The Sugar in our Tea: Scotland, Slavery and Abolition

This exhibit explores Scottish connections with the history of the transatlantic slave trade, plantation slavery and abolition. Glasgow, in particular, took full advantage of the opportunities afforded by trade in the goods produced by slaves. Vast quantities of New World tobacco and sugar arrived in the city and its outlying ports of Port Glasgow and Greenock.  The Atlantic trade helped trigger significant expansion of local manufacturing, as everything from coal to linen to shoes was produced for export to Britain’s mainland and Caribbean colonies. Glasgow’s trade connections through and around the Atlantic World thus transformed the eighteenth-century city and the lives of its rapidly increasing population.

The materials in this exhibit were selected by students in a Special Subject course in History that explored the history of the transatlantic slave trade, plantation slavery and abolition. They are intended to show how aspects of the history of the slave trade, slavery and abolition can be uncovered using the original materials held in the Special Collections of Glasgow University Library. The exhibit highlights Scottish involvement, but includes other relevant materials from elsewhere in the British Isles, and by former enslaved Africans.

Scotland and Slavery

Although very few slave ships sailed from Scottish ports in the eighteenth century, Scots were directly involved in plantation slavery and the world that it created. Scottish merchants and doctors worked on the West Coast of Africa in the slave trading forts, and on the ships that took enslaved Africans to the Americas. Large numbers of Scots owned or managed plantations; Scottish doctors ministered to slaves and planters alike; and Scottish merchants supplied goods for the plantations and sent the produce of slave labour back to Scotland. Glasgow grew rich from the tobacco and sugar that poured into the city for processing. At the same time, many of the goods made in the city – from textiles for clothing to the machinery required on plantations for sugar production – were sent back from the city to the Caribbean and the American South. This section illustrates some of the Scottish connections with New World slavery.

Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade

While Scots were complicit in plantation slavery and directly benefitted from the goods produced by the enslaved, over the course of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century many became active in the movement to abolish the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Some were concerned with how the trade dehumanized all who participated in it, including maltreated British sailors. Scotland’s churches played a vital role in the abolitionist movement. Although some Scots continued to defend both the slave trade and plantation slavery, many thousands more joined a British and international movement pressuring Parliament to abolish the trade, achieving this goal in 1807.

The enslaved

During the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries very few enslaved Africans on New World plantations were literate. Of the few who escaped from slavery, only a handful were able to write about their experiences. The books that these former slaves wrote captivated British readers, and some went on lecture tours in support of the abolition of slavery itself: the former slave Frederick Douglass spoke in Glasgow. James McCune Smith, a former slave in the United States, took a medical degree at the University of Glasgow in 1837, and was partially funded by the Glasgow Emancipation Society. McCune Smith was the first African American to receive a medical degree.

Abolition of slavery

In the wake of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, support for the abolition of slavery itself grew rapidly. Although a few Scots continued to defend racial slavery as a benevolent institution that they argued benefitted the enslaved as much as their owners, many thousands of Scots listened to sermons and lectures or read pamphlets supporting abolition. Using Scripture, economic arguments and Enlightenment rationalism, abolitionists disagreed only on whether the evil of slavery should end with immediate abolition, or whether the institution should be phased out gradually.

Memory and heritage

The history of Scottish involvement with the slave trade and plantation slavery is inscribed on the Glasgow cityscape, from the street names honouring merchant families who made their money in the tobacco and sugar trades, to the buildings in which they lived and did business. In Glasgow the historic connection is clear to see, from Virginia Place and Jamaica Street, to the merchant family and their plantation depicted in a stained glass window in Glasgow Cathedral, to the townhouse of William Cunningham, a wealthy ‘Tobacco Lord’ (now the Gallery of Modern Art). In the Caribbean and in North America, plantations, and sometimes the enslaved Africans who lived, worked and died on them were named for Scottish people and places.