Scotland’s Dark History of Colonial Exploitation (Part 1)

By Stephen Ramsay

It’s not easy to make a solid mental connection between the Glasgow of today and the Glasgow of the colonial era, when money poured in from overseas imperial interests, and the Clyde bustled with the activity of clippers and steamers. It’s tempting to claim that they are two different places altogether – one is a hub of industrial activity, rich with economic progress and promise, awash with the flow of money, albeit deeply unequal in its distribution; the other is economically dysfunctional, struggling with the legacy of deindustrialisation, and the abysmally low life expectancies it helped bring about. The economist Richard Davies has commented that ‘no other city in the 20th century experienced a decline as severe’ as Glasgow’s.

Nonetheless, the connection is there. 19th century architecture is still abundant – the skyline itself is infused with the profits of slave labour and its economic legacy following on from abolition. Now, more than ever before, people in Glasgow are turning their attention towards this connection, most prominently in the debate around street names.

The surname of Andrew Buchanan, who made his fortunes from tobacco produced by slave labour, is plastered in huge silver letters atop the entrance to Buchanan Galleries, one of Glasgow city centre’s gleaming monuments to modern, globalised consumerism. This lies at the end of Buchanan Street, perpendicular from which runs Gordon Street, named after John Gordon. 

Turn east through the arches opposite the latter, and you will arrive at the Gallery of Modern Art, built originally as a private dwelling for William Cunninghame. Away from this stretches Ingram Street (Archibald Ingram), running parallel to Cochrane Street (Thomas Cochrane), which draws you firmly into the heart of the Merchant City. 

All of the above named men were prominent slave-owning tobacco merchants in the 18th century, consummate profiteers on the products of colonial slave labour. This area of the city was where they resided and transacted their business, though the tobacco itself came in through Port Glasgow and Greenock, as the Clyde had not been sufficiently dredged for city centre access until well into the 19th century. This circumstance was only one small step in the removal of Glaswegians from the reality of their booming economy’s grisly foundation, however.

In fact, Scotland as a whole would plead a kind of cultural innocence of slavery for a long time after the heyday of colonial trade. Only in recent years has a sympathetic ear been turned to critical accounts of Scotland’s role in the exploitation of black slave labour. That’s not to say it makes up for the dark past that this country has been a part of. 

Part 2 coming tomorrow…