Category Archives: Scotland

Who profited from slavery (Scotland’s hidden shame?): David Livingstone and Blantyre Mill

David Hayman’s excellent two-part series on BBC2 ‘Slavery: Scotland’s Hidden Shame’ stirred up quite a bit of debate. I’ll admit I was not a fan of the title (it was too close to book of similar title on sectarianism in 2000). I also don’t think its ‘hidden’ so much, and I assumed the accusatory tone would get people’s backs up. Which turned out to be the case. Nonetheless, I was a bit surprised at the nature of the critiques. After all the scholarship and public engagement work over the last 10-15 years, I thought there was a more mature outlook and understanding about Scotland’s imperial past. Seemingly not (that said, how representative are the twitterati of public opinion in Scotland?)

Firstly, the producers were accused of being part of a ‘BBC Unionist plot’ to undermine Scotland in the lead up to any Independence referendum. This seemed a bit absurd. Several of those involved – including an SNP councillor – were high-profile campaigners or supporters of the Yes campaign leading up to September 2014. But that critique raises an important issue for historians about the influence of their political beliefs on their work. Are historians of Scotland required to be supporters of the Union today to research and write about the imperial benefits of the British Empire to Scotland then?

The second response was the majority of the Scottish population were not involved with Caribbean slavery. In direct terms, perhaps so. But that doesn’t tell the full story. In the Hayman programme, both myself and Tom Devine pointed to the multiplier effects of slavery on Scotland that stretched beyond the elites. The employment created by manufactories based on slave-grown produce (sugar, cotton and tobacco) as well as exports to the West Indies (eg. linen, slave cloth). The big fortunes made by the elite Tobacco Lords and Sugar Aristocracy were also sunk into commerce, landed estates, industry (such as railways) and agriculture which stimulated the economy. In fact, colonial investment created employment in and around Glasgow, underpinning a dramatic rise in wages in the west of Scotland after c.1750 at a rate faster than the national average [1]. The effects weren’t confined to Glasgow either. There are now many recorded examples of Highland estates improved by returned imperialists or absentee owners. Edinburgh was the financial and legal centre. Those who say that the lower orders did not profit from slavery fail to take into account the impact of the multiplier effects. Summed up by a letter to the Herald on 13 November: ‘The bulk of the Scottish population were not involved in nor did they benefit from slavery, nor do the Scottish people two centuries later in any way share responsibility for the crimes committed by previous generations…Being politically correct may be very fine, but being historically accurate is more important’. It takes no little chutzpah to attempt to publicly explain the impact of slavery and its commerce to historians who actually research and publish in the field. RecoveringOn 17 November, Tom Devine wrote an article titled ‘Slave-based economies impacted on lives of most Scots’ which summarized the findings of recent work Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past. Devine reiterated that the impact of slavery was not confined to the elites: the Legacies of British Slaveownership project has revealed a social mix of the developing middle classes in Scotland profited from compensation money in 1834, whilst, as Devine’s work from the 1970s onwards has shown, some of the labouring sorts were employed in manufactories which dependended on slave-grown produce or were funded by colonial investment.

Thirdly, a defence was mounted in the Herald about one of Scotland’s greatest heroes, David Livingstone. ‘There was also an unwarranted and scurrilous attach [sic] on David Livingstone who, as a working-class boy, worked hard to better himself then took healing and Christianity to Africa. Shame on the producer’. Since it was me who mentioned Livingstone as an example of the labouring sorts employed in manufactories fuelled by slave-grown produce, I’ll elaborate [2]. Culpability and complicity are two different things.01-Livingstone David Livingstone was born in Blantyre Mill in 1813. The mill was taken over by Henry Monteith in 1802, manufacturer, Tory politican and Lord Provost of Glasgow twice in the 1810s. Monteith was in partnership with three separate merchants in Glasgow who owned shares in West India firms: Adam Bogle, Alexander Garden and Francis Garden. These partnerships with colonial merchants brought capital derived from slavery into the business and the cotton to supply the mill. The overall investments by West India merchants in cotton manufactories seem to have been relatively small, but it behoves us to remember where the cotton was grown. And the bulk of Blantyre’s exports went to Africa. But work in Blantyre Mill was both arduous and dangerous. In 1823, Livingstone was put to work aged ten as a ‘piecer’ and was part of a child labour force. Ten years later, James Stuart visited Blantyre Works and was scathing about working conditions. There is no question the elites profited from a double-level of transatlantic exploitation: that of the enslaved people in the West Indies and the Scottish labourers. Yet, the conditions of both cannot be compared. In Blantyre Works, housing and educational facilities were noted to be of a high standard. Monteith was known as a paternalist owner, and in fact Livingstone defended cotton masters in a speech on his return to the Mill in 1856. Crucially, the work in Blantyre Mill was well-paid. In 1832, the wage rate for mill-workers was tenth highest (from twenty-nine) cotton mills in the Glasgow area. Moreover, the wages on offer were more than was available to weavers in the twenty weaving mills in the local area. The high wages on offer at Blantyre partly explain why  ‘lad of pairts’ Livingstone was able to save and invest five months of his income into a medical education at the Andersonian and Old College (now Glasgow University). By his own admission – Livingstone was well-paid for work in a cotton mill owned by a conglomerate of West India merchants. And he was part of a major textile labour force in Scotland. As historian Anthony Cooke has shown, textile manufacturers were the largest employers in Scotland (cotton 154,000 of 257,900 (60%), linen 30%, and wool 10%). Citing Sir John Sinclair in 1826, the cotton industry in particular was ‘by far the most important in the kingdom in regard to both the number of persons employed and to the value of their labour’ [3].

Historians are naturally wary of interpretations based on myths and anecdotal evidence which are deployed to deflect from the new orthodoxy. Namely, that slavery and its commerce had a profound impact on large sections of the Scottish population and more broadly on the development of modern Scotland.

[1] T.M. Devine ‘The golden age of tobacco’, in T.M. Devine and Gordon Jackson (eds), Glasgow. Volume I: Beginnings to 1830, (Manchester: Manchester University Press,1995), pp.139-184.

[2] This analysis was based upon the chapter: ‘One of Scotia’s Sons of Toil: David Livingstone and Blantyre Mill’, in Sarah Worden (ed.), David Livingstone: Man, Myth, Legacy, (NMS Enterprises, 2012).

[3] Anthony Cooke, The Rise and Fall of the Scottish Cotton Industry, 1778-1914, (Manchester University Press, 2010), p.57.



The Old Country Houses of the Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy: Carbeth Guthrie

About time I started blogging more about Glasgow’s ‘Sugar Aristocracy’ (in advance of publication of book of the same name with the Royal Historical Society sometime next year).

John Guthrie of Carbeth (1768–1834) was the nephew of Archibald Smith of Jordanhill, one of the most influential of Glasgow’s West India merchants in the city’s ‘golden age’ of suCarbethgar, 1783-1838. Smith’s firm, Leitch & Smith, was one of the most extensive firms of its type in Glasgow in the period, importing sugar and providing credit to slave-owners in the south-eastern Caribbean island of Grenada as well as Jamaica. John Guthrie managed Leitch & Smith’s sister firm on Grenada in the late 18th century. Guthrie & Ryburn was established sometime after 1792 and became the largest firm on the island. By 1799, Guthrie was a respected member of the plantocracy elite on the island, and was appointed a ‘Guardians of Slaves’ in the capital St George’s. A fortune based on slavery secured, John Guthrie returned to Scotland after around a decade in Grenada [1].

John Guthrie was a wealthy returned sojourner (but unrepresentative of most Scots who travelled to the West Indies) and invested in a landed estate on his return. Around 1800, he purchased the 286-acre estate of Carbeth, in the parish of Strathblane and county of Stirling. He immediately ‘began to improve his new acquisition’, including a grand mansion with ornamental gardens and pleasure grounds [2]. Carbeth2The landed estate was not only a solid investment, but the title improved Guthrie’s social standing. In Glasgow, he was appointed a city magistrate in 1810-1811. He was Dean of Guild of the Merchants House in 1814 (an influential position in local politics). On his death in 1834, Guthrie was worth £8977, not a huge fortune by the standards of the Glasgow West India elite, but a sum that would have placed him comfortably in the ranks of the developing middle-class in Scotland [3].

Dying without issue, Guthrie bequeathed the estate of Carbeth to his nephew, William Smith, Archibald Smith’s son. In turn, William Smith’s son inherited the estate and took on the name of the estate. John Guthrie Smith authored the magisterial  The Old Country Houses of the old Glasgow Gentry across two editions in 1870 and 1878, and surveyed Scottish estates purchased with capital derived from slavery in his own family line (including Craigend, Craighead, Carbeth, Jordanhill). The Smiths of Jordanhill were amongst the most succesful West India families in late eighteenth century, and suceeded in converting capital derived from Caribbean slavery into land in the west of Scotland. The true impact of slavery and its profits on eighteenth-century Scottish agriculture was profound, if still contested by some historians today.

This video here shows the estate of Carbeth today.

[1] Stephen Mullen A GlasgowWest India merchant house and the imperial dividend, 1779-1867, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies (2012).

[2] John Guthrie Smith, James Oswald Mitchell, ‘Carbeth Guthrie’, The Old Country Houses of the old Glasgow Gentry, (Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1878 edn.).

[3] National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh Sheriff Court Inventories, SC70/1/51, Inventory, 15/11/1834.