The Sugar in our Tea: Scotland, Slavery and Abolition


Richard Ligon, A History of the Island of Barbados… (London, 1657). Sp.Coll. Hunterian K.3.3.

This map of Barbados appeared in Ligon’s account of the three years he spent on the island as a sugar planter. The map showed Barbados twenty years after settlement, depicting dozens of sugar plantations all over the island. By then Barbados had become the most successful region in the English empire. Scottish planters and labourers were a significant presence on the island, and the runaway slaves seen in the northern section were seeking refuge in the hilly Scotland District, far away from Carlisle Bay in the southern part of the island, where they had disembarked from Africa.

Appraisement of Inverera Estate, Tobago (1829).Sp.Coll. MS Gen 946/4. 

Scots owned and managed many plantations in the West Indies and America. This is a handwritten inventory of the Inverera plantation on Tobago, one of hundreds of plantations with Scottish names. It was owned by James Campbell in the early 1800s, and this list calculated the value of the sugar estate in 1829, listing property including slaves, animals, land and buildings. 57 male and 69 female slaves were named, some as young as 1 or 2 years-old. The age and health of the slaves affected their value. Most worked in the sugar fields, while a few had other tasks such as watchman, carpenter, mason, cook, midwife and housekeeper.

Appraisement of Inverera Estate, Tobago (1829).  Sp.Coll. MS Gen 946/4.

The document listed 126 enslaved men, women and children, who were worth far more than the plantation buildings and land on which they laboured. Did it amuse white slave-owners to name their human property with the names of planets, gods or classical figures, like Pluto and Primus? And what about Othello? Occasionally parents were able to name children themselves, and African names and naming practices persisted: Quacoo was a West African day-name, the name given to a male child born on a Wednesday.

Appraisement of Inverera Estate, Tobago (1829). Sp.Coll. MS Gen 946/4.

There is nothing apologetic about this document. There wass no sense of shame in owning people, identifying the colour of their skins, their place of birth, their age, health and financial value. Rosalind had been born in Africa but had likely spent most of her 52 years working on plantations, and she was already infirm and an invalid.  In the end these 126 people, who have left us none of their own words and memories, were summarised in a ‘recapitulation’ of the value of the plantation, alongside the mules, the oxen and the other livestock.

A West India Merchant in Glasgow, Original Water Colour Drawings of Old Official Dresses, Seals etc. (Glasgow, 1889). Sp.Coll. MS Murray 592.

This watercolour illustrates the clothing and the wealth of West Indian merchants in Glasgow. It exposes Glasgow's somewhat forgotten connection with the colonial plantation economy and slavery. Merchants wore expensive clothes to display their wealth, accumulated through the Atlantic trade in goods produced by plantation slaves. "Tobacco Lords" and West India merchants joined the Glasgow elite and were vital to the city's economic success between the mid-seventeenth and mid-nineteenth centuries.

H Lightbody or RJ Lightfoot, Captain Matthias treatment to me in the ship upon the Coast of Africa, (London, c. 1725-1740). Sp.Coll. MS Hunter D624.

A Scottish surgeon responsible for keeping African slaves alive as they crossed the Atlantic described his experiences on board a slaving vessel. Moral codes of behaviour faded on these ships, and Captain Mathias’ brutal treatment of both slaves and sailors was typical. Abolitionists argued against the slave trade on the grounds that it corrupted morality and encouraged captains and officers to act with merciless inhumanity.

Thomas Clarkson, A History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade by the British Parliament, (London, 1808).  Sp.Coll. NR 9.6-7.

Thomas Clarkson was a leading British figure in the fight to abolish slavery and the author of a very full history of how the trade worked. Clarkson provided a detailed account of his travels through British towns where he gained more knowledge of the trade and which he hoped to use to gather support in favour of abolition. This extract contains a description of a black sailor named John Dean, who was the victim of cruel treatment by his ship’s captain. This type of treatment was very common and demonstrated the brutality of the slave trade even against those who were free.

Hercules Ross to William Wilberforce and Campbell Haliburton (1791). Sp.Coll. Collection of letters to Abolitionists, MS Gen 533/35-37.

Ross was a Scottish merchant who made his fortune in Jamaica. Unusually, however, he became sympathetic to the abolitionist movement after his return to Scotland in 1782. In this letter, Ross explained to Wilberforce that by giving evidence against the slave trade at a Parliamentary hearing he had incurred substantial abuse and alienation from his former friends within planter society. Turning against slavery cost Ross both business and friends. The wax seal depicts the abolitionist emblem, ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother?’

William Agutter, A sermon on the slave trade preached before the corporation of the city of Oxford, February 3rd, (London, 1788). Sp.Coll. Robertson Bf66-e.16.

Agutter was a well known English minister whose sermons were often printed and widely circulated throughout the British Isles. In this sermon, Agutter preached in support of the abolition of the slave trade. Using Biblical language he argued that slavery was wrong in the eyes of God and that the slave trade should be stopped. According to Agutter, the abolition of the slave trade was the responsibility of all mankind. In this particular extract he exhorted the British public to take action to end the slave trade.

William Wilberforce, The Speech of William Wilberforce to the House of Commons… on the question of the abolition of the slave trade (London, 1789). Sp.Coll. T.C.L. 3746.

The leading English abolitionist William Wilberforce spearheaded the parliamentary campaign against the Atlantic slave trade. This was the first Parliamentary speech attacking the slave trade, and as a devout Christian Wilberforce developed a moral argument against the horrors faced by slaves on the journey across the Atlantic. This speech played an important role in raising awareness of the slave trade and was a major step toward abolition in 1807.

James Boswell, No Abolition of Slavery; or The Universal Empire of Love: a poem (London, 1791). Sp.Coll. q70.

A direct response to William Wilberforce and his supporters, James Boswell’s poem attacked the abolitionists and supported slavery. Boswell provided Biblical justifications for slavery and the slave trade, and he suggested that ‘honest slaves’ on plantations were part of ‘God’s system.’ In a world in which ‘Mankind must different burthens know,’ Boswell asserted Christian justifications for human inequality, and these arguments were all echoed by others who supported slavery and opposed abolition.

Alexander Geddes, An Apology for Slavery: Or six cogent arguments against the immediate abolition of the slave-trade (London, 1792). Sp.Coll. Mu61-b.4.

Scottish Catholic priest Geddes concluded his defence of slavery by arguing that religious toleration and political reform in Britain were more pressing concerns than the abolition of the slave trade. He suggested that a more democratic and free nation would be more likely to end the slave trade and slavery.

Zamba Zembola, The Life and Adventures of Zamba, an African Negro King: And his experience of slavery in South Carolina (London, 1847). Sp.Coll. U3-f.11.

This is the autobiography of Zamba Zembola, an African prince from the Congo. It reveals how even a wealthy leader could end up enslaved. Zamba had owned and traded in slaves, but he befriended a ship’s captain and left Africa on a slave ship in order to see more of the world. Once aboard he was himself enslaved by the captain, and he worked for forty years on a South Carolina plantation before his owner freed him. By then a Christian, Zamba became active in the abolitionist movement.

Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written by herself (Boston, 1862). Sp.Coll. BG44-h.16.

This is one of the few autobiographies by a formerly enslaved woman. Jacobs depicted her life in slavery, the exploitation she faced, and her long battle to escape. She described in great detail the sexual harassment she faced, which encouraged Jacobs to escape and to become an abolitionist speaker and writer. A strong and widely read attack on slavery, Jacobs’ account revealed how little control over their lives enslaved women had, and how their experiences differed from those of enslaved men and free white women.

Learmont Drysdale and Ercil Doune, ‘The Darkies Farewell’ (1825). Sp.Coll. Cb10-x.6, MS Drysdale.

Scottish composer Learmont Drysdale displayed interest in enslaved Africans, but this was his own composition rather than an actual plantation song. He described slaves as strangers in the New World, parted from friends and family in Africa, but soon to meet them again in death. The sadness of the Africans was trivialized and romanticised in this song, however, with no mention of the brutalities they faced. They were presented as happy workers, fearful of leaving their ‘Dearly loved’ plantations.

George Thompson, 'An Address to the Ladies of Glasgow' (1833). Sp.Coll. Mu20-e.2.

Women were vital to the abolitionist cause, and in this speech, delivered to some eighteen-hundred middle- and upper-class women, Thompson based his argument for abolition on the Old Testament. He explained how slavery breached not only man's moral codes but the laws established by God. Thompson appealed to the women as mothers and wives, calling them the 'softer sex' who could identify with the sufferings of enslaved women and children. He asked them to lead the emancipation of slaves, and to teach their own children a love of freedom.

James Douglas of Cavers, ‘Address on Slavery’ (1833). Sp.Coll. T.C.L. 4022.

Scottish author James Douglas of Cavers pointed out the economic costs of the empire and slavery. He argued that not only enslaved Africans, but also slave owners and people in Britain suffered economically because of the effects of slave labour on trade and commerce. Douglas made this argument to broaden the appeal of abolitionism to those who might oppose slavery on economic rather than moral grounds.

Andrew Thomson, Substance of the Speech Delivered at the Meeting of the Edinburgh Society for the Abolition of Slavery, on October 19, 1830 (Edinburgh, 1830).  Sp.Coll. T.C.L 3125.

This speech was delivered by a leading Scottish evangelical Andrew Thomson, who was minister at St. George’s Church in Edinburgh and one of the city’s most celebrated preachers. He highlighted arguments in favour of the immediate abolition of slavery, and argued that Christianity condemned the idea of holding a man as property. This was a landmark speech in the Scottish anti-slavery movement, and Thomson brought passion and purpose to the cause of immediate abolition.

Thomas Chalmers, A Few Thoughts on the Abolition of Colonial Slavery (Edinburgh, 1826). Sp.Coll. T.C.L. q420.

An immediate end to slavery, or gradual emancipation of the enslaved? Even supporters of abolition were unsure. Thomas Chalmers, one of the best known preachers in Britain, supported gradual emancipation. He proposed that the government purchase one day per week of every slave’s labour so that the slaves could use the time to work for themselves. He hoped the slaves would use their earnings eventually to purchase their freedom, and that this solution would benefit both masters and slaves.

George Wilson Bridges, A Voice from Jamaica: in reply to William Wilberforce (London, 1823).  Sp.Coll. Robertson Bf66-h.4.

This letter by a cleric in Jamaica provided a Christian defence of slavery, presenting an interesting contrast to anti-slavery views. The author attempted to undermine abolitionist theory which condemned the bondage and murder of black people, by suggesting that African obeah (witchcraft) was more bloody, violent and savage than slavery. Indeed, Bridges argued, slavery was necessary until obeah was eliminated.

Anthony Davis, The West Indies: Comprising of a detail of facts in opposition to theory (1832). Sp.Coll. LRA Y7-d9.

In 1826, the House of Commons released a number of bills for the protection of slaves in the British West Indies. This pamphlet, written by a Jamaican planter on behalf of the ‘poor, victimised plantation owners’, rejected those bills.  Davis launched a scathing attack on the abolitionists in a desperate attempt to convince the British public that plantation slavery actually benefits slaves who he argued were ‘better taken care of’ than if they were free in Africa.

Committee of the Free Church Anti-Slavery Society, ‘An Address to the office bearers and members of the Free Church of Scotland’ (Edinburgh 1847). Sp. Coll. Bf63-c 34

This address provides an insight into the ways in which the Scottish churches condemned the pro-slavery churches of the American South. Arguing that the theft of human liberty was sinful, the Committee condemned American churches whose members believed that slavery was ordained by God, and who condemned abolition as a crime against God and the slaves themselves.

Photograph of Glassford Street sign in Merchant City, Glasgow.

Glasgow’s connection with the tobacco trade is visible today in various street names and buildings. Less clear is the city’s historic involvement with plantation slavery in the West Indies and North America. This street sign commemorates John Glassford, and is typical in its celebration of prominent nineteenth-century families. The ‘Tobacco Lord’ Glassford owned slaves and plantations in America, the profits of which allowed him to buy significant properties in the city, and to invest in the development of the city’s manufacturing and industry.

Photograph of Cunninghame Mansion, Merchant City, Glasgow.

Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art is constructed around William Cunninghame’s town house, one of the great urban mansions of Glasgow merchants who grew wealthy importing, processing and selling the tobacco and then sugar produced by enslaved Africans. As a young man Cunninghame worked in a Virginia merchant house, before returning to Glasgow and eventually taking control of the mercantile company. The original house can be seen on the left of this picture.