between Britain, Africa and the colonies where each of the three stages of the route could turn a profit. Until the 1690s the workers on tobacco and sugar plantations were largely people in indentured servitude, usually working for a fixed number of years to pay for their passage. Often convicted criminals, political prisoners or religious nonconformists would be sent to the colonies as a workforce too. The increased demand for workers was met firstly in Jamaica and Barbados and later in the Americas by bringing in slaves from Africa. Ships left Britain with goods such as iron wares, textiles, copper and iron bars. This was then traded for captured Africans. In horrific conditions they were transported across the Atlantic. An estimated 11% of all Africans in these ships died in transit. The slaves were traded in the Caribbean and American colonies for rum, sugar and tobacco which was taken back to Britain and traded on again for a profit. Estimating the number of ships participating in the "Triangular Trade" from Glasgow is complicated by these ships often heading to Rotterdam first on their "out" trip. Whilst Liverpool's docks recorded 1,011 slave voyages, Glasgow records show 27. Even this seemingly small number of trips accounts for about 3000 slaves. Between 1710-69 British ships transported around 1.5 million slaves from Africa. Many more of these ships may have departed from Glasgow as the Port Books from before 1742 have not survived.
A larger part of Glasgow's trade with the colonies was in trading locally produced goods - ploughs, pots and pans, rough woven "slave cloth" for the plantation slaves to wear were traded for tobacco and sugar. As 15-20,000 Scots emigrated to the Caribbean between 1750-1800 they worked at every level of the slave trade, as overseers, financiers, suppliers, bookkeepers and as slave and plantation owners. Research on the compensation paid out by the government to absentee proprietors after the Emancipation Act of 1833 shows a disproportionately high representation of Scots, getting 15% of the compensation money for a country with 10% of the British population. By the early 19th century Scots owned a third of Jamaica's plantations which supplied the huge sugar warehouses at Greenock.
|Broomielaw today, with the Kingston Bridge now where Kingston Docks used to stand|
Tobacco became the most important good brought in from America and Glasgow's position on the west coast meant a trip from Glasgow to Virginia could be completed 20 days faster than a trip from London. This resulted in almost half of the tobacco coming into Europe being distributed through Glasgow. It was then exported on to England, France, Holland and Germany. The increase in slave labour transformed the scale of the tobacco trade. However the Clyde was poorly equipped to deal with this increased trade, which largely came via Ayr, Dumbarton and Irvine. A deep water harbour and warehouses were created at Port Glasgow and a new harbour built at the Broomielaw to where smaller boats transferred the goods to Glasgow warehouses here. In 1768 the river was deepened and further docks developed. The goods traded back meant that when Jamaica Street was planned out in 1761 it soon had a custom house, shipping office, sail-cloth company. Leather works, glass works, breweries, potteries, producers of ropes and sails sprung up about the Trongate area too with the increased trade. Cotton was coming into Scotland too, supplying new industries all over the west of Scotland, with the goods produced here then sold all over the world. The new Glasgow infrastructure was financed by these merchants, and their growing international trade links.
|Jamaica Street, Glasgow today|
|St Andrew's in the Square, Glasgow|
|St Andrew's-by-the-Green, Glasgow|
|Stone marking the Oswald family plot in the nave of Glasgow Cathedral|
Few of the villas of this time survive in Glasgow, but one can be seen nearby in Charlotte Street and the similarities with the St Andrew's-by-the-Green Church are obvious. This was a street stretching between the Gallowgate and Glasgow Green that was once home to the "father of the cotton industry", David Dale. This street was laid out in 1779. Later it was where St Aloysius College was founded and home to a Mr Paterson, whose claim to fame was creating "Camp Coffee", the world's first instant coffee.
|The last 18th century villa on Charlotte Street|
|Top of Glassford Street where Shawfield Mansion used to stand|
|Top end of Virginia Street, site of Virginia Mansion|
|Buchanan family plot outside Glasgow Cathedral|
|Ramshorn Theatre, formerly St David's Church at the top of Candleriggs|
|Glassford family portrait from The People's Palace, Glasgow|
|Many merchants are buried in the graveyard behind the Ramshorn Church|
|Tobacco Merchant's House, Miller Street, Glasgow|
Alexander Speirs of Elderslie (1714-82), who came from Edinburgh, married into the Buchanan family and worked in the family businesses. He bought the Virginia Mansion in 1770 and despite his business being founded on the work of slaves is remembered with a stained glass window in Glasgow Cathedral.
|Window in Glasgow Cathedral commemorating Alexander Speirs|
However, surely the prize for the most ostentatious mansion goes to William Cunningham, who died in 1789. From Ayrshire he had interests in tobacco and in sugar, owning a plantation in Jamaica and 300 slaves. He built Cunningham mansion, which later became the Royal Exchange. I quite liked the fact that when I tried to take a photograph of it earlier today a bus got in my way, emblazoned with a Pepsi advert proclaiming "Maximum Taste, No Sugar". Without the work of his slaves in Jamaica on the sugar plantations, this building which now houses Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), would not have been built.
|Cunningham Mansion in Glasgow, built on the profits of sugar|
After emancipation sugar imports dipped for a while, but soon picked up again as the merchants sought sugar from other sources. the value of sugar imports to the Clyde increased almost five-fold between 1857 and 1867. Cuban and Brazilian sources were becoming increasingly important. Of the twenty sugar refineries in Scotland in 1868, fourteen were in Greenock, one in Port Glasgow and three in Glasgow.
New industries were being developed around Glasgow. I cannot help but think that much of this was founded on the profits made from businesses with slave labour at their heart. So next time you come out of Buchanan Street subway station, wander down Glassford Street, see an exhibition in the GOMA or take in a concert at the beautiful St Andrew's In The Square take a moment to ponder where these things came from. I hope that Glasgow can find space somewhere to acknowledge the debt that the city owes to the men, women and children "stolen from Africa" to produce our tobacco, sugar and cotton.
Addendum Nov 2015. There is an excellent new book out on Scotland's connections with slavery in the Caribbean, which I would recommend to you if you are interested in this topic. (Recovering Scotland's Slavery Past. The Caribbean Connection edited by T.M. Devine). In his chapter titled "Did slavery make Scotia great?" Prof Devine concludes that "...the story is a complex one, but even when all the qualifications are taken on board, the central argument remains that the Atlantic slave-based economies can be considered key factors in Scotland's eighteenth-century transformation." Nowhere is that more evident than in Glasgow and the city is sorely needing public acknowledgement of this fact in some way.
- It Wisnae Us. The Truth About Glasgow and Slavery - Stephen Mullen
- Glasgow Street Names - Carol Foreman
- Scotland and the Slave Trade. 2007 Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act - Scottish Executive
- An Elite Revisited : Glasgow West India Merchants 1783-1877 - Anthony Cooke
- Tariq Kataria blogpost