Union with England in 1707 removed the legal barriers that prevented Scotland from participating in trade with the New World. This allowed Scottish merchants access to new markets. By the mid eighteenth century, Glasgow dominated Britain’s tobacco and sugar imports. The city was also involved in the slave trade. Around nineteen slave ships left from Port Glasgow and Greenock, the city’s satellite ports. Many Scottish merchants also funded slave ships from other ports such as London, Bristol, Whitehaven and Liverpool, in what became known as the ‘triangular trade.’ British ships traded manufactured goods for slaves in Africa, and then on to slave plantations in America and the West Indies.
The direct trade with these colonies, the largest of which were in Virginia and Jamaica, led to major economic growth for Glasgow. Much praise has been heaped upon the merchant’s business acumen while the brutal reality, that sugar and tobacco were produced almost exclusively on slave labour, has been almost casually dismissed with a trite,“it wisnae us”. Only recently has the brutal truth of this episode in Glasgow’s economic past been examined and properly acknowledged.
The golden age of tobacco created the Tobacco Lords, who accumulated great wealth and became the Glasgow elite. They constructed townhouses, built churches, endowed public buildings and developed estates around the city that, even today, testify to their wealth. Some of these buildings are described in this website. They illustrate the opulence in which the Tobacco Lords lived from day to day, where they socialised and where they prayed. Exploring this history gives us an extraordinary insight into the role of slavery in Glasgow’s mercantile past.
It is ironic that a city that developed through plantation economics should play a major role in the abolition of slavery. ‘The Glasgow Enlightenment’ produced a powerful and sustained critique that inspired abolitionists across the globe. Anti-slavery societies grew up across Great Britain and, in spite of vested interests, Glasgow became an influential centre for political agitation. The built heritage of Glasgow also illustrates how individuals and organisations worked towards the abolition of the evil of slavery.
The map below gives a historical journey of discovery that highlights the largely untold story of Glasgow and slavery.