Glasgow Tobacco: Slavery


This blog post is nearly 6000 words long (which will take 30-40 minutes to read), so I’ll give the outline here and you can click the links to jump to any section that looks interesting.

Preamble: My motivations for writing this (long) post

Conditions: How I have structured my thinking in writing about history and whether it’s ‘true’.

Sources, accuracy and confidence: Building on the above ideas to define how I rank different pieces of information when there is conflict.

My view on narratives: What I think about the role of the stories we tell ourselves in our lives and our communities and how we deal with contradictions.

My personal narratives: An attempt to be fully transparent about what makes me ‘tick’.

Then the history bit…

The economy of Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Scottish Diaspora

Plantations and slavery

Scotland and slavery

Emancipation and compensation

Was Glasgow built by the slave trade?

Henry Dundas

The Glassford portrait and the enslaved young man

And as a final summary…

Personal thoughts


In June 2020 I decided to do some more research for my ‘Glasgow’s Tobacco tours‘ which I normally do for Strathclyde University’s Wellbeing Week (although the 2020 tours had been cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic). The widely publicised murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, lead to demonstrations in Glasgow (and in many other cities across the globe) and a campaign to redesignate those streets in Glasgow whch were named after Tobacco Lords. These events, my role on SIPBS’s equality and diversity committee, reading both “How to Argue with a Racist” by geneticist, Adam Rutherford and “Why We Can’t Wait” by Martin Luther King, Jr, and conversations with friends from ethnic minorities, made me want to deepen my understanding of the role of slavery in Glasgow’s tobacco trading history.

The role of slavery in the tobacco trade was mentioned on the tours had done in previous years, mainly in relation to the enslaved young man in the portrait of John Glassford’s family. I hadn’t talked more extensively about slavery in previous years because I couldn’t work out where slavery would fit in a tour about the business, biology and chemistry of nicotine. Nevertheless, society was digging deeper, and so it seemed like a good time for me to do the same and adapt the talk if the evidence was there.

What was especially important to me was to anchor any information I used as close to primary sources as I could get. One of the reasons for doing this was the prevalence of information on both mainstream and social media that was wrong, unreferenced (so there’s no way of verifying it), or told stories that were so ‘edited’ that the nuances had vanished and it became almost misleading. Prof Tom Devine called recently for the development of a clear and evidence-based narrative about Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade: in this article he states:

“Targeting statues is a largely meaningless gesture which might make some people feel good about themselves for a little while,” he says. “This though, does little to address the very real and ongoing issue of racial prejudice in Scotland and throughout the UK.”

In 2015 Prof Devine edited the book “Rediscovering Scotland Slavery Past”. I was given a copy as a Christmas present a few years ago and while I had read it already, I re-studied the book more closely for this post. The majority of this information in this blogpost is taken from that source: where I have come across other information I have included references.


Just a few important points before I get going. This is a version of the story of the links between Glasgow and the slave trade, especially where those links relate to the tobacco trade. It has the following caveats:

  1. Even the most detailed modern history books, websites and academic papers, contain only a shadow of reality and an interpretation of the information they can find. The whole truth is lost to us, and was probably most likely not even fully understood to those who wrote the surviving diaries, letters, memoirs and business records that historians use to study the past.
  2. I’ve also interpreted these sources of information and drawn out the details that I found relevant to my own project (in terms of the tobacco trade). In a couple of instances (where I have found confusing or contradictory stories) I’ve gone ‘off track’ to dig deeper in specifics. I won’t pretend for a moment that I have discovered ‘the absolute truth’, or even the best available one! If you want a more complete picture, the books and articles I have referenced are well written and wonderfully detailed.
  3. History is being studied, updated and revised. You cannot change the past, but you can change it’s-story. It is easily conceivable that in the future some documentation may come to light that radically changes how historians (and therefore the public) understand Scotland’s links with the slave trade.
  4. As I’ve suggested in 1, 2 and 3 above, I cannot find the ‘absolute truth’, but I wanted to be as transparent as possible about how I determine the level of confidence I have in the sources I read, my own ‘personal narratives’ and motivations . I have done this in the paragraphs below.

Sources, accuracy and confidence

As I suggested above, it’s important to me to be transparent about how I have prioritised my sources.

  1. A book or an academic paper published by a known, professional historian. More recent publications in this group are considered to have a higher priority than older sources.
  2. A website authored, reported to be authored or containing content prepared by a known, professional historian. As above, more recent material is considered to have a higher priority than older sources.
  3. Online sources (including wikipedia) where information is cited according to 1 and 2 above.
  4. Unreferenced sources (this includes online news website and wikipedia)

My view on ‘narratives’

The ‘Linda the Bank Teller Problem‘, and the popularity of the wrong answer, is because people think in terms of narratives. This means that all of us (me included) tend to evaluated information as more reliable when it matches our pre-existing narratives, or the ideas we have of the way the world works. Have you ever had a conversation with some one who is absolutely convinced of something that doesn’t make sense? It probably doesn’t (!) because it’s coming from a pre-formed narrative that you don’t know and they can’t describe. Incidentally, experiencing this isn’t dependent upon the intelligence or academic qualifications of the person your speaking to: the problem with really clever people is that at times they can quickly think of logical reasons why their subjective, impulsive argument is ‘right’ and must be accepted! Their logic is right, but the failure to recognise their own internal motivation means they lose sight of valid counterarguments.

In my opinion, the journey of discovering and recognising our ‘prior assumptions’ is one of the most difficult and rewarded adventures of self-discovery. I realise that the narrative I have presented in this post – and conclusions I finally reach – may oppose those of others. It may be that their narrative is important to them, important to their identity and their place in the world: just as my narratives, about my life and history, are important to me.

I hold the view that myths, can still carry some truth, and that perhaps that truth could not have be expressed by a ‘real’ and factual account. Ask yourself why films are ‘based on actual events’ and not ‘a wholly and completely accurate account of events and dialogue’? Because that latter would be so long, and so boring, and would probably not be able to convey the hidden, inner thoughts of the characters. Art is not fact, but sometimes it can convey a deeper truth.

As I’ve researched these blogposts I can see that there are narratives in the wider community about slavery, racism and Glasgow’s historical past, that are deeply held by others. My intention is not to invalidate those narratives: although I realise that what I have written may contradict them. I hope that everyone reading this post may find it as helpful in developing their narrative on Glasgow’s involvement in the slave trade as it was to me in writing it. Please bear this in mind as I move into the areas that appear to contradict the narratives I see on mainstream and social media.

My personal ‘narratives’

So what are my personal narratives that drive my understanding of this story?

  1. With my scientific, analytical training, the stories I surround myself with have a tendency to be based upon data, and ‘published literature’: these are my intellectually ‘comfy clothes’.
  2. I’m not omniscient and so I cannot hold all possible narratives in my brain. I believe I can handle non-binary ideas and concepts (for me I’m far more comfortable with the world working in ‘shades of grey’ rather than ‘black and white’), but I struggle with polarised narratives when I believe the evidence (see point 1 above) suggests an alternative, or more nuanced, view would be a better explanation.
  3. As a result of points 1 and 2 above, I have a strong preference for complex ideas that explain as many observations (or data, or facts) as possible, and I dislike simple explanations which cover only some of the facts.
  4. I am not a historian, but I have an interest in the history of the communities that I live and work in.
  5. Points 1 to 4 above should be enough to explain my underlying motivations in studying this history and writing about it. However, I agree with Paul Friere that we cannot ‘see’ the cultures and social systems in which we live, so it would seem appropriate to state that I am: male, Scottish, Caucasian, middle class, with no immediate political affiliations, a contemplative Christian and middle aged.

In the next eight sections I focus on the history of Scotland, Glasgow, the plantation system and the slave trade. In these sections I’ve tried to avoid the noun ‘slave’ when referring to a person (or persons) who were enslaved: while this may make the text slightly more cumbersome to read, I prefer to write about enslaved people (that is people who are enslaved) using the noun ‘people’ and the adjective ‘enslaved’, rather than the simpler, and more common, single noun ‘slave’. There may be other parts of the text where I have deliberately altered the sentence structure to ensure that enslaved people are differentiated from the commodities or goods which they may have been transported or traded with, and I have also avoided the use of the word ‘other’ (as in ‘other goods’) to infer the same distinction.

The economy of Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In 1603 Queen Elizabeth I of England, the last of the Tudor dynasty, died leaving the throne to the next in line, James II of Scotland who was her first cousin twice removed (I think that’s right!). The ‘Union of the Crowns’, was both a bloodless transition in royal lineage, marking the end of the Tudor dynasty and the beginning of the Jacobian kings. This in turn ended in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, when James II of England (and VII of Scotland), who was a Catholic, was exiled and William of Orange, a Protestant, was invited to take his place.

In the 1690s and 1700s Scotland, as an independent nation, was struggling. Between 20% and 50% (1) of Scotland’s wealth had been invested in a venture called the ‘Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies’. The ‘Company’ subsequently lost all the money in a failed project to establish a Scottish colony, New Caledonia, in what is now modern Panama. The colony was abandoned in 1700 after only two years and became known as the Darien Disaster. The late 1690’s were known as the ‘Seven Ill Years‘, where – in addition to geopolitical issues – several years of poor weather (caused by the Little Ice Age) contributed to famine and food shortages across many parts of northern Europe, including Scotland. It’s estimated tha between 5 and 15% of the Scottish population died as a result. Both the finances and the famine lead the Scottish Parliament to vote for it’s own dissolution as part of the Act of Union of 1707. The English government gave Scotland ‘The Equivalent’: nearly £400000 – equivalent to about £45 million in 2020 (2) – which paid off the debts incurred by the ‘Company’.

While the Act of Union was at the time controversial – Robert Burn’s famously called those members of the Scottish Parliament that signed the Act a “Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation” – it had had the effect of opening up the English colonies to Scottish traders and gave Naval protection to Scottish ships. Prior to 1707 Scottish merchants had to do all their trading via smuggling, sailing from English ports or using forged papers, and in so doing they incurred all the risks and costs those associated with those activities.

However the Union also rekindled the claims of the Jacobite kings, and supported and funded by some European countries who wished to see a Catholic monarchy restored, revolutions were launched from the Scottish highlands (where support for the Jacobite kings was believed to be strongest among the highland clans) in 1715, 1719 and 1745.

Over the 18th century Scotland became a trading nation. From the early 1700’s to the start of the America Revolution (in 1775) the Glasgow trade was focussed on tobacco from the eastern seaboard of the American colonies. While Scotland had extensive trade links with the Caribbean islands prior to 1773, the American War of Independence stopped the tobacco trade, and a strong trade in sugar developed from then onwards. The abolition of slavery was passed through the British Parliament in 1833, and completed in 1838.

The Scottish Diaspora

The 18th century saw a scattering of Scots across the globe and there were many reasons why young Scots were willing to accept the risks of disease and shortened lifespan of a colonial life:

  1. Improvements in Scottish healthcare resulted in families becoming larger with more children reaching adulthood. However, inheritance laws meant that only the eldest son would inherit any estates, and so younger siblings were expected to move on and find their own way on the world.
  2. Men who joined the failed Jacobite revolutions were exiled, or fled and their estates – if they had any – were confiscated.
  3. The advanced Scottish education system provided desirable numerical and literacy skills to young men. For example, by 1800 Scotland had the largest number of universities per head of population than any other European country (6, including the new Anderson College). Scottish universities had also started to move away from teaching the ‘classics’ (Greek, medicine, rhetoric, philosophy etc) towards more technical subjects (chemistry, engineering). Newly qualified graduates couldn’t always find work in Scotland, and the Act of Union didn’t always open doors either: in England protective guilds and monopolies excluded those with qualifications form Scottish Universities. These graduates often went abroad to work. For example, Scottish doctors who were prevented from practising medicine in England, are recorded as becoming surgeons on slave transport ships or the Jamaican sugar plantations.
  4. Aside from the West Indies, the British Empire and colonial network was rapidly expanding in general at this time, with opportunities for Scots in private business, trading, military and the civil service across the entire globe. Scotland was also a Presbyterian nation, and so it’s expatriates were looked on more favourably than those from Catholic Ireland.

As with many diaspora, the scattered Scots remained linked to the mother nation. An example of this in the British context is that by 1832, 84% of the plantations in the Caribbean were owned by absentee landlords, who were either heirs of those who left Britain for a new life, or owners who had returned once they had made enough money.

Plantations and slavery

The crops of the Americas (sugar, cotton, tobacco and rum) were labour intensive and could not have been produced (at least on the large scale required for the European markets) without slave labour or mechanised industrialisation. At the demand end of the supply chain was Europe’s, and especially Britain’s, passion – or perhaps addiction would be a better word – for tobacco and sugar, while at the production end were plantations based upon slavery or forced labour.

The new plantation colonies found it difficult to persuade European labourers to cross the Atlantic. Kidnapping or pressganging were used at times to take young men into ‘indentured service‘ a kind of forced labour. In fact, Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous book Kidnapped may have been based upon the story of James Annesley who was heir to several larger Irish estates and at the age of 12 was sold into indentured servitude to a Delaware plantation by his uncle.

Indentured servitude appears to have covered a variety of ‘contractual arrangements’ (from working to pay off transport costs to the new world, to being kidnapped after being plied with alcohol) and working conditions which seemed to change over time (p11, reference 10). However, indentured servitude was a period of bondage that ended after the term of service (usually a few years) was finished, whereas chattel slavery was ownership that spanned the life of the individual, and their subsequent descendants. (The word ‘chattel’ meaning a personal possession.) Both were forms of extractive labour: indentured labour (as ‘bonded’ labour) falls under the anti-slavery clauses of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

In the plantations of the Caribbean, the tropical environment and the ingenious diseases resulted in high death rates among European immigrants. However, the environment of the West Indies was considered preferable to Africa (where sugar cane also grows) because of the lower prevalence of malaria. The growth and production of sugar required hard, physically demanding labour and it’s estimated that a quarter of all those enslaved died within 3 years of arriving in the Caribbean. While it seems to be widely accepted that African slave labour was cheaper and more effective that white, indentured labour, Europeans had been cultivating the West Indies for a century before the African slave labour became prevalent (p20, reference 10). The vast difference between the living and working conditions of the enslaved African and white, European populations made the plantation owners and colony officials especially fearful of slave revolt: the resulting brutality of plantation slavery regimes was written about at the time.

By 1807, when the transport of enslaved people was outlawed across the empire (see ‘Emancipation and Compensation’ section below), Britain had transported across the Atlantic 3.4 million enslaved people to the new world. Devine states that this (more than all the other European nations combined (p1, reference 3). However, this evaluation seems to be at odds with the estimates in Wikipedia of 12 million victims of the Atlantic slave trade.

Most of the information I have come across about slavery and the plantation systems relates to the sugar plantations in Jamaica rather than the cotton and tobacco plantations of north America. That may be because I’ve not looked in the right places, or read the right books, but the sugar plantations appear to have utilised a particularly brutal form of chattel slavery. However, it may be that American Independence resulted in contemporary records about slavery in the colonies that formed the USA being lost to British archives.

Scotland and slavery

What was Scotland, and Glasgow’s, involvement in the slave trade? The Wikipedia entry for the Tobacco Lords, indicates (in unreferenced statements) that the Glasgow Tobacco trade was ‘triangular’ (from the UK to West Africa, onto the Americas and back to the UK). However, between 1707 and 1766 only 27 slave ships sailed from Scotland (for the triangular trade) and by the 1760s even this had stopped. 21 of these ships left from Port Glasgow or Greenock, and shipped 4500 enslaved people (less than 0.2% of the total number of enslaved people transported over the Atlantic by Britain) (p28, reference 3). A similar, but slightly higher figure of 33 ships is quoted elsewhere. The Slave Voyages database lists one voyage from Glasgow (out of 36000 entries). It’s been suggested that the low level of slave trading from Scotland was because, by the time of the Act of Union of 1707, the slave trade was already dominated by Liverpool and Bristol, or that the English cities (particularly Bristol) may have simply shifted their business models from the transportation of indentured servants to slaves (p19, reference 10)

Glasgow was a trading city, which focused on tobacco and then, after the American War of Independence, sugar. In 1771 half of Scottish imports were tobacco, and 60% were from the plantation economies of the Americas and the Caribbean. Just over four decades later in 1813, 65% of Scottish imports were coming from the Caribbean alone. The volume of Scottish ships bound for the Caribbean at that time was 50% higher than the rest of Europe combined. The West Indies were valuable to the British economy as a while: in 1798 it was estimate that the income from them was worth four times as much as that from the rest of the world (p55, reference 10). As tobacco declined and sugar ascended, the ‘Sugar Princes’ (as Devine called them) become the new Tobacco Lords. (pp230-231, reference 3)

Emancipation and compensation

The emancipation of slavery in the British Empire seems to have been a complicated process lasting many years and having several different social factors. The American War of Independence has drastically reduced the number of enslaved people who lived within the British empire making the path to emancipation easier (p123, reference 10). Around the same time James Watt was refining the steam engine – allowing machines to provide labour instead of people – and Adam Smith published ‘The Wealth of Nations’ in which he condemned slavery. The closing decades of the 18th century saw court cases challenging the legality of slavery (for example the case of John Knight in Scotland).

It’s worth remembering that slavery had two components: the slave trade (the capturing, trading and transporting of slaves), and slave/forced labour. In 1792 a bill was passed by the British Parliament abolishing the slave trade. However, the get-out-clauses (see the section on ‘Henry Dundas’ below) meant that nothing effectively happened until 1807, when The Slave Trade Act, outlawed the slave trade (but not slave labour) across the British Empire. It was not until 1833 that slavery (as slave labour) itself was outlawed and £20 million was borrowed by the UK government (approximate 5% of UK GDP at the time) to compensate slave owners. The enslaved people were still required to work for six years as unpaid ‘apprentices’. No compensation given to the enslaved people either in 1833, nor upon their final emancipation in 1838. (Public pressure in the UK and security fears in the Caribbean meant that Parliament ended the apprenticeship scheme a year early.)

The pressure for emancipation came from both the British public and the enslaved people in the West Indies. The nation of Haiti was born in 1804 from a 13 year slave revolt. Revolts occurred in Barbados in 1816, British Guiana in 1808 and 1823, Jamaica and Antigua in 1831. The revolt leaders often reported that they were fighting for their freedom and liberty, rather than against their specific working conditions. As Williams states:

“In 1833, therefore, the alternatives were clear: emancipation from above, or emancipation from below.” (p208, reference 10)

The compensation paid to the slave owners was recorded by the Slave Compensation Commission, and these records and ledgers are held at the National Archive in Kew. These records have been analysed over the last few years and in 2015 (when reference 3 was written) Scotland appears to have had 15% of the identifiable addresses compared to 10% of the British population in 1833. This high number is probably caused by the number of Scots who went abroad to the Caribbean to start plantations and moved the back, and those who inherited enslaved people as property from family members in the Caribbean.

Was Glasgow built by the slave trade?

According to Devine (pp225-226, reference 3, see also here) there is an ongoing debate about the contribution that slavery made to Britain’s industrial economy and historians have not yet reached a consensus. While Scotland had a small role in the direct transport of enslaved people, it had a far larger trade in the produce of the slavery plantations (both those based in the West Indies and the Americas). It’s not clear if either the tobacco or sugar trades would have been commercially viable at the time if human slavery had not been used: Williams points to the successful Cuban tobacco and the Australian sugar farming systems as examples where slavery was either not widespread or absent (chapter 1, reference 10). It’s possible that industrialisation, and the invention of mechanical systems of agriculture, would have been forced to have started earlier (although Whitney’s cotton gin mechanised parts of cotton harvesting and exasperated plantation slavery) but that then leaves the question of whether industrialisation could have started from an agrarian Scottish economy, or whether it’s role as a trading hub – with the financial power and banking structures trading generated – was needed to start the process and fan the flames of those early iron blast furnaces. It has been proposed that the dismantling of ‘slavery capitalism’ could only have been done by the ‘industrial capitalism’ that it gave rise to (p210, reference 10).

Glasgow’s direct involvement in the transport and trading of slaves across the Atlantic seems to have been minor in comparison to other British ports, and this appears to have allowed Scotland to have downplayed it’s role – although perhaps responsibility would be a better word – in the slave trade in the years after emancipation. Would Glasgow have become the large city it is today without that trade? Probably: the central belt of Scotland had plenty coal and iron ore to keep the industrial revolution going after slavery was abolished and the population of the city increased over five fold in the 100 years after the abolition of slavery.

Slavery generated wealth for the slave owners in two ways: extractive labour and, in 1833, emancipation payments. Scottish slave owners received compensation payments which came into the country just as modern industrialisation was starting and so may have ‘pump primed’ Scottish industrial expansion. I wondered how much of an impact the slave compensation money would have had on the economy at that time? I couldn’t find a figure for how much Scottish address received, but assuming it was proportional to the 15% of addresses in the list identified as Scottish, that’s £3 million (or £360 million in modern equivalence – converted here.) As a comparison for how much revenue that generated, the cost of the Glasgow-Edinburgh railway, opened in 1842, was £1.2 million. While £3 million is not an insignificant sum, it’s not clear that that amount would have kick started, or built the Scottish economy by itself. The slave compensation money was quite small compared the to huge investments needed in the railways and other heavy infrastructure being built at the time (p180, reference 3). However, comparing modern inputs of cash by the UK government might paint a different picture. UK government’s debt with respect to GDP increased by 10% between 2007 and 2008 after the financial crisis, and this financial stimulus was credited with ‘keeping the economy going’ (as we were told at the time). It seems contradictory to argue that 5% of GDP is meaningless in 1833, but 10% of GDP in 2008 saves the whole economy. There are significant weakness to this argument though: the economy went into significant decline despite the 10% injection, government borrowing increased by another 50% of GDP over the next 10 years, and the idea that the capital injection saved the economy was a political rather than an economic narrative.

So, back to the question – ‘So was Glasgow built on slavery?’. To me, it depends what you mean by ‘built’. My guestimate is the Glasgow could still have become a large city without slavery, but history shows that Glasgow became Glasgow with slavery.

Henry Dundas

The story of Henry Dundas is one of two examples I want to use to illustrated where the historical narrative seems to be both unreliable, and sways from one side to another depending on the prevailing moods on mainstream and social media.

Henry Dundas (the so-called ‘Uncrowned King of Scotland), was an influential Scottish politician. He was supposed to have intervened in the 1792 Westminster debate to halt, or delay, emancipation. However, it’s not clear how he did this. It’s suggested that he got the word ‘gradual’ placed in the 1792 Act that shifted abolition until 1807 and was praised by anti-abolitionist groups at the time (p31, reference 3). However, Neil Oliver states that Dundas ensured Wilberforce put ‘gradually’ into the bill abolishing slavery in 1807 (reference 1). Farrell agrees that Dundas intervened in 1792, but comments that Dundas and William Pitt (the prime minister at the time) used the term ‘sound policy’ to ensure that the economical argument for continuing slavery was considered as well as the humanitarian arguments for abolition (reference 4). There also appears to be some suggestion that Dundas was involved in ensuring that the House of Lords asked for an enquiry into Wilberforce’s 1792 abolition bill (reference 5).

Dundas’ role caught my interest after Edinburgh council placed a new plague on the Melville monument in St Andrews Square in early June 2020. The new plague highlighted Dundas’s role in delaying emancipation. It’s final few sentences read:

“…..he was instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Slave trading by British ships was not abolished until 1807. As a result of this delay, more than half a million enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic. Dundas also curbed democratic dissent in Scotland”

Similarly, Dundas’ Wikipedia entry (again, at the beginning of June 2020) stated:

“It was during this period that Dundas, without whose “skillful obstructions the slave trade would have been abolished in 1796, if not 1792″, was influential in obstructing the abolition of the Slave Trade.” (Wikipedia entry – previous versions archive).

It seemed strange to me at the time that the historical record (or at least those parts of it that I could find) couldn’t seem to agree on what Dundas actually did to delay abolition.

After Edinburgh council placed the new plague on the Melville monument in June 2020, a descendant of Dundas complained about the misinterpretation of Dundas’ role, and by 12th July 2020 (when I re-drafted this post) Dundas’ Wikipedia entry had been significantly re-written with four new paragraphs on his abolitionist activities and his role in the Joseph Knight case. (Dundas was on the legal team advocating for the freeing of Joseph Knight from slavery after he was brought to Scotland when the owner of the plantation he was enslaved upon returned to Scotland.) The quote I used above was gone, and under Dundas legacy section was written:

“The consensus among historians is that Dundas was an abolitionist who played a key role in promoting an end to slavery in the British Empire, both in his legal and political career.”

It seems that ‘facts’ are hard to come by in this game!

The Glassford portrait and the enslaved young man

This is the second example where the narrative associated with Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade seems to be obscure and inconsistent. (This is partly the reason why I spent so much time earlier in this blog post being clear and transparent in how I evaluate my source materials.)

In 1950 a painting of one of the most famous Tobacco Lords, John Glassford, and his family was donated to the Glasgow City Museums and the image of an enslaved man was noticed on the far left hand side. It was originally thought that this man may have been painted over by Glassford’s descendants as the abolitionist moment became more popular in Scotland in the late 18th century. However, in 2007, it was reported by the BBC that art conservationists had come to the conclusion that the image had faded over time and been covered by dust and dirt. The Scotsman newspaper reported the image as being painted over in the same year.

However, in 2018, the BBC news posted an article and video where the idea that the character was painted over resurfaced, so I went back to my sources to see if any new work had lead to the ‘fading hypothesis’ being revised. The BBC – frustratingly – did not quote any reference sources I could check! The two sources found indicated that the ‘fading hypothesis’ still holds (Prof Tom Devine, 2016 lecture and Dr Anthony Lewis, Curator of Scottish History, 2018).

The same BBC news video also alleges that several of the Tobacco Lords were plantation owners. The Wikipedia entry for John Glassford makes the same comment, however it is unreferenced. The Daily Record newspaper made similar claims in June 2020 ( again unreferenced). I haven’t been able to find any confirmation that the Tobacco Lords were plantation owners, and it seems to be at odds with how the Glasgow business model worked, which was as trading merchants rather than plantation growers. There’s no mention of Glassford’s plantation ownership in Devine’s book ‘The Tobacco Lords’, reference 3, or Eric Williams‘ book ‘Capitalism and Slavery’. I can find no other references to the Glasgow Tobacco Lord’s being plantation owners in several academic papers (references 6 to 9). References to slavery and the tobacco companies can be found in reference 6, p194, where the companies tobacco trading stores had enslaved labourers, and reference 7, p 121, where a factor working for Glassford and Co. in the colonies traded in enslaved people and commodities. According to website version of the book It Wisnea Us (by historian Stephen Mullen) members of the Oswald family were closely involved in the slave trade, and William Cunninghame (who’s house is now Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art) owned a plantation and enslaved persons in Jamaica.

My hierarchy of sources leads me to conclude that the academic material contradicts what was published by the mainstream media. The only tenuous resolution to this contradiction I could think of is that the practice of extending credit to tobacco growers (an important part of the Glasgow business model) may be being interpreted as part, or shared, ownership.

In both of the cases above, for Henry Dundas and the Glassford painting, my worry is that if a widely circulated narrative drives the soul-searching that Scotland’s past requires, then when the narrative is undermined, then so is the soul-searching. Our mainstream media should start to include references and sources for their work so that interested readers can check an author’s facts for themselves. We no longer trust our mainstream media to differentiate between fact, myth and opinion, so they need to give us the tools to do so for ourselves.

Personal thoughts

What does this narrative of the involvement of both Scotland and Glasgow in the slave trade tell me?

Glasgow, and Scotland’s, trading was based upon plantation economies that thrived because they exploited people and degraded the fields (Williams points out that with slave labour it was easier to clear new farms when the plantation soils had been exhausted than restore the soils, p7, reference 10). Industrialisation meant we could move on from exploiting people, and now we exploit the air, the rocks and the environment. We need to solve the dilemma of exploitative capitalism and it’s impact on the globe, and do it fast. The historian David Olusoga make the point about our generation’s environmental legacy will be considered in the future.

My attempts to try and track down Glasgow’s slave trading history has been interesting, but frustrating. My personal viewpoint is that if Dundas’ role in one the most vile trades ever to haunt (and continue to haunt) the globe can change from villain to hero in a few weeks, how can we ever hope to get to a full understanding of our nation’s true history, past and responsibilities. Looking at the ‘edit history’ of Dundas’ Wikipedia entry, it seems that edits go back and forward (with phrases like ‘racist’ and ‘tory scum’ added at various points). It’s a personal disappointment to me that my attempts to understand my nation and my city’s role in slavery are obscured and misdirected by people with a keyboard, some kind of axe to grind and/or meaningless referencing technique.

I think that slavery and international exploitation is not over yet: not by a long way. It could be that between 12 million Africans were enslaved and transported to the Americas over the 400 years of the Atlantic slave trade. Compare that figure to the estimate that there are 21 – 46 million slaves in the world today (not spread over four centuries, but now!). The most challenging for me personally is that 10% of our copper (which probably finds it way into the computer I’m writing this on and the device your reading it on) comes from exploitative supply chains, often using child labour. The UK fashion industry has recently been rocked by allegations of the exploitation of workers in the UK (also see the links contained within that webpage for more examples). In one of the early drafts of this blog, I edited out a comment about filming the ‘Fall of Colston‘ on a mobile phone, but the historian Mary Beard is braver than me. The exploitation of southern, developing countries by rich, developed countries using international trade and financial arrangements is ongoing. The contradictions held by those who were both abolitionists and capitalists was well documented in the 18th and 19th centuries (p176, reference 10).

Two hundred years ago the Glasgow merchants, sailors, warehouse workers, accountants, lawyers and customers all took part in a trading business underpinned by slavery. The purpose of my ‘deep dive’ into that history is to uncover a better understanding of what happened, but if we don’t allow our reflections on the past to change our present involvement in modern slavery, in two hundred years Glaswegians will be saying exactly the same thing about this generation.


The more I think about this blogpost the more conflicted I feel. This is for two reasons. Firstly, while it’s important to me to base anything I say as part of Glasgow Tobacco on the best historical evidence I can find, the voices, experiences and history of the enslaved people in the plantations, or the indigenous people evicted from their land, go unrecorded. At the beginning of this post I spoke about narratives, but this ‘silence of the oppressed’ seem to me to leave a gapping hole in any story about slavery. Secondly, my worry is that in today’s charged atmosphere, historical information is used to either validate our own narratives, or invalidate those of others, and that in such an environment this post may exacerbate prejudice rather than reduce it. Some how we need to learn how ‘truth’ can liberate us, and not polarise us.

Sometime after I’d posted this article I had a long car journey with one of my interlocutors who argued that the story about Tobacco Lords being plantation owners contained a valid point about their business practises and their disregard for enslaved peoples. If that story conveys a truth in 30 seconds, whereas my 6500 words blogpost – packed with historical facts which may, or may not, be absolutely true – fails to reach a firm conclusion, who’s narrative has higher validity? They could not convince me that a myth that points to a truth is as valid as a deep dive into the historical research. I could not convince them that the hour or so it would take someone to read and digest this post would add any additional value to a simple, albeit probably inaccurate, statement about the Tobacco Lord’s owning slave plantations.


  1. Neil Oliver. A History of Scotland.
  2. Adapted for 2020 values with a 2% inflation figure from here.
  3. T. M Devine (Ed) Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past.
  4. Farrell, Stephen. “‘Contrary to the Principles of Justice, Humanity and Sound Policy’: The Slave Trade, Parliamentary Politics and the Abolition Act, 1807.”of southern, developing countriesParliamentary History, vol. 26 no. 4, 2007, p. 141-202.of southern, developing countriesProject MUSEof southern, developing
  5. P Dumas, 2012 PhD thesis, Defining the slave trade and slavery in Britain in the era of abolition 1788-1833
  6. The Rise of Glasgow in the Chesapeake Tobacco Trade, 1707-1775, Jacob M. Price, The William and Mary Quarterly , Apr., 1954, Vol. 11, No. 2, pp. 179-199
  7. T. M. Devine (1974) Sources of Capital for the Glasgow Tobacco Trade, c. 1740–1780, Business History, 16:2, 113-129
  8. An Eighteenth-Century Business élite: Glasgow-West India Merchants, c. 1750-1815, T. M. Devine Source: The Scottish Historical Review , Apr., 1978, Vol. 57, No. 163, Part 1 (Apr., 1978), pp. 40-67
  9. An Elite revisited: Glasgow West India Merchants, 1783–1877, Anthony Cooke, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies 32.2, 2012, 127–165
  10. Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery.


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