Slavery in Scotland – John Cairns

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Courses that may find this source useful: The Atlantic Slave Trade, Changing Britain

Professor John Cairns examines the role slaves played in Georgian Glasgow through the examination of runaway slave adverts. He challenges the opinion that slaves were just page boys in Scotland and provides an examination of ‘Bob’, a Native American Slave in Glasgow.

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Section 1
Section 2
Section 3

Section 1

This talk on slaves in Scotland is based around four newspaper advertisements. They are from eighteenth-century newspapers called the Glasgow Courant and the Glasgow Journal. Two are for the sale of young men – almost certainly slaves of African descent in 1755 and 1771 – and two are for the return of runaways described as a “black boy” (in 1758) and “a stout Negroe man” (in 1766). A reward is offered for help in reacquiring the runaways. Slavery is undisguised and not obscured.

Because we are here focused on Georgian Glasgow, these advertisements are from Glasgow newspapers: but many more such advertisements may be found in the Edinburgh newspapers. Between 1701 and 1778, the year the Scottish courts decided one could not be held as a slave in Scotland, it is possible to trace about 40 runaways of African or Indian origin advertised for in the Scottish newspapers. Most of whom are very clearly held as slaves. Ten individuals – all of African origin – are offered for sale in the newspapers. From various sources, I can count nearly 100 men or women of African or Indian descent in Scotland in these near eighty years: there will have been far more. There are no reliable statistics, however. But it is clear that that the numbers increased after 1750. Further, as the century wore on, slaves from India increasingly appeared in Scotland.

The presence of slaves in Georgian Glasgow is not in any way remarkable: they are found throughout Scotland. Research at UCL has recently shown that, of all the peoples of the British Isles, the Scots were disproportionately owners of slaves in the colonies.

The conventional image – and I use the term “image” advisedly – is of slaves in Britain acting as pageboys and footmen, as very obvious luxury objects of display, as in the well-known portrait of the Glassford family discussed by Sir Tom Devine; but it is much more complicated than that. Slaves can be found carrying out all sorts of tasks in eighteenth-century Scotland; close to Glasgow, one can find one, Jamie, being trained as a wright in Beith, while another, Cupid, is by trade a cooper in Greenock. It is important to remember that coopers made barrels, a vital trade in a commercial centre, as goods were transported in barrels in the eighteenth century.

One of our advertisements mentions that the slave offered for sale can use the “whip saw extremely well”. This was a type of saw used by two workers. He was thus an artisan skilled in the use of, in fact, a rather difficult tool, a skill useful, as the advertisement mentions, in the West Indies.

Section 2

It is important to mention that neither Port Glasgow nor Greenock were slave-trading ports of the traditional type of triangular trade (though there were such journeys). But slaves nonetheless could be imported: for example, John Watt, the father of James Watt the engineer, dealt in slaves to some extent, and he can be found importing one into Glasgow for a client with other merchants involved in the affair.

The presence of slaves in Glasgow and its environs must have been very obvious: this is because of the racial nature of slavery in the British Empire. Of course, not everyone of African or Indian origin in Georgian Glasgow would have been a slave. It is worth noting that one of our four advertisements, of December 1766, is for a runaway “Negroe man” aged 19 from near Alloa, who has made for Glasgow, where he is described as “lurking about this town”. That he had made for Glasgow is instructive: it suggests that there may have been enough individuals of African origin in the Dear Green Place that he would not stand out, as well as the possibility of his getting abroad by ship – note the anxiety expressed in the advertisement that no one “presume to carry him off the country” or indeed conceal him. A few years later another runaway from Edinburgh was thought possibly to be making for Glasgow. Indeed it’s important to remember that many men of African and Indian descent were sailors on both merchant and naval vessels at this period. Failing further evidence, one hesitates to suggest, however, that there was a black community in Glasgow or anything approaching it.

But that the burgesses and indwellers of Glasgow had slaves – not just Africans – in their presence would have been very obvious to anyone from the newspapers. I shall give some examples:

Thus a fifteen-year old “Negro Boy” owned by the important Glasgow merchant William Crawfurd jr ran away in 1746, and was advertised for in the newspapers.

Our advertisements show that a “Black Negroe Boy” was offered for sale in the Glasgow Courant in 1755. We also have that advertisement of 1771 from the Glasgow Journal offering a “Black Boy” for sale, the contact being a lawyer in Greenock. There were more such advertisements in the Edinburgh papers, which Glaswegians would have read in the coffeehouses and elsewhere.

Advertisements for runaways often made it clear the individual sought was a slave; offering a human being for sale speaks for itself.

I suspect that for most Glaswegians of this era the thought of slavery was normal and uncontested; it was a fact of life in the colonies with which they were much engaged, as the discussions of sugar and tobacco by Dr Mullen and Sir Tom Devine have already shown; the presence of enslaved Africans among them merely a corollary of that uncontested normality.

It is particularly telling that in 1720 an advertisement appeared in an Edinburgh newspaper (there were none regularly printed in Glasgow until the 1740s) stating that a “strolling negro” had been taken up. He was assumed to be a slave. The contact to get the man back was Andrew Ramsay, a noted merchant and future Lord Provost of Glasgow. He proposed to “dispose” of the man if he was left unclaimed: one assumes sell him into slavery in the West Indies.

Section 3

Slaves within the city of Glasgow will have carried out a whole variety of tasks; but the information is slight.

But there is one individual of whom we do have some knowledge. This is because, over two years from August 1764 to August 1766, he kept running away. Known as Bob, he was both typical and untypical. His age was uncertain. In the four advertisements over the two years, he was consistently described as aged fourteen or looking as if he were about fourteen (once he was described as thirteen).

The first three advertisements describe him as “Indian”; the fourth, however, describes him as a “North American Indian Boy”. This can only mean that he was a Native American. Supporting this is the description of him as “tawny coloured” and as “of a very tawny complexion; stout made, broad, fat faced, black eyed with bristly back hair in his head”. His skin was once compared to that of an adder. He was evidently very recognizable as he had slits in his ears, while one of his eyelashes was white.

I should add that it was only later that the description of Native Americans as “red” came to be used; but describing them as “tawny” was common – the identification of Bob’s ethnicity is certain.

How Bob ended up in Glasgow is an interesting question. The first advertisement describes him as scarce speaking “any English, but some little French”. Two years later, he still spoke “English very imperfectly”. That he spoke French is suggestive. There was an extensive French and Native American trade in enslaved Native Americans over North America and the Caribbean. The dates of 1764 to 1766 are also suggestive; France had recently lost all her North American colonies to Britain, starting with the conquest of Quebec in 1759 through to the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Bob presumably had been acquired in this period of change and disruption, and brought to Glasgow, whether from a former French Caribbean island or mainland North America.

It would be interesting to know who Bob’s master was; but there is no clue.

Three advertisements call for anyone apprehending him to contact the publisher of the paper, the Edinburgh Evening Courant, to receive their reward and expenses. The final advertisement states that anyone seeking the reward was to apply to Claud Marshall, Writer in Glasgow. Marshall was a successful and well-connected Glasgow lawyer of the period, later Dean of the Faculty of Procurators, whose family held a number of legal offices in Glasgow. He was a leading practitioner who would have been a familiar figure in Glasgow society.

There is no indication of in what kind of activity Bob was employed. He was certainly not wearing any kind of livery, and was often rather poorly dressed, so that in one advertisement his breeches were described as “much worn” and his hat as “much cut”. In only one episode of absconding was he wearing shoes; he was normally barefoot. Sometimes he was also barelegged; and once “the fore parts of his legs” were described as “sore”. He was not a servant for display, and all this suggests he was carrying out some fairly menial task for his master.

The story of Bob is worth recounting. It is untypical only because of his ethnicity. Typically, he had been given a new name. Like many enslaved servants he was young, male, and very unhappy.

His story also shows that many prominent men, such as Claud Marshall, were willing to uphold slavery publicly through being a contact. The advertisements never say that he is enslaved; but I think it is very likely that he was – it is very difficult otherwise to account for the presence in Glasgow of an adolescent Native American who spoke no English but a little French.

Of course, at the same time as Bob was running away from his master, at the college of Glasgow on the High Street, Adam Smith and his pupil John Millar were presenting arguments against plantation slavery on both moral and economic grounds; but one suspects that in 1760s Glasgow, they were essentially lone voices crying in the wilderness.

Much of what went on in Georgian Glasgow was founded on the development of trade with the North American and Caribbean colonies. Much of this was in products – tobacco and sugar – produced by the labour of slaves. The connections of Scotland and Glasgow in particular mean that it is no surprise that slaves ended up in Glasgow, and that Glaswegians accepted their presence as part of the regular scene. The advertisements show these links clearly: they demonstrate Glasgow’s transatlantic and global trade. But to challenge slavery in Scotland was potentially to threaten it in the colonies; and Georgian Glasgow was partly let flourish on the labour of colonial slaves.

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