The Glasgow System and George Bogle – Liam Riordan


Courses that may find this source useful: Changing Britain

The University of Maine’s Dr Liam Riordan talks about the personal and familial relationships many Glaswegian and Scottish entrepreneurs employed when they expanded their ventures abroad, and he provides a detailed look at George Bogle during this period of exploitation and achievement.

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Section 1
Section 2
Section 3
Section 4

Section 1

Although this expanded geographic framework had begun earlier there is little question that the advantages secured by Union with England in 1707 were crucial to the Scottish and Glaswegian prominence first in the British Atlantic world of the eighteenth-century and then the British Empire of the nineteenth-century. Thus to the initial geographic factor we must add an awareness of how Glasgow’s rise was also embedded in the politics of British expansion. Glasgow’s emergence as a leading city wasn’t simply a matter geographic and political good fortune, it was also deeply and fundamentally rooted in economic processes with at least two essential qualities that must be highlighted.

irst the region’s rise was built on trade that imported raw materials grown in the Americas up the Clyde, and also exported consumer goods to Great Britain, Europe and indeed back to the Western hemisphere as well. There’s much more to say about this exchange of trade goods and the ways the different raw materials were processed and re-exported, but the key point is that large-scale trade, local manufacturing and even land holding in the greater Glasgow region were all deeply interlinked with one another.

The second economic element that was fundamental to the Glasgow system was the crucial role of financial credit in allowing its geographically ambitious exchange of goods to function. This was a liquid system, not just in that it rested upon overseas production and distribution, but also in the fluid ways the credit financed the system both at home and abroad.

The final general point to make about the Glasgow system is that its enormous geographic scale and economic novelty rested at the same time on an intensely personal social network of family, kin and intermarriage that bound generations together as they built Georgian Glasgow. Indeed the development of new ventures like tobacco plantations in Virginia, or sugar and cotton plantations in the West Indies with their exploitation of labour and seemingly limitless demand for credit to fund expansion, required that a man from Glasgow who could be trusted to oversee local accounts be on the ground to manage the system abroad. In the end, then, the geographic, political and economic features of the system were bound together by human relationships that have both a familial and also a legal dimension. The Glasgow system had a fundamental basis in Scottish law, for its trading ventures arose on the essential recognition of the business partnership as a separate legal entity that allowed leading merchants to pool resources and protect themselves from some of the risk involved in their speculative ventures.

The individuals who championed the New World of the Glasgow system arose from a relatively small social network of family and kin that was open to some new participants but that consolidated over time so that, as historian Tom Devine has noted, the Glasgow tobacco Lords were “ae massive kinship group of some eighteen dynasties by the 1770s”. If kin and community ties bound merchants to one another, the geographic and economic demands of the trade also meant that young men willing to serve a term of years abroad as sojourners also provided essential human capital that created the Glasgow system.

Section 2

For me, awareness of these systematic connections leads to a crucial point about how to understand the fragile balance of collaboration and exploitation that can be seen in most of the activities of the Glasgow system. While the exploitation of enslaved people as plantation labourers in this period was a foundation that must get direct attention, it is important to recognise that slavery was not simply an isolated extreme in the system but existed on a continuum where marriage, parent-child interaction, the extension of credit and merchant relationships with junior partners and factors who temporarily lived in various sites around the British Atlantic, also tested the often uncertain boundary between collaboration and exploitation. Oftentimes our understanding of this merchant system is derived from the letters from factors back home to the Home Office in Glasgow, usually in very respectful and deferential terms. But one letter from James Farley to his brother, who is considering entering the same path as his older brother, who had been a merchant in Kilmarnock, Virginia and Jamaica, gives us a bit of a sense of how some of these junior partners felt about their relationship with the larger business firms that they were a part of. James wrote to his brother from Kingston, Jamaica in August 1784 saying:

I can confess from what I have known of the principles of most of the Glasgow merchants in the tobacco trade, that they are not to be depended on as the interest of the smaller partners has generally been sacrificed to those of the principal partners of the house, and gratitude is a crime they can seldom be accused of.

In summary, the Glasgow system was built on overlapping and reinforcing geographic, political, economic, personal and legal factors that each had distinct characteristics arising from the particular circumstances of Glasgow’s expansion in the Georgian period. Why should we in the twenty-first-century care about the creation of this Glasgow system? Above all a closer look at this time and place may help us to understand some aspects of our own global capitalist economy in new ways, for surely the movement of labour, capital and goods across the large new terrain that remade Georgian Glasgow, represents a key moment of global expansion that still shapes our own day in profound ways. Because our own moment is often hard to evaluate due to the magnitude, novelty and overwhelming scope of our world, reflecting on globalisation today through a historical lens on the eighteenth-century when Glasgow first went global can be especially revealing.

Section 3

To only speak of the Glasgow system as a set of massive and interconnecting social forces however, is to avoid really grappling with the meaning of this system in human terms. Demographic, economic, geographic data of all sorts adjust the dimensions of change, but what of the meaning of these forces for individuals and how they responded to the opportunities and risks of the Georgian period when Glasgow flourished? One way to enter this more deeply is to start with a single portrait and then to explore how this individual allows us access to his era of exploitation and achievement, which contains echoes of our own globalising present with its promise and uncertainty.

The immediacy of surviving objects from the Georgian period can help us to enter that past world, and fascinates us both with how they suggest strong continuities with our current moment, as well as how they demonstrate remarkable changes over time. As Neil MacGregor, the Glasgow born director of the British Museum has observed objects have the power to “reveal whole societies and complex processes rather than individual events.” So how can the myriad of objects selected for the Kelvingrove Museum’s exhibit How Glasgow Flourished and made accessible online help us to enter the fluid world of the Glasgow system in the Georgian period?

What, for example, are we to make of the portrait of George Bogle of Daldowie? We know that he lived from 1700 to 1784, covering much of the duration of our period of historic interest; he travelled to the European continent in the late 1720s and took classes at Leiden University for two years; he was a learned man, maintained a considerable library, served as rector of the University of Glasgow, and wrote in some detail to one of the sons about how to read Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws. This undated portrait, by an anonymous artist, like so many portraits of great men of this era, makes Bogle seem formidable and somewhat old-fashioned which may in the end be rather misleading, for he was above all a careful and strategic merchant. The Glaswegian merchants of his era were especially important as colonial opportunists who helped to broaden the face of Empire beyond its metropolitan centre.

While the George Bogle represented in this portrait seems rather conservative, he was a bold innovator. Indeed the family’s relatively recent acquisition of the Daldowie estate at the start of the eighteenth century, and George’s significant efforts to build his country mansion, were all marks of how an experimental family fortune was put to traditional uses in its investment strategies.

So the image itself, like the suggestion of timeless ancestral connection to Daldowie, can be misleading. The Bogles were an old and well-established family in Glasgow and its environs, but George Bogle’s emergence as a leading merchant of the eighteenth-century was anything but traditional. Three generations of the Bogle family helped to build the expanded world of Georgian Glasgow. The father of the subject of our portrait had been a prominent Glasgow merchant in the 1680s and active in the Virginia tobacco trade since the mid-1690s, and thus George benefited from considerable family resources that predated his own leadership of the family business. As his portrait suggests George Bogle was a man to be reckoned with, and he moved decisively to protect his own economic interests. When his father fell ill in the mid-1730s George made a quick trip to Edinburgh to lobby legally to secure his own control of property in ways that risked censure by his own family members. In this same decade George Bogle helped place family members in the western Atlantic – his brother Matthew was in Virginia and they exchanged tobacco with Rotterdam merchants in this early period. Meanwhile, George’s brother-in-law William Sinclair struggled to succeed as a merchant in Kingston, Jamaica, writing to George in 1737 that there was “scarce a possibility of our trade being any worse. Times are so very bad that no young man could have settled in a more unlucky juncture.” He went on that he hoped by “industry and application to wrestle through all these difficulties and give satisfaction to those who are so good as to employ me.” He continued, “if I fail, God forbid, may it be laid on the misfortunes of bad markets and not any mismanagement in me.” Sinclair’s family would raise additional credit to assist their brother in Jamaica, though it’s clear that George Bogle would cut off his brother-in-law and arrange for other representation in Kingston.

The transatlantic trade connections that George Bogle maintained in the 1730s continued throughout the century, and by the early 1740s the Bogles were one of the top three tobacco firms in Glasgow according to historian Jacob Price. This prominence continued in various ways with the next generation, through Bogle’s three sons. His elder son Robert set up the mercantile firm of ‘Bogle and Scott Company’ in London in the mid-1750s, with John, the second of three sons, serving in Virginia as a factor to the new tobacco plantations in the Rappahannock River. Letters from brother Robert back to his brother John in Virginia indicates strong disagreement and disapproval of John’s hopes to set up a new partnership in Virginia and Robert made very clear that he and his father would not support John in this venture. John did not last long in Virginia but other family members would replace them and there was still a Bogle factor from the family working in Virginia as late as the summer of 1772. The Virginia tobacco venture thrived in the boom period of the 1750s and 1760s, but came to a crashing close in the early 1770s with what one historian has called “the greatest and most famous series of bankruptcies.” Robert Bogle, George’s second son in London tried to commit suicide as a result of the panic in his own loss of economic fortune and later wrote to one of his brothers about the experience of this economic downturn in the early 1770s. He explained:

The tenth of June 1772 was a day remarkable in Scotland. At this turn money matters were all of a sudden reversed, the most rigid diffidence and suspicion was established everywhere. There was a total overthrow of us altogether. It was impossible to command a single shilling on cash or any security. In short, the South Sea affair was a trifle to what has now happened.

Betrayed, destroyed, the London house of the firm and its principal partner Robert Bogle lived for several years at his Mount Craven plantation in Granada where he raised sugar and sought to rebuild the family’s fortune. He had returned to London by 1784 and seems to have succeeded and later sat in the family house in Daldowie. Brother John likewise was ruined by the economic downturn but managed to pay off his debt on instalments from 1770 to 1787.

Section 4

These examples I think are important to emphasise in part because we often look back to Georgian Glasgow as a time of tremendous wealth and success without being aware of the struggle, the hardship and the risk that were all so essential to how the Glasgow system operated in the eighteenth-century.

The final of George Bogle’s three sons, who I want to mention briefly today, was one who shared his father’s same given name and offers a final dramatic view of the changing contours of the Glasgow system. Young George had worked for the family in France in 1766, then as a clerk in a London firm of his eldest brother Robert in the 1760s, but then secured a post in the East India company and arrived in Calcutta in 1770. There he achieved some fame as the first British diplomat to Tibet which has been recorded in stunning portrait by the British painter in India Tilly Kettle in 1775 that shows George Bogle dressed as a local person meeting with the Panchen Lama in his palace in Tibet. Bogle’s service in the East Indies was a success on political, economic and personal terms. He established good relations with the Lama and was an effective diplomat, the money he made in India helped save the family estate of Daldowie from ruin and he had five children abroad with native women, three of whom returned to Britain to live the rest of their lives. Like many other young Scottish men who sought success abroad however, George Bogle was never to return to Scotland – he died in Calcutta in 1781, predeceasing his father by three years.

An enormous collection of Bogle family papers survives at the Glasgow city archives in the Mitchell Library that allows us to probe more deeply into the family and its business operations, and to place them in the context of the general Glasgow system of this era. While some of their experiences are, of course, unique to their specific lives, they can also serve us as our point of entry for understanding this world and, if we are fortunate, can also help us to understand our own uncertain place in an increasingly interconnected world that for all of its differences from Georgian Glasgow still echoes with similar possibilities and uncertainties and their related risks and opportunities. We would do well not to condescend toward or look down upon the earlier world as a simpler or easier time, for as the Bogles make plain it was filled with success and misfortune in ways that remind us of our shared place in the human endeavour.


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