January 4, 2011

Scotland, the slave trade and the abolition pay-off which rewrote our economic history

This looks very promising!


Stephen Mullen at the Tobacco Merchant’s House

Stephen Mullen

19 Dec 2010

For those who care to look, Glasgow’s Merchant City is packed with clues to the city’s connections with the New World.

The restored classical glory of St Andrews in the Square is furnished in Caribbean hardwoods, while the name of Jamaica Street proclaims the city’s sugar trading past. The Tobacco Merchant’s House and the Gallery of Modern Art, once a private house, hint at an elite lifestyle as extravagant in its day as any in New York, Singapore or Dubai.

Glasgow is proud of this heritage, although even the title of the trendy quarter itself shows the selectivity of city boosters. This may have been a golden age for the tobacco lords and the sugar aristocracy, but it was little short of hellish for the slaves who worked and died for them on plantations across the Atlantic. You could call it “Slave Merchant City”, given the 200-year dependency of many residents on slave-grown produce.

Civic and national myopia has been permitted by an astonishing lack of systematic examination of historical connections between Scotland and the Caribbean. It is now becoming clear that the true impact on Scotland of chattel slavery (slaves as legal property) has been vastly underestimated. There is an increasing awareness among historians about Scottish prominence in the plantation economy and the benefits it brought.

We now know that a rapid accumulation of capital from the West Indies flowed into the Scottish economy, particularly to the west of Scotland, though the impact of the profits of slavery on Scottish industrialisation and agriculture remains unclear. However, the veil concealing Scotland’s real economic history is slowly being lifted and groundbreaking new research has enabled historians to follow an identifiable “money trail”.

The Price Of Emancipation, a recent study by Dr Nicholas Draper of University College London (UCL), has radically transformed our understanding of slave ownership in the British Empire at the time of abolition in 1833. Following this much-resisted event, the slave owners were paid the then-astronomical sum of £20 million by the British Government in compensation for the loss of their “property”. This “property”, of course, was the lives of enslaved men and women in the British West Indies.

By close examination of the Parliamentary compensation papers, Draper has identified a significant pattern of Scottish slave ownership within what is effectively a census of British slave ownership in August 1834. Indeed, the results demonstrate that Scots were significantly over-represented in the compensation list. They comprised just 10% of the total British population, yet represented at least 15% of all British absentee slave owners – a percentage likely to grow as we find out more.

By quantifying this discrepancy Draper has deconstructed the myth of minimal Scots involvement in Caribbean slavery in 1834. For those that see our national story in terms of victimhood, this will take some coming to terms with.

The importance of the slave economy to the city’s merchants can be assumed from the strength of the Glasgow West India Association, which was formed in 1807 and became the most powerful pro-slavery group outside of London. Members of the association, a ruthlessly effective lobby group for Caribbean merchants and planters, were comprised from an elite sugar aristocracy who dominated much of the city’s civic life and who remain familiar names in Glasgow’s mercantile and professional history: Dennistoun, Oswald, Hamilton, Campbell, Bogle, Ewing, Donald.

It is, therefore, no surprise that the merchants in Glasgow were one of the largest regional groups to receive compensation. There were over 100 claims made from 1834-1838, with the majority for slaves resident in Jamaica, British Guiana, Trinidad and Grenada. The initial estimate suggests that Glasgow slave-owners claimed a staggering £400,000 – as much as £2 billion in today’s money – in compensation for around 14,000 slaves.

Some individual paths can be traced. James Ewing was Lord Provost in 1832, and the first MP for the city after the Reform Act that year. What was less well-known is that he was also at the pinnacle of the West India trade in Glasgow for over 30 years. He inherited interests in Jamaica from his father, and eventually became absentee proprietor of multiple slave gangs. Already fabulously rich by 1834, Ewing collected around £10,000 in compensation for over 500 slaves across four plantations in Jamaica. But Ewing was a great Glasgow philanthropist bequeathing huge sums to good causes. On his death in 1853, his will shows he left over £70,000 to the city, equivalent to tens of millions in today’s money, including £31,000 to the Merchants House, and a symbolic sum of £10,000 to the Royal Infirmary.

Where did the compensation money come from? The British Government borrowed £15m from a banking syndicate led by Nathan Mayer Rothschild and Moses Montefiore. In the context of the recent Government bail-out of RBS, HBOS and other British banks, this lavish handout to the elites in 1834 has some ironic resonances with recent state generosity to an already privileged business sector, also seen as largely unmerited.

The sums involved are certainly on the eye-popping scale of those dispensed post-2008 to the bankers, although an exact reckoning of the contemporary worth of an early 19th-century £20m is problematic. Using a consumer-price escalation scale gives the conservative figure of around £1.5bn, making the Glasgow compensation total of £400,000 worth around £30m in modern terms.

But other equally realistic methods of comparison suggest much higher figures. For example, if viewed in comparison to the size of the British economy, then the figure would be £65bn, making the Glasgow share worth £1.3bn. If taking the total compensation as a percentage of Government expenditure per year, the £20mmight be the equivalent of as much as £100bn, meaning Glasgow received £2bn.

Regardless of which scale is used, £400,000 clearly represents a massive pay day for the Glasgow elites. How deep has this finance seeped into Scottish soil in the last 173 years and where did it go?

Following the flow of slavery-tainted wealth into the British economy is a complex task, although it is a growing area of both academic and popular interest. UCL’s long-term project, Legacies Of British Slave-ownership (www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/) documents not only the recipients of the compensation and where it went, but also its impact on British industry and commerce as well as imperial, cultural, political and physical legacies.

The impact of compensation money, however, is but one aspect of a growing dossier of evidence in Scotland. So far there has been minimal examination of the impact on the Scottish economy and society, and, unlike in England, very little has been written about it. Nonetheless, a new wave of interest means that Scottish historians will soon have answers to some unpalatable questions.

There is little point in historical research whose main purpose is anachronistic bashing of slave-owners and their gains. But neither should it be misused by the interested corporate descendants of Scotland’s slave-profiteers to obscure culpability.

Historians’ only duty is to reveal, contextualise and explain. At least the important questions are now clear: where did this tainted money go and would Scottish economic history have been different if we had never received it?

About the author

Stephen Mullen (33) is the author of the acclaimed book It Wisnae Us! The Truth about Glasgow and Slavery (2009). A graduate of the University of Strathclyde, he was working in his father’s joinery business when he spotted an online advertisement for a researcher to work on a project on the Merchant City for Glasgow Building Preservation Trust, resulting in the influential book, published by the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland.

Mullen is currently working on a PhD on the Glasgow West India Association in the Department of Economic & Social History at the University of Glasgow.

For more on UCL’s long-term project, Legacies of British Slave-ownership, visit


1 comment :

  1. Hi Maddy, I'm glad you liked the article I wrote in the Sunday Herald just before Christmas. I stumbled across your blog tonight and it looks full of interesting material- I shall have a look through some of the articles. My own research is focused on the Scottish connections with the West Indies post 1790, so there is minimal links with Virginia in this period. However, its no secret that the Tobacco Lords in Glasgow became fabulously wealthy due to the store system of tobacco trade from 1740-1790, obviously dependent on slave labour in the Chesapeake region. I wrote an article on the Scots denial about the level of involvement in transatlantic slavery which you also might be interested in: http://www.variant.org.uk/pdfs/issue35/AeFondKiss.pdf

    Please do get in touch if you have any
    enquiries regarding the article. With very best wishes, Stephen.