Enterprise and Abolition

Published

In the second of our three part series on a history of Glasgow University, Claire Strickett investigates the links between the University, the slave trade and the abolitionist movement

The signs of Glasgow’s links to the slave trade are everywhere, if you know where to look. But until recently, most people have chosen to look the other way. “I think of it as the ‘non-shortbread’ history of Scotland,” Stephen Mullen, a historian specialising in the subject, told me wryly.

An uncomfortable subject it may be, but recent years have seen something of a resurgence of interest in the topic. We are now beginning to understand to what extent Glasgow and its merchants benefited from the profits of slavery, as did the University itself. But as we learn more about this hugely significant part of the city’s past, it becomes clear that there is also much to celebrate. Thought it did profit from slavery, Scotland was also a key player in the fight for abolition – with Glasgow University leading the way.

“Until recently, Glasgow has been able to separate itself from cities such as London, Liverpool and Bristol with regards to its involvement in the slave trade,” says Graham Campbell, a native Jamaican now working for the Glasgow Anti-Racism Alliance (GARA). “There was very little direct trading of slaves through Glasgow when compared to these other ports.” This lack of a clear, direct involvement in slavery has meant that its significance for Glasgow has been underestimated. To understand the city’s links with slavery, you have to look a little deeper.

Ideally placed on the trade routes to the New World, Glasgow is a city that made its fortune through international commerce. Dominating the world’s tobacco market from the 1740s until the 1790s and then monopolising the sugar trade, Glasgow’s great mercantile families quite literally shaped the city around us. Imposing buildings such as that which is now home to the Gallery of Modern Art owe their existence to these rich merchants.

Even street names bear witness to their sources of success – Jamaica Street, for example, named after the island where the sugar plantations were located, and Virginia Place, recalling the region where tobacco was grown. And these plantations were worked by slaves.

It was, then, slave labour that generated much of Glasgow’s wealth. Scotland’s links with slavery continued to develop throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, as it became common for well-educated young Scotsmen to travel to places such as Jamaica to seek their fortune as plantation owners or overseers. These men were responsible for thousands of slaves, and participated in the trade themselves. The commodities the plantations produced were shipped back to Europe via Glasgow, depositing a tidy sum in the pockets of Glasgow merchants.

One such emigrant was Alexander MacFarlane, whose story Lesley Richmond, Director of Glasgow University’s Archives, tells in her essay ‘Glasgow University, Slavery and Abolition’. A graduate of the University of Glasgow who became a merchant, his work included some participation in the slave trade. He was a successful businessman and was able to make a generous gift of astrological equipment to the University.

MacFarlane’s name is still read out every year on Commemoration Day in recognition of his ‘generosity’. Similarly, every year the Ewing Gold Medal is still presented for the best essay in Civil History. This prize exists thanks to the gift of £100 from James Ewing, a Glasgow graduate who made his fortune as a plantation owner and sugar trader. The money he bestowed to the University originated in his profits from the West Indian trade.

Glasgow University was simply an institution of its time, accepting gifts from wealthy benefactors, even if these did come from the profits of slavery. However, as shameful as this seems to us today, we also have much to be proud of.

Some of the most important figures in the anti-slavery movement were based here at Glasgow University. “When people think of the Scottish Enlightenment, they usually focus on Edinburgh,” says Mullen. “I would argue that Glasgow’s role has been a understated phenomenon.” The call for abolition became a mass nationwide movement by the 1780s, but throughout the 18th century voices from Glasgow had already been calling out in protest. Among the most prominent was Francis Hutcheson, who held the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow from 1729.

In his great work A System of Moral Philosophy, he was one of the first to couch the argument against slavery in terms of a moral wrong against humanity. His argument gave great academic weight to the abolitionist cause, and was taken to heart by campaigners around the world. Two of Hutcheson’s best-known pupils, John Millar and Adam Smith, continued this opposition to slavery in their lectures and writings at Glasgow University.
As the abolitionist movement grew, campaigners sought to make their voices heard. “This was an age before parliamentary democracy as we would understand it,” points out Graham Campbell.

With so many people unable to vote, they instead turned to petitioning Parliament for a change in the law. The first Scottish petition came, in fact, from the Senate of the University of Glasgow. Presented to Parliament in 1792, it condemned the slave trade as ‘an existing evil of infinite magnitude’ and “an infamous Traffick, which, by a horrible spirit of desolation, can subsist only in the fullness of Misery, in the ruin of the helpless and forlorn, and in the daily and wide extended Triumphs of Rapine and Murder.”

Eventually, thanks to mass campaigning across the country, a law was passed in 1807 to ban the slave trade throughout the British Empire. But there was still work to be done. The 1807 law abolished only the slave trade and not the status of slavery itself. Glaswegians continued to participate in the battle for an outright ban through societies such as the Glasgow Emancipation Society, formed in 1835.

One of the leading figures of this society was also one of Glasgow’s most remarkable students. James McCune Smith was born in New York, the son of former slaves, he showed exceptional academic promise. Despite this, racial discrimination meant he was refused entry to American colleges. Glasgow University, however, was one of the first to welcome black students, and so McCune Smith travelled to Scotland to study.

At Glasgow, he obtained three degrees, becoming the first African-American to earn a Doctorate of Medicine anywhere in the world. Glasgow can be immensely proud of the role it played in this crucial step towards equality. McCune later returned to the USA where he devoted his life to promoting the welfare of African-Americans and campaigning for emancipation.

Slavery was finally fully outlawed by the British Parliament in 1838, and while it continued to exist undetected for many more years in British territory and quite openly in many other nations, the great era of the abolitionist movement in Britain was over.

Scotland and Glasgow in particular had played a hugely significant role in achieving abolition and emancipation. “The story we at GARA tell is one of both commiseration and of celebration,” says Campbell. “There’s a lot for Glasgow to be proud of as well as to regret. Jamaica’s full of Campbells, MacDonalds and the like, who took their names from their Scottish slave masters. This is the story of how we became part of Scotland’s family – but black history is common history, too. This is everyone’s story.”