Individuals and countries have shown over many years their desire to view history through ‘rose tinted glasses’. Historic facts are very often distorted in order to remove many of the embarrassing events that are also erased from schoolbooks. Many grow up in blissful ignorance about historic facts.
Being back here under lockdown in Scotland I’ve had time to investigate issues that I would normally not have had the time to research. I’ve come across a very talented historian from Glasgow University who has studied the city’s extensive involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.
He is the author of an important book called It Wisnae Us (It was nothing to do with us). It challenges the Scots “myth of detachment”, the commonly held belief that slavery was all the fault of the English and nothing whatsoever to do with the Scots.
Unfortunately for Glaswegians, citizens of Glasgow, the truth is very different. Before the Act of Union bringing Scotland and England together under the same monarch, the Scots made attempts to get in on a very profitable business, but once in the union their involvement took off. The business was all about taking goods to Africa by ship, exchanged for native peoples forcibly torn away from their families and communities and enslaved.
These poor wretches were then shipped in appalling conditions to the southern states of America and the Caribbean. Once there they were sold to be worked to death growing colonial crops such as sugar and tobacco, as “chattel” slaves, the property of their owners. The same ships returned to Scotland loaded up with produce produced through their blood, sweat and tears.
The great mercantile wealth that Glasgow accumulated in the 18th century was partly spent on beautiful stone buildings in the new Merchant City. Residences and warehouses of the wealthy merchant “tobacco lords” (who prospered in shipping and, amongst other things, tobacco, sugar and tea) were built in the area on the profits from slavery.
Our Scottish banking system grew as a direct result of this shameful trade. It gave us the first Scottish millionaires of the time such as Andrew Buchanan, James Dunlop, James Wilson, Richard Oswald and John Glassford, who cornered the Chesapeake Bay tobacco trade. In present day Glasgow they have streets named after them and there are also streets linked to where slavery existed such as Virginia Street, Jamaica Street, Kingston Bridge and Mount Vernon (named after a plantation in Virginia).
Part of the building that now houses the Gallery of Modern Art was built by merchant William Cunninghame as a lavish home, in no-expense-spared Palladian, plantation style from the profits gained from slavery. Richard Oswald, who lies buried with honours in Glasgow cathedral, founded a leading tobacco dynasty. His nephew bought Bance island off Sierra Leone, where he traded 13,000 Africans, a man so patriotic that he had slaves dressed in tartan as caddies on his island golf course.
By 1800, Scots ran 30 per cent of the slave plantations in Jamaica. Nowadays Scottish surnames such as Campbell in Jamaica – indeed throughout the West Indies – reflects the practice of giving enslaved Africans the names of their Scottish masters. It’s no coincidence that Shelly-Ann Fraser, Kerron Stewart and Veronica Campbell-Brown, Jamaica’s Olympic sprinting medallists, all have Scottish names.
Why isn’t this history taught in Scottish schools rather than romantic freedom fighters such as Bruce and Wallace? This is part of our history, and all Scots should be aware of it rather than a selective view of our own history.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at [email protected]