Understanding the role of Empire and Slavery in the making and wealth of Scotland

The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy in the British-Atlantic World, 1776-1838, Stephen Mullen, Royal Historical Society in partnership with the Institute of Historical Research and University of London Press. 

Reviewed by Matthew Lee 

In early 2022, a new edition of Eric Williams’ landmark book Capitalism and Slavery was published in the UK. Written by the man who became the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Capitalism and Slavery offers provocative ideas about Britain’s relationship to the Transatlantic slave trade, enslavement in the Caribbean and their abolition.

It was influenced by Marxist ideas, and Williams asserted that abolition was a consequence of the Caribbean’s diminishing economic importance rather than the efforts of humanitarian Britons. A central argument in Capitalism and Slavery is Williams’ claim that capital accumulated in the Caribbean – based on enslaved labour – helped fund the Industrial Revolution in Britain. The republication of this book reflects a newfound non-scholarly interest in this aspect of British history. The conversations around Britain’s colonial past – partly hijacked by a self-appointed ‘anti-woke’ Praetorian guard – took on a new impetus and urgency in the summer of 2020.

For all its intellectual and polemical power, Capitalism and Slavery pays scant attention to the connections between economic change in Scotland and enslavement in the Caribbean. In its preface, Williams clarified that Capitalism and Slavery is a study of the foundations of industrialisation in England. Indeed, the book is noticeably Anglocentric. Williams trained his focus on cities like Liverpool and Manchester. Glasgow is conspicuous by its absence. 

Over the past two decades, however, Scotland’s relationship with Atlantic slavery has become increasingly prominent in discussions concerning Scottish history. Stephen Mullen’s timely, well-researched and wide-ranging The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy is an essential addition to the scholarship examining Scotland’s ties to enslavement.

This book is firmly in Capitalism and Slavery’s orbit. Overall, it accepts Williams’ contention that there was a relationship between the proceeds of slavery and the progress of the Industrial Revolution. Mullen’s fundamental concern is the contribution made by Glasgow’s West India merchant community to economic change in Scotland. By extension, Mullen assesses how enslavement in the Caribbean impacted the Scottish economy. 

The group Mullen focuses on is what he calls the ‘sugar aristocracy’. These people formed a mercantile elite in Glasgow. However, they were not aristocrats in the usual sense of the term. Some were members of lower-gentry families; others hailed from the middling ranks. 

Capital accumulated in the Caribbean and repatriated to Scotland propelled these families into the upper echelons of Scottish society. They formed networks cemented by borrowing, lending, marriage, and shared political interests. Undergirding this process was enslaved people’s labour. The money derived from their toil acted as an accelerant that improved the sugar aristocracy’s fortunes. Perhaps more significantly, it propelled broader economic and social change across Scotland. 

Mullen demonstrates the specific business and social practices that encouraged their rise to prominence. The sugar aristocracy took advantage of a mechanism in Scots law known as a private partnership, which established a business as a separate legal entity from its partners. This arrangement mitigated risk and encouraged inflows of capital. Through close analysis of Glasgow merchant firms, Mullen shows the importance of kinship ties to forming and regenerating these partnerships. After a period of training, young men replaced previous generations of partners. As a result, the West India merchant firms became a family affair. 

Credit and capitalisation arrangements were essential for these West India merchants. As Mullen shows, they drew primarily on Scottish sources for their capital requirements. They borrowed from individuals and Scotland’s burgeoning banking sector. Such credit arrangements pulled well-known figures like James Watt – whose financial dealings with a West India merchant Mullen detail (pp.78-79) – and the Royal Bank of Scotland into business relationships with the sugar aristocracy.

Glasgow West India merchants also loaned money to other businesses and individuals. They provided the credit necessary to generate more mercantile ventures and stimulate industrialisation in Scotland. Simultaneously, they primed the pump for industrialisation in Scotland. The dynamic relationship between borrowing and lending developed by West India merchants contributed to economic change in Scotland.

Glasgow was a node in an Atlantic-wide network through which people – free and enslaved – goods, capital and ideas flowed. According to Mullen’s new estimate, around 36,000 to 47,000 Scots travelled to the Caribbean between 1750 and 1834 (p.141). The Scots who went to the West Indies were overwhelmingly male. Their occupational backgrounds ranged from skilled artisans to well-educated professionals (the Scottish doctor was ubiquitous in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Caribbean). The promise of relatively high wages or the lure of economic and social advancement through involvement in plantation slavery enticed these young men to journey across the Atlantic. 

Accordingly, received wisdom among historians in this field is that Scots were primarily temporary migrants who returned home after enriching themselves in the Caribbean. Mullen calls this orthodoxy into question through illuminating case studies of Scotsmen in Jamaica, Grenada and Carriacou, and Trinidad. He highlights examples of Scots who stayed in the Caribbean for prolonged spells, thus bucking the trend of short stays followed by a return to Scotland.

Additionally, he suggests that high mortality rates and the inherent financial risks associated with involvement in the plantation economy ensured that only a small number of Scots acquired significant wealth in the Caribbean. Mullen’s analysis of Scottish planters in the Caribbean indicates they did not invest significantly in Scotland’s industrial activity. For Mullen, West India merchants in Glasgow rather than their Caribbean-based associates made the most discernible impact on Scottish economic development. 

The central argument that runs through the book is that this group of merchants – and the capital they accrued from their slavery-related business activities – played a prominent role in the move towards an industrialised economy in Scotland. It is an exaggeration (that Mullen does not make) to suggest that the Industrial Revolution would not have occurred without capital derived from enslavement.

As Mullen shows in his book, however, the proceeds of slavery still played a crucial facilitative role in the onset and progress of industrialisation in Scotland. This insight has important implications for Scottish economic history.

That said, The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy will appeal to an audience beyond readers interested only in the story of Scottish economic development. This book has a more profound significance. It forces its readers to confront more difficult truths about how Scots benefitted from the proceeds of enslavement. This excellent book is required reading for anyone interested in Scottish history and understanding Scotland.




Comments (5)

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  1. John Learmonth says:

    Slavery (of all ethnic groups) was endemic throughout human history until the industrial revolution which, thanks to machines taking over the roles of humans, was able to consign it to history.
    Thankfully Scotland was at the forefront of this huge advancement in human civilisation but the author seems to think we should be guilty about this?
    If it wasn’t for ‘capitalism/industrialisation’ most of humanity would still be slaves.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @John Learmonth, racialised chattel slavery, as practised by the British, was a new invention, and the epitome of Capitalism, and an extremely oppressive and sadistic development of Empire. We live in a world maldeveloped by these planet-poisoning ideologies, whilst some of the healthier parts of the planet tend to be associated with practices of indigenous human societies. The machines of the industrial revolution did not free people from labour, they were run and tended by workers in vast unhealthy factories whose fumes choked the air of cities and whose effluents poisoned the waters. People coming from the countryside to work in them got sick and died from a vast range of industrial diseases. Jack London’s People of the Abyss is a striking portrayal.

      Meanwhile European royalist colonialists were responsible for some of the worst genocides in history, like in the Belgian Congo, which occurred long after the industrial revolutions, but featured atrocities and old-school slave labour. Scots were involved in some of the worst depredations of the British Empire, and the Scottish Enlightenment was actually quite conservative. The industrial revolution with its reckless burning of fossil fuel was the wrong path, taken for bad reasons, which we still have not managed to reject and find a saving alternative to. Industrialised warfare has brought the living planet to the brink of omnicide. Overconsumption leads to morbid ill-health on a planetary scale.

      Actually, it is the idea communisms of global science, open technology and the digital commons which are defining characteristics of the modern world. Back in the day, the idea communism of European printed book culture gave those Empires the edge over others, and that was accidental, the Latin alphabet possibly created by migrant mine workers being especially suitable for movable type.

      You have to stick your head somewhere really dark and soundproof to blot out all the uncomfortable facts so you can substitute them for a self-pleasing gammon fantasy about worshipable ancestors. Royal African Company, British East India Company, South Sea Company: these were all capitalist instruments of slavery and colonialism, backed by industrialised military. Relatively few depraved people start wars or run slaving operations; it is deeply perverse to characterise all people with the same brush, given so many opposed imperial rule and the institution of slavery, and so many others had nothing to do with either.

      1. John Learmonth says:

        I think you’ll find that racialised chattel slavery was practised by the Arabs/Muslims long before the British set foot in Africa and it was the ‘evil’ British Empire that ended this trade much to the chagrin of the Arab slave traders and their ‘indigenous’ African co-partners.
        Your rant reminds me of the classic ‘what did the Romans ever do for us’ sketch from Life of Brian.
        The British Empire did some terrible things but it also did some good things which in the current climate tends to be overlooked.

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @John Learmonth, no, you’re confusing race with religion, amongst other things. The triangular trade and the race laws and regulations that British colonies invented were new. The British didn’t end slavery, and indeed continued to practice it in various forms, interestingly enough in the Royal Navy itself through press ganging (not only their own subjects) which I believe was never taken off the books, going under the Royal Prerogative of course. What good things did the British Empire do? Too few to mention? You do know you can buy in railways, which countries like Ethiopia did, while the Dutch didn’t need to invade Scotland to run our trains. These Empires were multi-generational crime sprees, and if the viewpoints of the colonial oppressed are being heard, and some of the hidden records of the oppressors are being uncovered, that just gives us a clearer picture of what really happened.

          I suppose the question is why some people are so desperate to promulgate a rosy view of their own Empire. Perhaps lacking personal worth they wrap theirselves in flags like a cloak of easy virtue, or perhaps they are the vilest kind of scoundrel who actually love all that child abduction, rape and torture, or benefited from or even committed colonial crimes themselves. Perhaps it really is just a form of primitive ancestor worship. The popular defenders of the British Empire are almost laughably lightweight yet we should not lose sight of the fact that they are essentially genocide-deniers.

    2. Hector says:

      What nonsense
      The industrial revolution made a few rich and the majority poorer

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