How We Moved the Goalposts (Part Two): Women and the plantation economy

Credit: Julia Rosner

Briony Farrell

In a three-part series, Guardian contributor Briony Farrell ties her research into female beneficiaries of the Atlantic Slave Trade with discussions centred on historical erasure and reform of the school curriculum.

There is a tendency to focus on the history of Scotland as a country built and defended by a series of “great” Scottish men. The Scottish Wars of Independence and the bravery of figureheads such as Robert the Bruce or William Wallace form the bulk of our school history curriculum, and in many ways the foundation of our national historical consciousness.

We often memorialise the poetry of Robert Burns or the prose of Sir Walter Scott, and their romanticising of Scotland.  Likewise, we proudly remember Scotland’s role as a centre for the abolitionist movement, memorialising great figureheads such as Adam Smith and their condemnation of slavery. However, too often the critical role of women in Scotland’s history remains undiscussed.

It’s easy and convenient for many of us to point to the colonisation of the Americas and the ownership of slaves as a male-only pursuit, though women were not always innocent bystanders in plantation-based economies. Whilst it’s true that men made up the overwhelming majority of slaveowners as well as merchants, doctors and lawyers involved in New World affairs, the role of women in this society is fast being uncovered. 

The history of gender and the history of the Atlantic world have become increasingly documented fields of research in the last thirty or so years, yet the relationship between them is often overlooked. Gender was central to the ways the British transatlantic network was created, as men dominated the merchant networks that expanded across the ocean.

Yet, the development of commerce in the Americas had a critical impact on the way gender orders were organised and shaped both in the New World and back here in Scotland. Many Scottish women were able to carve out some power for themselves within these merchant systems.

Under Scots law, married women could not own their own property; any money women did possess became the legal right of their husbands after marriage. However, single women and widows had far more economic freedom as they could own and inherit money independently. Wives, daughters and sisters of merchants and slaveowners played a critical role within the Scottish economy as legatees, annuitants, executrixes and as inheritors of vast sums of slavery wealth, and this money had an enormous impact over lives. Occasionally, however, this could provide a path into direct involvement with mercantile pursuits and slave ownership.

One of the best examples of women inserting themselves into plantation economies hails from Glasgow. Cecilia Douglas, daughter of tobacco merchant John Douglas and sister of two prominent Glasgow West India merchants, grew up as a member of Scottish high society, and of Glasgow’s “West India elite”. In January 1794, she married plantation owner Gilbert Douglas, who owned several sugar plantations in the West Indies. Serving as an excellent representation of the ways in which kinship networks expanded across the Atlantic, Cecilia’s family firm was brought into proximity with her husband’s plantations.

Gilbert Douglas died in 1807, and his deed of settlement appointed Cecilia and her brothers as trustees of his estate. After her husband’s death, Cecilia inherited much of his Scottish and Caribbean property and land. What is unusual, however, is her deep involvement in the West India business. In the years following her husband’s death, she became the head of the affairs and management of his estates and plantations.

Cecilia played a critical role in financial management, settling debts and maintaining the profitability of the plantations in the difficult years preceding abolition. She is one of only a tiny minority of Scottish women who inserted themselves directly into the commerce and business networks of the New World, as well as taking direct ownership of the hundreds of enslaved persons labouring on her plantations.

But Cecilia’s influence goes beyond her direct involvement with plantation economies, she also engaged in philanthropic work and investment in industry in ways similar to her male counterparts. When slavery was abolished in the British colonies in 1833, the government granted £20 million in compensation to slaveowners for the loss of their “property”, while the enslaved received nothing.

Scots made up a huge proportion of claimants, and through significant research by UCL, it is possible to accurately trace the path of these compensation monies. This research provides tangible evidence of the critical role that women played as beneficiaries, and how entrenched profits from slavery were at all levels of Scottish society.

In February 1836, Cecilia received £3,013 12s 7d for her half-share in the Mount Pleasant estate and the 231 enslaved people associated with the sugar plantation. Slavery wealth went beyond making merchants and slaveowners rich, it was injected into every stream of our country’s industry and society.

Cecilia is evidence of women playing an undeniable role in driving through investments in this nation. In her will, it is shown that she donated large sums of money to local institutions. For example, she granted hundreds of pounds to poor Glaswegian parishes, to the Glasgow Royal Infirmary and to Asylum’s for the blind and terminally ill. Furthermore, Cecilia’s slavery wealth allowed her to travel across Europe and accumulate an admirable collection of paintings and sculptures.

These artworks were donated to Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery after her death. Cecilia also invested vast sums in Scottish industry and banks, with shares in the Royal Bank of Scotland and investment in the Glasgow and Edinburgh Railway Company as well as Clyde Navigation.

Cecilia’s experience shows that it would be impossible to properly understand the ownership of wealth derived from slavery and the ways this was transmitted throughout Scottish industry and society without recognising the role of Scottish women. By the time of her death in 1862, Cecilia’s wealth was £40,365 11s 9d, an extraordinary amount for a woman at this time. This had provided her with the means to travel Europe, engage in art collecting, but also to become directly involved in industrial investment and philanthropy. Even more significantly, it provided her with the opportunity to become directly involved in the plantation economy. Cecilia’s life was completely transformed through plantation wealth, and she is evidence of the uncomfortable reality that slave ownership was far from a male-only pursuit.


Mullen, Stephen, ‘Cecilia Douglas (1772-1862) West India Planter, slave owner and art collector’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2016) 

Draper, Nicholas, The Price of Emancipation: Slave Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010) 

Barclay, Katie, Love, Intimacy and Power: Marriage and Patriarchy in Scotland, 1650-1850 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011)


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