Glasgow: Slavery and anti-slavery

Glasgow: Slavery and anti-slavery

Many people in Glasgow are aware of the city’s connection with the tobacco trade. Glasgow was a convenient port to sail to British colonies in the West Indies and America and the merchants of the city were very successful in developing trading links. From the mid eighteenth century, Glasgow became a major centre of the sugar, rum and tobacco trades. The street names of the city bear testimony to the success of these ‘Tobacco Lords’ – GlassfordBuchananIngramOswald and others.

Elderslie HouseThe Tobacco Lords were very wealthy, and many built city mansions and bought large estates in the surrounding countryside.
Elderslie House, on the banks of the River Clyde, built by Alexander Speirs, a tobacco merchant, in 1782.  The town residence of Mr. Speirs was ‘the Virginia Mansion’ which stood on Virginia Street.

image: The old country houses of the old Glasgow Gentry by Thomas Annan. Glasgow, 1878. Multiple copies throughout the library including Level 12 Spec Coll, Photo B5;

Less well known, however, is the connection that Glasgow had with slavery. The Tobacco Lords bought tobacco from planters who employed black slave labour.

'It was symbolic of the hands-off role of Glasgow in the business of slavery. The city was economically dependent on chattel slavery, yet at the same time far removed from its brutal realities. This helped create a myth of detachment and non-involvement’ 
Stephen Mullen: It Wisnae Us: the truth about Glasgow and Slavery. RIAS, 2009. Library, Level 8, History DX 202 MUKL  

Nor was use of this labour confined to the production of tobacco. Several Glasgow families, for example the Stirlings or the Cunninghames (whose mansion is now Glasgow’s Museum of Modern Art) were involved in the sugar trade which was also heavily reliant on slaves. James Ewing, who was one of Glasgow's best-known public figures of the early 19th century, owned plantations in Jamaica.

'There were significant vested interests in Glasgow in the West Indies sugar industry which sought to protect and expand both it and the chattel economics on which it rested’. (Mullen, op. cit).

The circumstances under which slaves were taken from Africa to the colonies, and their living and working conditions there were inhumane and brutal. While there had always been people who objected to the slave trade and slavery, its full horrors were not grasped by the general public. However, by the late 18th century as these details became known, the anti-slavery movement started and petitions calling for an end to slavery began to appear.

Several members of Glasgow University were prominent at that period in the movement to abolish slavery. They included Francis Hutcheson, Professor of Moral Philosophy in 1730, Adam Smith Professor of Logic and Moral Philosophy 1751, and John Millar Regius Professor of Civil Law 1761.

'It is a great honour in the University of Glasgow that is should have produced, before any public agitation of the question, three professors, all of whom bore their public testimony against this cruel trade'.
Thomas Clarkson, The history of the Rise Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition the African Slave Trade, 1808. Level 12 Sp Coll T.C.L. q228

There is not a negro from the coast of Africa who does not.... possess a degree of magnanimity which the soul of his sordid master is too often scarce capable of conceiving.
(Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments V.I.19)

Senate Minutes

A proposal was made to the meeting to address the House of Commons in favour of a Bill which the Senate understand is to be brought into Parliament this session for the abolition of the African Slave Trade. The proposal was unanimously approved of, and a scroll of a Petition was laid before the meeting which was likewise approved of. Ref SEN1/1/2 pp136-137I (Courtesy Glasgow University Archives).

‌Although the slave trade in the British Colonies became illegal in 1807, and British ships were no longer allowed to carry slaves, slavery continued, resulting in renewed campaigning for its complete abolition. The Glasgow Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1822, and there were a number of similar organisations, such as the Glasgow New Ladies Anti-Slavery Society. A Glasgow University student and African American, James McCune Smith, joined the Glasgow Emancipation Society, an anti-slavery abolitionist group. The Slavery Abolition Act was passed by the Parliament in Westminster in 1833.

Book from Board 3The stench of the hold…was so intolerably loathsome…it became absolutely pestilential. .. brought on a sickness amongst the slaves of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice..of their purchasers. This deplorable situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains. The Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African. First published 1814. Level 8, History WL258.E6