Exploring Glasgow's links to the 18th century slave trade

The Upper Clyde is now largely free of shipping, but in the 19th century it was bustling with boats bound for British colonies. Picture: John DevlinThe Upper Clyde is now largely free of shipping, but in the 19th century it was bustling with boats bound for British colonies. Picture: John Devlin
The Upper Clyde is now largely free of shipping, but in the 19th century it was bustling with boats bound for British colonies. Picture: John Devlin

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Author Stephen Millar takes a walking tour of Glasgow to examine the city's links to the international slave trade

Almost exactly five hundred years ago the first slave ship carrying captive Africans to the Americas set sail. Over the following centuries around 10 million more Africans would follow them, many dying on route or on the plantations of America and the Caribbean.

Glaswegians played a key role in the international slave system during the 18th and 19th centuries, and the first sign of this on our walking tour is at 45 James Watt Street where the mid-19th century building displays the sign ‘Tobacco Warehouse’.

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Tobacco was only one of several slave-produced commodities imported into Glasgow. But it remains the best known thanks to the enduring legacy of a small but influential group of city merchants who became collectively known as the Tobacco Lords by the mid-1700s.

The profits generated from importing and selling tobacco, cotton, rum and sugar were artificially high because the cost of labour was low – it was cheaper to work slaves to death then replace them than treating them humanely.

The ‘triangular route’ saw ships leave Glasgow carrying goods that were exchanged for slaves in Africa. The ships then took the slave to the New World to be sold, and then returned to Glasgow laden with slave- produced commodities.

A once bustling River Clyde

Take a walk south of the city centre to the Broomielaw. This stretch of the Clyde is largely empty today, but in the late 18th century the quayside would have been crowded with ships unloading tobacco, sugar, cotton and rum right here. The trade associated with slave plantations changed the city forever as profits trickled down into every part of the economy.

Continue eastwards, passing Jamaica Street on your left. It is named after the island whose slave plantations produced so much rum and sugar for Glasgow's grateful merchants. As you walk down Clyde Street, stop at Custom House. Dating from 1840, this is where duties were charged on imports from the plantations, the taxes helping pay for Glasgow’s new bridges, roads and civic buildings.

Head up Dixon Street, crossing St Enoch Square before turning onto Argyle Street. Walk up Miller Street, part of the Merchant City where so many of the Tobacco Lords lived and worked.

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Number 48 is a rare surviving villa from the age of the Tobacco Lords. It dates from 1775 and was occupied by Robert Findlay, a tobacco merchant. Walk through the passageway on the right to enter the site of the tobacco and sugar exchange built in the 1750s.

The Tobacco Lords – men like John Glassford, Andrew Buchanan, and Alexander Spiers, are also remembered in Glasgow’s location names. Many notable buildings were funded from slave-derived profits including St Andrew’s church in St Andrew’s Square and the Mitchell Library (the original library funded by the Mitchell tobacco dynasty).

Support for the Confederate South

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After the America became independent in the 1780s, the fortunes of the Tobacco Lords declined, however Glaswegians continued to profit from slave-produced commodities right up until the American Civil War of the 1860s.

Many turned a blind eye to the immorality of slavery, and supported the pro-slavery Confederate South as they were dependent in some way on cheap cotton imports from the South, or Confederate orders for new warships and blockade runners.

Walk through to Virginia Street and head north, passing number 125. The was the location of the house of merchant John Adam. When slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire in 1833, he was just one of many Glaswegians who submitted a claim for compensation. Adam requested £231 17 shillings and 2 pence for 8 slaves on St Vincent.

Glaswegians rarely saw slaves in the city itself, no doubt making it easier to ignore the plight of slaves on plantations far away. However residents would have been aware in some way as newspapers carried adverts offering rewards for runaway slaves. For example, in January 1746 the Glasgow Journal carried an advert for ‘a Negroe boy, about 15 years of age, deserted the service of William Crawford..Merchant in Glasgow…Whoever shall bring back the said Boy to his Master…shall have a sufficient reward’.

In 1756 a notice in the Glasgow Courant stated merchant James Anderson was looking for another runaway ‘called Cupid…born at Cape Faire in North America. His legs are a good deal bended…’.

The Glasgow Anti-Slavery Society

Head north to Ingram Street. On the left is the Corinthian which stands on the site of the Virginia Mansion, built in 1752 by a member of the Buchanan tobacco dynasty (and after whom Buchanan Street is named).

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Many Glaswegians did oppose slavery. The Glasgow Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1822, its members meeting in churches and civic halls throughout the city. The Glasgow Ladies Emancipation Society was also active, their minutes displaying remarkably detailed knowledge of the slave trade in America.

For decades the abolitionists fought powerful pro-slavery elements in Glasgow - manufacturers, merchants, and the West India Association. This bitter battle was won when the Confederates were defeated in 1865 and the United States was free from slavery.

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Continue along Ingram Street to reach the Gallery of Modern Art which stands on the site of a mansion built by Tobacco Lord William Cunninghame in 1778. Glasgow’s links with slavery are almost impossible to avoid.

Edinburgh's Hidden Walks by Stephen Millar is available to purchase at amazon.co.uk

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