Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Glasgow and the Slave Trade. A Secret History?

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.

One of the many merchants' gravestones in Ramshorn Kirk 

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.

Site of the Easter House sugar refinery, 138 Gallowgate, Glasgow

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
The merchants new found wealth was frequently put on display for all to see, often commissioning new churches or building the most fashionable, conspicuous mansions. The rising urban population was given a new church, St Andrew's in the Square, built from 1739-56, funded by the merchants. Here they showed off their wealth with its extravagant spire, imported Spanish mahogany furnishings and delicate plasterwork inside. The square laid out around it became a fashionable place to live.

St Andrew's in the Square, Glasgow
Another church was built between 1750-52 beside Glasgow Green. St Andrew's-by-the-Green became known as the "Whistlin' Kirk" as it was the first church in Glasgow to install an organ for worship. Although it is no longer a church a nearby pub still carries the Whistlin' Kirk name. It was built in the style of the villas of the time. The Oswald family were involved in the construction of this church. They made their money from tobacco, sugar and wine traded in Virginia, the West Indies and Madeira. Nearby Oswald Street bears the family name and they also had estates in Balshagray and Scotstoun, land stretching from the River Clyde west of Partick, up as far as Great Western Road. Richard Oswald (1705-84) was in the second generation of family members in the business. He purchased plantations and traded in tobacco, sugar, horses and slaves. He was one of the owners of Bance Island, off the coast of Sierra Leone, one of the busiest trading forts for slaves. This market place allowed merchants to bypass the local African slave traders. One ludicrous feature of Bance Island was a two hole golf course where captured Africans were clad in tartan and made to act as caddies.

St Andrew's-by-the-Green, Glasgow
The Oswald family were not treated as pariahs for the business that they operated in. They in fact are the only merchant family given the honour of a burial spot within Glasgow Cathedral. Ironically a later member of the Oswald family, James Oswald (1779-1853), a nephew of Richard Oswald, was an MP for Glasgow and a key supporter of the abolitionist cause. A statue of him stands in George Square.

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
One of the earliest mansions built by the wealthy merchants in Glasgow was Shawfield Mansion at the top of what is now Glassford Street. This set the template that later grew into the city centre grid street layout, with these mansions facing a street that ran straight down towards the Clyde, with premises being developed down the street to generate more income. Shawfield Mansion no longer exists, but was built in 1711 by Daniel Campbell, an early slave trader in Virginia who owned several sugar warehouses.

Top of Glassford Street where Shawfield Mansion used to stand
Nearby was Virginia Mansion, at the top of Virginia Street where the Corinthian now sits. This was built by Andrew Buchanan of Drumpellier, a tobacco importer who also laid out Virginia Street. A plaque on Virginia Street marks the spot of the Tobacco Exchange where sugar and tobacco were traded in the 18th century.

Top end of Virginia Street, site of Virginia Mansion
Andrew Buchanan, the nephew of Andrew Buchanan of Drumpellier, bought the land for the street that took his name and Buchanan Street would have been on the periphery of the city at that time. With the continued westward growth of Glasgow Buchanan Street is now the central shopping street in Glasgow. The family's Virginia trading companies later folded due to the changes that occurred with the American War of Independence in 1777. Like many other families much of their money had been re-invested in land speculation and estates. One step down the rung from the Oswald's in the way the church honoured them, the Buchanan family earned a burial plot just outside the door of Glasgow Cathedral.
Buchanan family plot outside Glasgow Cathedral
Andrew Buchanan himself was buried amongst many other merchants in the most fashionable and expensive graveyard of 18th century Glasgow at the Ramshorn Kirk, although since the road was widened, his burial plot now lies under Ingram Street.

Ramshorn Theatre, formerly St David's Church at the top of Candleriggs
John Glassford (1715-83) came from a more traditional mercantile family in Paisley, but made his fortune in tobacco. He bought Shawfield Mansion in 1760 and his family portrait, which is on display in the People's Palace, shows them all sat in one of the rooms there. Research has shown a black servant in one corner of the picture, who appears to have been painted out at a later date. It has been estimated that about 70 black slaves were brought back to Scotland by families involved with the plantations, usually working as personal servants.
Glassford family portrait from The People's Palace, Glasgow
John Glassford ended up in debt after the collapse of the Virginia tobacco trade following the American War of Independence. He too is buried in the graveyard of the Ramshorn Kirk. I went in to try to find his grave, which lies in the south west corner of the graveyard and was amazed at how big it is. Despite passing the front of the church on Ingram Street a hundred times I had never looked in behind it before.

Many merchants are buried in the graveyard behind the Ramshorn Church
The next street west from Virginia Street is Miller Street, laid out in 1770. Number 42 Miller Street clearly has the features of an 18th century villa and became known as the "Tobacco Merchant's House". It is now home to the Glasgow Building Preservation Trust. This is the last merchant's villa standing in the Merchant City. In 1780 it was sold to Robert Findlay, a tobacco importer, who lived there until he died in 1802.

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
The nature of the slave produced goods traded through Glasgow was changing. The trade in sugar with the West Indies became increasingly important to Glasgow after the problems with the tobacco trade. Between  1790 and 1805 sugar imports to Glasgow rose threefold, and cotton imports quadrupled whilst tobacco imports fell to a tenth of what they had been in 1790. The West Indies was also a growing market for Scottish exports. In 1769 over 60% of all linen exported from Scotland went here. There was also a growing disdain for the principles and practices of slavery. In 1807 parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act and in 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act (although slaves in British territories were still indentured under the apprenticeship system to their former owners until 1838). Much is made in articles on Scottish links to slavery on the important work of those Scots campaigned for its abolition. Many Quakers and those in the church were outspoken on the subject and frequent petitions to parliament were organised in Scotland, a way for the many people of the time who could not vote to express their opinion. However there were also those arguing for the continuation of slavery in the plantations. Glasgow merchants who traded in the area in 1807 formed the Glasgow West India Association. In the 1820s they complained about the way the British public had been "excited and deluded on the subject of slavery". Once slavery was abolished they successfully campaigned for compensation for their losses and the government awarded £20 million to owners of West Indian estates. Analysis of the wills of Glasgow merchants with interests in the West Indies shows that they were investing some of their money in Scotland in railways and cotton manufacturing.

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.



  1. Very good article. I have recently arrived in Glasgow to work and as a direct descendant of those poor people who suffered in Jamaica, I am sicken by these grandiose momuments to criminals and the utter indifference this city has towards the suffering inflicted on Black people in the Caribbean, USA and other places in the Americas to build Glasgow. I hope more people write articles such as these, simply to educate the people here about the evil that their city was built on. Further I suggest all the street names that have a direct link to slavery have a black/red symbol printed on them to make people notice that these streets are actually named after people who have since been condemned by the United Nations itself of partaking in a crime against humanity. haatpraat01@gmail.com

    1. The lack of acknowledgement of these events was really the reason why I wrote this blog. Thank you for taking the time to read it and for your interesting comments.

  2. Outstanding article. I'm writing a piece for my blog on links between the confederacy and Scotland. I will definitely add your link as a useful source for readers. sonofskye.wordpress.com

    1. It is probably a bit at a tangent from your blog on links between the Confederacy and Scotland, but these connections feature in a curious work of fiction by Jules Verne. The Blockade Runners is about a Scottish merchant trading guns with the Confederates for cotton, despite the Unionist blockade. He wrote the book after visiting Glasgow and Liverpool about, for him, contemporary events.

  3. I'm writing from Amberley Publishing, a leading specialist of history titles, and I was really interested by your blogpost about Glasgow and the city's links with the slave trade. We're currently looking for authors to write about the city's hidden and mysterious past, and your engaging blogposts seem well suited for the project. If you would be interested in producing a book with us or would like further information you can contact me via t.poad@amberley-books.com
    Tom Poad

  4. Hampden Park is named after the Buchanan's sugar plantation in Jamaica, which is still there!

  5. This article contains a few assumptions, but are they really based on facts? It's too easy to judge without keeping the (moral) standards of that era in mind. I think you cannot draw conclusions based on this article which is highlighting only one (isolated) part of the history. Further investigation would not necessarily lead to a more positive facts; maybe the outcome shows us even a more negative image of those times. Whatever the facts are, you have to put theme in the spirit of times (Zeitgeist) before one can draw any conclusion. Much more information is needed (and can be found by putting more effortand time into it).

    1. No, right and wrong in this subject are timeless. The Church of Scotland was hypocritical As usual

  6. I am a member of a small Woman's Group in Inverclyde and we are all interested in finding out more about the Slave Trade in Scotland. Is there anyone I could contact who would be interested in giving us a talk on the subject
    C. B.

    1. I have heard Dr Stephen Mullen at the University of Glasgow History Department giving talks on local links to the slave trade. It might be worth contacting him to see if he would be available.

  7. Thanks for bringing light to the contributions of slavery to Glasgow. My family are from the Caribbean and I definitely know a lot of people with the odd Scottish Great Grandparent! There were a lot of Scottish emigrants who became Overseers on Estates with others who became successful Planters themselves - James Lamont in Trinidad for example owned a number of large sugar and cocoa estates. I agree that English Cities appear to own their participation in slavery - Scotland seems to lag behind a little. Thanks again.

  8. Please note that this is not an open debate forum, but a comments section on a personal blog. As such comments can and will be deleted, entirely at my discretion. If you have a strong opinion which you feel is not being heard, please find your own personal outlet for your personal opinions.



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