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'Are We The Bad Guys?!'

Kenny MacAskill's caused controversy by suggesting that Scots should 'atone for' slavery. Was he right?

Friday, October 13, 2023
6 mins

Scotland's Involvement in the Transatlantic Trade.

Author: Charles Chevalier

Scotland's economy in the 17th century was largely based on cattle farming and agriculture with limited trade to the west indies and the Americas. In the 17th century famine was common, especially between 1620 and 1625. 

The invasions of the English in the 1640s had a catastrophic consequence for the Scots economy with failure of crops, culminating in rapid price rises. Economic conditions were stable and congenial between 1660 and 1688 as lairds developed better tillage and cattle raising. The last decade of the 17th century resulted in famine between 1695 and 1699 due to failed harvests.

The Darien scheme - envisioned by a Scot from Dumfriesshire known as Sir William Paterson, an entrepreneur and founder of the Bank of England who made his fortune through international trade with the West Indies and the Americas. Patterson's plan was to create a trading colony along the isthmus of Darien in Panama. Creating an over- land link between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. The scheme required significant funding at a time Scotland's economy had been significantly weakened through failed crops and being unable to participate in trade with the English colonies through the Navigation Act. 

The scheme ended in disaster with the loss of around one thousand Scots lives through starvation, disease, attack by Spaniards and the harsh and inhospitable terrain of Darien. The catastrophe of the Darien scheme resulted in a bankrupt Scotland seeking help from the English parliament, which some say, inevitably gave rise to the Act of Union between Scotland and England 1707.

The Act of Union allowed Scotland to join the transatlantic trade with English colonies. This was a shipping journey known as the triangular trade route from Britain to the coast of Africa then to the Caribbean and the Americas with a return journey to Britain. The trade involved ships from Britain sailing to Africa to buy slaves who in turn were then shipped to the Caribbean to work on sugar and tobacco plantations. The sugar and tobacco were then returned to Britain where they were sold locally and imported to the Continent of Europe.

The system of credit used by the Scots merchants in the tobacco trade was extremely beneficial and lucrative. Plantation owners particularly in Chesapeake deep inland Virginia relied on credit due to the nature of crops being a yearly enterprise. The Plantations relied on goods and commodities supplied by the merchants to survive the yearly toils, until such time as they harvested their crops. The goods and commodities offered were no philanthropic affair and were made under the clear assertion of payment after the harvest. The Scots were known for their ruthless and at times morally and ethically bankrupt method of commerce. This system allowed the merchants, at harvest, to demand the lowest price available and effectively gave the plantation owners little choice in who they could sell to.

Involvement of the Scots in the slave plantations of the West Indies can only be described as prodigious. By 1771-5, Edward Long asserts, the Scots accounted for 45% of death inventories worth more than £1000 sterling. Sir William Forbes recorded in his memoires “Extensive speculations were entered by some Scotsmen for the cultivation and purchase of lands in the newly acquired West India islands.”

Scots owned two fifths of all personal property in the same period. They were employed in professions from physician to attorney and plantation overseers for absentee landlords, particularly in Jamaica where they were the majority colonial presence on the island.

The impact of the transatlantic trade affected a major transformation to Scotland’s fortune, via demographic, political and architectural landscape. To show perspective of the transformation, within two centuries Scotland rose from one of the poorest nations in Europe to one of the major industrialised nations in the world. Scotland’s economic existence relied on agriculture until 1750, where there was a marked increase in the population and movement of her populace from rural communities into the early urbanised areas of Scotland. 

In 1750 most Scots lived in rural areas; by 1820 one third of the population were living in urban areas. Scotland’s population rose from 1.25 million in 1750 to 1.6 million in 1801. This period was a clear indicator of major change and industrial development due to the impact of the transatlantic trade. A growth of 305,000 in population over a 50yr period was an extraordinary rise in population for the era.

Between 1718-1813 exports to the Caribbean increased from 21% to 65%. In the late 18th century linen manufacturing became a notable employer, with 40,000 weavers and 170,000 women employed in the spinning of linen. Overall employing 230,000 people within the industry. The Caribbean and North American markets imported 90% of Scotland’s linen. The impact of the transatlantic trade effectively started the industrial revolution in Scotland with the creation of banks through investment via transatlantic trade which serviced funding and the building of Scotland’s canal ways.

Scotland became the main player in Britain’s tobacco and sugar trade. With Glasgow importing more than half of the North American tobacco. Glasgow’s tobacco and sugar merchants became extremely wealthy and with that wealth, caused the transformation of Scotland’s fortunes as a nation. The tobacco and sugar Lords (Princes) were responsible for the building of some of the Palladian style architecture still visible in the city to present day, specifically, around Glasgow’s merchant city formerly known as merchant square, named after the tobacco and sugar merchants. Some of Glasgow’s streets bear the name of these merchants. Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art building was the mansion of William Cunninghame, a tobacco lord. Glasgow’s sugar Lords became prominent members of Scotland’s political elite, enjoying positions as provosts, councillors, and officers of the merchant chamber of commerce.

The earliest records of African slave presence in Scotland date back to the 1700s. At any one time there were between 70-80 slaves in Scotland usually as footmen and pageboys. They were perceived by wider society and their masters as status symbols, a show of wealth and affluence within society. Slaves were baptised to become Christians; this gave them recognition as men of the flesh and blood with a soul - a Christian notion that ultimately would contribute to the fight for the abolition of slavery. 

Owning a slave was made illegal in Scotland in 1778. A slave, Joseph Knight, became the catalyst for a court judgement which brought about the end of slave ownership in Scotland. With Lord Auchenleck declaring, “it may be custom in Jamaica to make slaves of poor blacks, but I do not believe it agreeable to humanity or the Christian religion. He is our brother, and he is a man”

John Glassford’s family portrait was moved to the Kelvingrove Art museum, whereupon cleaning revealed a black boy behind him in the painting. Initially there was unwarranted hysterical controversy about the painting with rumours Glassford had had the boy painted out. The figure had been obscured through years of dirt building up on the painting.

The progress of abolition was a process beginning in 1756-1838 with sustained efforts from the parish leaders of the church, abolition societies and the people. There were determined efforts by interested parties to block the abolition. Although in the end the momentum for abolition could not be ignored or prevented. 

On the abolition of slavery only the slave owners were compensated, to the amount of £20 million. The UK government eventually paid off this debt and as obscene and ridiculous as it may be to modern Scots was only recently remedied in full to slavers in 2015. Slaves were not awarded any recompense for the monstrosities they endured. Although in 2019 Glasgow University stepped up and as atonement agreed to pay £20 million for the historical benefits of the trade, signing an agreement with the University of the West Indies to fund a joint venture for development research.

The Transatlantic trade was an English enterprise, starting in 1562 with Captain John Hawkins first slaving voyage. He made three voyages transporting 1200 slaves to the Americas within six years to the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. The first African slaves landed in Virginia in 1616. By 1655 England had taken control of the Caribbean Islands of Jamaica and Barbados. The Royal African Company formalised the slave trade in 1672 and held Royal charter giving the port of London monopoly. After the disruption of the 30 year’s war (1618 -1638), England’s fortunes were notably enhanced due in large part to the transformation of mercantile trade which had become a diversified entrepot at the end of the 17th century due to the Transatlantic trade.

Scotland had been excluded from any significant involvement in the transatlantic trade and was a limited fringe enterprise until the union of 1707 due to the Navigation Acts. At this historical juncture England had benefited from the trade for almost 150 yrs. Scotland was almost bankrupt in 1707. By 1750 the economy of Scotland had been significantly improved via the Transatlantic trade. The Clyde’s share of Scottish imports in 1710 was 90%, By 1760 it rose to 98%. In 1738 the tobacco merchants controlled 10% of official UK imports and by 1765 the share was over 40%. The tobacco trade was Scotland’s first global enterprise and Glasgow became a player on the world commercial stage.

There is no doubt Scotland benefited and participated in the slave trade. The evidence is all around us, in our architecture, our street names, even our national bard Robert Burns was contemplating a voyage to the Caribbean and wrote a poem concerning a slave's lament. Abroad, Scots names are found in streets and people of the Caribbean, the Jamaican flag bears the St Andrews cross, although a common heraldic symbol, the Scots and their presence on the island almost certainly influenced the design of the flag.

As an enterprise it belonged to Europe first, England took it on with fervour and the Scots built an industrialised nation on the back of it.

The almost casually accepted. “It Wisnae us” is a common reply when Scots refer to the Transatlantic slave trade. The reply to this historical amnesia would be. “Aye it Wiz”.


.Devine, T. (2011). To the Ends of the Earth – Scotland’s Global Diaspora, 1750-2010. 2nd ed. Lon

Iain Whyte, Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery, 1756-1838. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, (2006). x + 278 pp. $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7486-2432-4. ISBN 978-0-7486


Mullen, S (2006) The truth about Glasgow and Slavery. Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland.

Oliver, N. (2010). A history of Scotland. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson

The Guardian (2019) Glasgow University to pay 20 million in slave trade reparations, Glasgow University to pay £20m in slave trade reparations | Slavery | The Guardian [accessed 30 June 2022]

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