The city of Glasgow has its origins in the trade in tobacco, which rested on slavery. Duncan Brown explains why Scotland's industry had such bloody beginnings Glasgow's transformation into an industrial city took place mainly in the 18th century. The colonial trade and, above all, the trade in tobacco between 1740 and 1775 made much of the Glasgow we see today. The gridiron of the city centre streets was laid out in the 1780s by property developers cashing in on the general increased level of prosperity. Glassford Street, Buchanan Street, Virginia Street, Jamaica Street, all are named after either tobacco merchants or the colonies. Even today the city centre is still dotted with the mansions of tobacco merchants.
The tobacco trade is regarded, at best, as a mere footnote in Glasgow's history. Rosalind Mitchison, in her standard work A History of Scotland describes it as 'a self contained matter of purchase and re-export', stimulating 'the growth of financial institutions and local industry. It was a well deserved success story'. This totally underestimates the effect that the trade had on Glasgow but more importantly it simply ignores the fact that this trade was based entirely on slavery and the slave trade.
This slave trade was central to the economy of the British empire in the 18th century. The main fleet of slave ships sailed from Bristol and Liverpool. In 1790, for example, 138 ships sailed from Liverpool for Africa. In the whole of the 18th century fewer than five slave ships sailed from Glasgow. However, although black slaves were never auctioned there, Glasgow benefited immensely from the slave trade.
Slavery had existed before, but, by integrating it into the new capitalist mode of production, Britain was to raise and transform it to new heights of obscenity. To justify this modern form of slavery a whole new racist ideology of white supremacy was developed.
The process that integrated the old and the new forms of exploitation was the triangular trade. Textiles, finished iron goods (mainly slave chains) and guns were taken from Britain to the coast of Africa and exchanged with African traders for slaves. They were then transported to the Americas. The human cargo of black Africans were then exchanged for sugar, tobacco and cotton in the colonies of the Caribbean and the American mainland. The same ships would then transport this produce of slavery back to Britain. On each leg of the voyage, the ship sailed with a cargo that would realise a profit. In keeping with mercantile philosophy it involved no cash outlay, and no coinage left the country.
The driving force for the whole process was the insatiable demand for labour generated in the colonies as the plantation slaves were worked to death. On the plantations slaves lasted on average four years. It was considered cheaper to transport new slaves than allow the existing workforce to reproduce themselves.
Where Glasgow found its niche in the business of slavery was by directly supplying the American colonies with manufactured goods, linen cloth and iron, without which they could not survive. They then returned to Britain with colonial goods, mainly tobacco from mainland Maryland and Virginia, but also sugar and other exotic products of slavery from the Caribbean islands. What made this trade possible were the Navigation Acts which were the backbone of the British empire until they were repealed in 1799.
The Navigation Acts were designed to promote and protect British industry and shipping. Essentially, all manufactured goods to be consumed in the British empire had to be produced in Britain and conveyed between Britain and its colonies in British ships. For the planter in Jamaica to sweeten his coffee for example, raw sugar had to be shipped to Britain to be processed, and then the refined sugar was shipped back to the island. In this fashion British shipping and British industry were promoted to the detriment of the colonies. This was one of the main complaints behind the American Revolution.
At the beginning of the 18th century Glasgow was a poor town on the wrong side of a poor, isolated country on the fringes of Europe. Scotland's main trading partners were the Baltic states across the North Sea. By the end of the century Glasgow was transformed to become the second city of empire at the forefront of the new industrial society. The greatest rate of development, outpacing anything seen in England at the time, was in the years of 1740-1790.
What set this chain of events in motion was the 1707 Union of Scotland and England. The collapse of the Darien scheme in the 1690s (which was an attempt to develop an American colony in competition with England) had effectively bankrupted the Scottish ruling class. Faced with financial and commercial ruin the Scottish ruling class was easily bribed into union with its bigger and wealthier neighbours. The Act of Union also gave the bankrupt Scottish ruling class access to the money markets of London. The Union was a very good deal for the Scottish ruling class. Scotland kept its own legal, church and education systems which even today still remain separate from the rest of Britain. Most importantly, Scots rulers got access to the growing empire that the English were carving out of the Americas.
For the impoverished Scottish ruling class access to empire was an opportunity that they seized with both hands. Pushed by poverty, pulled by greed, the Scots swarmed across the world and for the next 250 years would provide the staff of the British empire. In 1770 on the slave island of Jamaica, for example, there were 100 people with the name MacDonald and at least a quarter of the island's white population were Scots.
Access to empire now transformed Glasgow's isolated position. Glasgow's north westerly location meant although it still had a disadvantage when it came to the African slave voyages, it had a positive advantage when travelling to the American colonies. The Glasgow merchants were latecomers to the tobacco trade but they soon made up for lost time. The big slave tobacco plantations on the coast of the Americas were owned or controlled by the English merchants. So the Scots were forced to work with the smaller tobacco plots further up the Chesapeake river. This was to prove to be to the Scots' advantage. Playing the role of middle men, tobacco was exchanged for manufactured goods from the growers by agents and then sold on, mainly to the French market which the Glasgow merchants had won in the 1740s.
Because of the faster transit time, a more efficient method of business, a better developed form of credit, and regular payments from the French court Scottish merchants soon dominated the market. In the 1770s Glasgow controlled over half of all the British trade in tobacco. Tobacco made up over one third of Scotland's imports and over half of its exports. This trade was fantastically profitable and the tobacco traders soon became some of the richest men in the world.
At first Scotland had little in the way of manufactured goods to trade with the colonies. However, the colonial trade soon led directly to the development of industry in the west of Scotland. Shipyards, rope works, leather works and sugar refineries were all built as a direct result of the colonial trade.
Tobacco was so central to Glasgow that almost every Provost of Glasgow had tobacco merchant interests. Tobacco merchants set up a number of banks in order to deal with their bills of trading. The Scottish banking system grew as a direct result of the tobacco trade. In 1775 the trade collapsed due to the American Revolution. The colonies, now free of the Navigation Acts, simply bypassed Glasgow and sold direct to the European markets. However, the export trade did not disappear as the West Indies (still under the Navigation Acts) remained the market for Glasgow's exports.
None of these colonial merchants traded exclusively in tobacco. They all diversified into other sectors. Land was a good tangible investment that also conferred social status and power. Minerals in the merchants' land were exploited--coalfields existed throughout the Glasgow area. By the 1790s the colonial merchant James Dunlop was the most powerful coal master in the west of Scotland.
The Mitchell Library
The colonies were an important market for Scotland's growing textile industry. The colonial merchants also had an interest in the textile industry which produced the linen that was exported to clothe the plantation slaves. By the 1780s the linen industry was thriving in the west coast of Scotland with 20,000 weavers. New technology meant that the linen mills were now able to handle the finer, more delicate cotton. This meant that the changeover from linen to cotton was relatively simple. When cotton (soon to become the backbone of the Scottish economy) was introduced, 17 percent of all Scottish cotton mills were financed by colonial merchants. The previous trade in tobacco was to be replaced with trade in cotton.
The colonial merchants played a major role in the development of Glasgow's industry. In addition, the social changes wrought by the trade were vital for the development of the new industrial society that was to dominate Britain. The development of a modern and efficient banking system, for example, could only help the infusion of capital that Scotland severely lacked. It is difficult, if not impossible, to find any branch of 18th century Scottish industry that did not have slave money invested in it.
The Mitchell Library
The slave trade was abolished in 1807 causing the Glasgow slave trading firm of Alexander Grant & Co to go bankrupt. Slavery continued in the British empire until 1833, whereupon the slave owners were compensated with £20 million. The slaves themselves were generously and graciously compensated with a further six years indentured servitude.
Glasgow's (and Scotland's) wealthy pre-eminence in the world was based firmly within the British empire. Far from being involved in the slave trade to a lesser extent than England, Scotland's smaller size and greater levels of poverty meant the impact of this obscene and wealthy trade was actually greater on Scotland than on England.
It is worth remembering the origins of much of the wealth of the Scottish ruling class. 'Capital', Marx said, 'comes into this world dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.' Scotland was no different.
Issue 227 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1999