Courses that may find this source useful: The Atlantic Slave Trade, Changing Britain, The Treaty of the Union, Migration and Empire
The University of Glasgow’s Dr Stephen Mullen considers, through the symbolised Silver Punch Bowl, the wealthy elite of Glasgow – the West India merchants and absentee planters, and their role in the creation of West Indies’ plantations and the production and sale of rum.
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This object under discussion in this talk is a silver punch bowl made in London in 1716. This was an ornate, expensive item used on special occasions by the wealthy elites such as West India merchants and absentee planters in Great Britain in the colonial period. Although it is possible this object was also used later as a wine cooler, the object’s initial function would have been as a bowl used to mix rum and other ingredients into punch.
Rum is an alcoholic beverage made by distilling cane juice and other by-products made during the processing of sugar. It was first distilled by European colonists and African slaves in the early seventeenth century Caribbean. Early forms of the alcohol were known as ‘kill-devil’ although it came to be used as the basis for a more refined punch. The beverage was later introduced to England by sailors and returned travellers from the West Indies.
The consumption of rum punch was popular across Britain in this period, including Glasgow in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this period is known as the city’s ‘golden age’ of sugar. The men who made the maritime carrying trades possible – transatlantic merchants – had shifted commercial focus to sugar and the West Indies after the American War of Independence initiated a decline in the tobacco trade with Virginia after 1783.
The term punch probably derives from the Hindu word panch meaning five which symbolises the number of ingredients; rum, sugar, lemon, lime and nutmeg. Only wealthy individuals would have been able to afford this combination of luxurious spices and tropical fruits. The famous ‘Glasgow punch’ was obtained through a careful mixture of these in the correct proportions. The basis for the beverage was the ‘Glasgow Sherbet’ which was made with cold water, sugar as well as lemon and limes from the Leeward Islands in the West Indies. Essentially a form of lemonade, this was ritually transformed into the Glasgow punch by adding Jamaica overproof rum and mixing together in the punch bowl.
Toasts were an important part of the event and one example provides an insight into a transatlantic mentality. Indeed, the West India merchants based in Glasgow drank their famous punch with the toast:
The trade of Glasgow and the outward bound
The main trade of Glasgow from the 1790s, of course, was based on Caribbean commodities such as sugar, cotton and rum. The outward bound were the young Scotsmen sent to the West Indies in order to undertake the business for the merchants in the colonies.
We know, then, that elite West India merchants – or more likely their servants – mixed a distinctive Caribbean beverage in valuable punch bowls at feasts in their mansion houses located near Glasgow and surrounding regions. This narrative of conspicuous consumption and ostentatious wealth, however, requires a transatlantic perspective. Indeed, the luxurious commodities sugar and rum were produced by enslaved peoples in the British West Indies. Almost from its establishment, Scots took up key positions in this Atlantic imperial system.
Although relative latecomers to the New World, England had established control over a diverse land mass that by 1708 was known as the ‘British Empire’, the largest commonwealth in the world. In North America, colonies were established in Virginia, Newfoundland and New England. Further south, the British West Indies were created in successive eras of colonial expansion. In the first phase from the 1600s, the islands of Barbados and Jamaica were settled as well as St Kitts, Nevis and Antigua. After the Seven Years War ended in 1763, Great Britain gained control of Grenada, Dominica, St Vincent and Tobago, whilst Trinidad, St Lucia and Demerara were added after victories in the Napoleonic and Revolutionary Wars. The third phase colonies of Berbice and Essequibo merged with Demerara to become British Guiana in 1831.
The integrated plantation was the economic foundation of this first British Empire. The system was established and refined on Barbados, which became the richest colony in the West Indies after colonisation in 1625. At first, the exportation of indentured servants – primarily vagrants, criminals and political and religious exiles from Scotland, England and Ireland – provided the tobacco and cotton plantations with a labour force. However, the planters eventually developed a sugar monoculture based on the labour from enslaved peoples imported from Africa. Although slavery had been practiced since c.1636, chattel slavery, an English concept, was given its first legal code in Barbados in 1661. Black slaves were classified as the property of the white master and were listed in plantation inventories next to cattle. In the longer term, the Barbados Act of 1661 introduced a new dimension of exploitation across the world; Jamaica and Antigua, South Carolina, Virginia and Maryland all adopted similar slave codes.
The sugar plantation itself was dominated by the masters’ large house which looked over the cane fields and windmill. The demands of sugar cultivation meant life for the enslaved labour force in the fields was often brutal and short. Sugar crops took eighteen months to mature after planting and the fields required constant weeding before eventual harvesting of the canes. The juice was extracted through an elaborate process of grinding in the mill and processing in boiling and curing houses. By-products, particularly molasses, were processed in the distillery to make rum. Much of the sugar was exported to Great Britain although the rum was sold locally, especially to North America before 1783. However after this period, and the American war, much of the rum was exported to Great Britain, and certainly there is a dramatic increase in imports. Thus, a forced system of labour based on class and eventually race maintained the production of the commodities in the New World which were then exported to the Great Britain.
Despite Scotland being effectively classed as a ‘foreign’ nation by the English Navigation Acts from 1660 and thus excluded from this trade with the West India colonies, there were definitely transatlantic traders based in Glasgow in this period. After visiting the Burgh town in 1656, Thomas Tucker, a Government Official, reported on the developing trade networks with Barbados. Although the earliest transatlantic runs were in the 1630s, Tucker’s Customs Report was the first reference to Glasgow’s long commercial connection with the New World. The city’s merchants soon developed a maritime infrastructure which facilitated large scale trade. In 1667, Port Glasgow, later the busiest port in Great Britain, was constructed to allow large sea-going vessels to dock. Small gabbart boats were then navigated up the shallow water to arrive at the area now known as the Broomielaw filled with the produce which had been landed further up the river. The river bed was later dredged which meant larger ships were able to leave from the Broomielaw harbour.
Thomas Tucker also noted the ‘mercantile genius of the people’ and there was a burgeoning urban economy based on manufactories that were either dependant on colonial imports or produced goods intended for the export market. Indeed, by 1700 there were four sugar refineries near the Trongate of Glasgow and the city’s first industrial fortunes were made by sugar merchants. Glasgow and her satellite ports, Port Glasgow and Greenock, also served as a departure point to the New World. In the seventeenth century, many emigrated to work for set periods known as indentures. Others were banished for life – “Barbadosed” – with contracts awarded to merchants in Glasgow such as Walter Gibson to transport Scots to the Caribbean. These waves of both forced and voluntary emigration added a Caledonian dimension to the English West Indies.
The Union of 1707 incorporated the English and Scottish parliaments and laid the foundations of the modern British state. The Union also removed the legal and political barriers which had prevented widespread Scottish involvement in Empire. Although there were limited Scottish triangular trade slave voyages, many Scots took full advantage of the opportunities presented by the plantation economies in North America and the West Indies. Indeed, many Scots travelled to the Caribbean in search of fortune. Some took up professional positions in the plantation economy such as doctors, book-keepers and overseers, whilst others became a type of colonial gentry. In Antigua for example, large sugar plantations were owned by the families Dunbar, Harvey, Grant, Young, Douglas and Maxwell families. There was also a Scottish contingent in St Kitts and Nevis and adventurers such as William McDowall and James Milliken became owners of large sugar plantations as well as the resident slaves. There was also a sustained Scottish migration to the West Indies during the period 1750-1800, especially from the Clyde ports. In order to undertake the colonial business, young men – sometimes brothers, cousins and nephews of merchants and planters – temporarily relocated to the sugar colonies. Around 20,000 young Scotsmen travelled to the region particularly to Grenada and St Vincent in the Windward Islands. However, Jamaica was the principal destination. In 1774, planter-historian Edward Long noted a disproportionate Scottish presence on Jamaica when he suggested a full one third of the white population were Scots or of Scottish descent, this is 6,000 out of 18,000 people. Other Scots on the make travelled to the frontier colonies of Trinidad, Tobago and British Guiana into the nineteenth century.
Scotland, then, has a long historical connection with the West Indies. However, this city, Glasgow, as the premier Atlantic trade hub [of the period], its colonial past is more commonly associated with the tobacco trade which was at its peak between 1740 and 1790. However, West India connections were the mainstay of the Scottish-Atlantic economy for around two hundred years after 1660. If viewed with this longer chronological lens, the fifty year tobacco monopoly pales into comparison. The exploitative relationship between Glasgow and the Caribbean shaped the regional economy and local society. Although they did not monopolise the trade in colonial commodities to the extent of their predecessors, the West India merchants and absentee planters of Glasgow – known the ‘sugar aristocracy’ – adopted the former commercial and social position of the ‘tobacco lords’. The merchants and planters imported sugar, rum and cotton and exported foodstuffs like herring as well as clothing. The integrated Atlantic economy stimulated the Industrial Revolution in Scotland as elite merchants, such as Archibald Smith of Jordanhill, invested in local manufactories and heavy industry such as cotton works and railways.
For many merchants in Glasgow, the West India trades allowed them to accumulate large personal fortunes. Indeed, some of these traders were the wealthiest of their time. They invested in townhouses and counting houses in the area now known as the Merchant City, as well as country residences in the surrounding regions. The mansions themselves were loaded with expensive furniture, paintings, silver plate, wine, liquors, bed and table linen and books. Grand feasts were hosted in these opulent residences; turtle imported from the Caribbean was on the menu as well as the famous Glasgow punch.
Male drinking followed the dinners and womenfolk were expected to leave the room when the punch bowl was introduced. The refreshment was poured into tumblers with a silver ladle and drank whilst the merchants celebrated the success of the commerce and the young men on which their fortunes were based. It seems to have been reserved for social occasions with others traders involved with the West Indies – the most opulent merchants did not regularly drink the punch instead preferring Madeira wine. This wine also had transatlantic connections. The island of Madeira was a popular stopover for ships on their way to the Caribbean and many Scots were resident there, and in the business of distributing the famous wine. Ships returning to Glasgow brought back regular supplies of this Madeira.
The preference for Madeira may not just have been down to a more refined palate. Medical commentators in nineteenth-century Glasgow perceptively established a connection with punch drinking and gout – a debilitating condition exacerbated by lead contaminated alcohol – which was no doubt a legacy of the distillation process in the Caribbean. In any case, the social consumption of alcohol at these feasts reinforced group cohesion and trust amongst business and political associates involved with the West India trades. Madeira and rum confirmed the groups’ transatlantic connections. The valuable silver bowls and ladles – and we see here an ornate, expensive example – they really projected the image of wealth and opulence.
The silver punch bowl discussed here then is symbolic of a global imperial system based on commerce, wealth and exploitation. Enslaved peoples on the sugar plantations were worked to death in order to grow and distil the produce which was sold as luxurious items to be consumed in Europe. Chattel slavery and the trade in the fruits of enslaved labour allowed special interests to live in luxury but it also powered the development of modern British capitalism.