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Stephen Mullen. Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy: Scotland and Caribbean Slavery 1775–1838

Andy Cabot
Bibliographical reference

Stephen Mullen. Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy: Scotland and Caribbean Slavery 1775–1838, London, University of London Press, 2022, 340 p. ISBN: 9781909646780.

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1In this study of Glasgow West India merchants and their firms which covers nearly the entire span of the Age of Revolution, Stephen Mullen delivers a remarkable work of history that highlights the importance of the Atlantic slavery economy on Glasgow and Scotland more broadly during a period long considered as one of “decline” by British historians since Eric Williams’ landmark Capitalism and Slavery (1944).

2The monograph builds on the 2015 dissertation by Mullen, as well as the several academic articles he has published since then. It is inspired by – and, as we shall see, partly critical of – historians such as T.M. Devine, Douglas Hamilton or, more recently, David Alston. With the present study, Mullen places himself as part of this group of historians who have done much to uncover Scotland’s multifaceted connections to Atlantic slavery during the early modern period.

3The book’s introduction is a model of historiographical synthesis. Mullen first explains that the main intention of his study is to attempt answering the question of whether or not Glasgow West India merchants were still relevant economically during the first half of the nineteenth century. This question is addressed mainly to the influential Scottish-based historiography on the eighteenth-century Scottish tobacco lords, a group of merchants who were largely involved in transatlantic trade with the Chesapeake colonies in North America until the American Revolution. The author explains that the existing Scottish historiography – most notably T.M. Devine’s Tobacco Lords published in 1975 – on tobacco merchant firms in the eighteenth century has cast a shadow over the otherwise successful but long ignored West India commercial firms in Glasgow that succeeded them. He challenges this view and wishes to demonstrate that West India trade and associated firms in Glasgow still had a large impact on the city’s local economy in the nineteenth century, which in turn helped shape its wider economic and industrial development during the same period.

4Although he clearly acknowledges the large number of studies in Britain which have positively transformed the scholarship on the significant impact of Atlantic slavery on the economic development of Britain – even after the 1833 Abolition Act –, Mullen’s study clearly states how it chooses to engage with this vast scholarship. Indeed, his “focused, regional approach” (p.14) centred on Glasgow is original as it seeks to move beyond the recent research on British slaveowners – exemplified by the Legacies of British Slavery’s database of British slaveowners – to demonstrate how slavery’s economy could affect a particular European locale in the nineteenth century. To address what he sees as the shortcomings of studies solely based on one British colony or one set of activity – slave-trading being the dominant example – in one andy cabot2024-05-07T14:19:00accity to explain how Atlantic slavery impacted British society and economy, Mullen attempts what he considers “an examination of metropole and colony in a single analytical frame, showing the making of each by the other.” (p.25) Thus, this approach suggests a simultaneous challenge to Williams’ argument about West India economic decline in the nineteenth century, while also validating the Trinidadian’s view that slavery-related wealth and activities largely shaped the economic and industrial development of Britain during the same period.

5To demonstrate how Glasgow West India merchants could largely impact the economic development of a city and its associated hinterland, the study relies on a group of 150 individuals who were directly involved in one of the port’s West India commercial firms between 1775 and 1838. This list was assembled through the records of two major clubs: the short-lived West India Club (1787–91) and the Glasgow West India Association, established in 1807 and which rapidly became a landmark pro-slavery lobby in Britain. Personal and economic data concerning this group of individuals and their various Caribbean-related business activities are then subsequently presented and mobilized in the book’s different chapters.

6In Chapter 1, Mullen introduces this group of 150 individuals by providing personal information on some of its leading members, as well as a broad social and economic portrait of the group. He also includes the full list of said individuals, along with all the relevant archival references, in a ten-page appendix following the book’s conclusion. Chapter 2 analyses the commercial organization of some of the most important Glasgow West India firms in the nineteenth century, along with their credit practices and connections with Scottish banking. Chapter 3 proposes a case study of two firms, Leitch & Smith and Jas. & Arch. Smith & Co. that were involved in Jamaica and Grenada throughout the nineteenth century. Chapter 4 delves into the migration and recruitment patterns of Scots who crossed the Atlantic to settle, work and trade in the British Caribbean colonies. Chapters 5, 6 and 7 focus on Jamaica, Grenada and Trinidad respectively through the inventory records left at the time of death by Scottish individuals involved in those colonies. Chapter 8 again investigates the wealth generated and transmitted through generations by the West India Scots, as it tries to show how it was used, invested and speculated upon in Scotland and beyond long after the abolition of slavery and the economic decline of British Caribbean colonies.

7Several critical findings in the book deserve particular attention from historians working on the economic weight of Atlantic slavery on European locales. In Chapter 2 for example, Mullen engages in a detailed discussion of the credit patterns and practices of Glasgow West Indian merchants through the analysis of 105 confirmation inventories left at the time of their death between 1800 and 1903. These inventories showed that outstanding credits represented £ 415, 000 – or 12% of the total wealth left by this group. As the rest of the chapter argues, some 27% of this latter sum had been loaned to other Glasgow West India firms. Senior partners in the most successful commercial houses acted as banks with other firms, with those sharing relatives and close friends among their partners being heavily favoured for these loans. Mullen then goes on to show that these generous credit lines were secured through “collateral” investments on landed estates or urban property. He finally explores the ways in which West Indian firms were often able to negotiate loans with leading financial institutions in Scotland like the Glasgow Royal Bank. Here, the book makes a convincing and richly textured argument about how “colonial capital was recycled” (p.74) within various sectors of Scottish society which “became financially complicit with the integrated West India economy and received income from Caribbean slavery that they would otherwise have had no direct connection to.” (p.77)

8From Chapters 5 to 7, the author lays out a persuasive case against the idea that the West India plantocracy was in decline during the first half of the nineteenth century. To do so, he relies again on the inventories first discussed in Chapter 2 to discuss how Scottish individuals – ranging from successful planters to individuals of more modest means – were able to produce, earn and eventually repatriate wealth first acquired in the different British Caribbean colonies, back to Scotland. A group of 90 Scots who died in Jamaica between 1794 and 1857 and left a total of £ 701, 506 is surveyed in Chapter 5, which allows Mullen to demonstrate the wide inequalities within this group : where a small group of 16 individuals left sums of £ 10, 000 or more on average – or 80% of the assets surveyed in Chapter 5 –, the rest of the sample only concentrated about 20% of the remaining assets. If they were Scottish individuals who clearly became very wealthy through their various dealings in Jamaica, Mullen nevertheless insists on the point that most Scots with economic interests in the island were of “small-to-medium sized fortunes” (171). Regardless of their level of wealth, these people were quite skilled in finding ways to repatriate parts of their wealth to Scotland. They did so by relying on bills of exchange to be drawn upon the Glasgow West India houses, or through investments in government securities and financial credits. Similarly to Chapter 2, the book sharply argues that the ultimate horizon for many Scots who owned land and property in the Caribbean was to eventually acquire land or urban property in Scotland. Of the Jamaican group analysed by Mullen, only 15% did invest in such property, but they were successful at it. These conclusions hold true for Scots who died in Grenada and Trinidad in Chapters 6 and 7, although it is often observed that those who had business interests in these islands were less rich than their Jamaican counterparts. To conclude this investigation of Scottish inventories, the author notes that Scots in the Caribbean were “in general, exceptions to Eric Williams’ vision of a plantation economy in ‘decline’.” (p.180)

9These forceful interpretations of Scots’ economic activities in the British Caribbean are based on a carefully presented research methodology. Contrary to previous studies by Anthony Cooke or Allan Karras which Mullen seeks to thoroughly reevaluate (pp. 23-24, p.53, p. 163), the statistical evidence examined in the book points to modest yet significant contributions to the current research on Scotland and Britain’s persistent connections to the Atlantic slavery economy during the nineteenth century. It precisely shows the extent to which members of the 1807 Glasgow West India Association became active and “disproportionately powerful in the national pro-slavery movement […] up to emancipation in 1834.” It also provides an acute description of how Scots channelled the wealth they had accumulated in the Caribbean back to Scotland and offers solid conclusions on how it was used and invested once returned “home”.

10Mullen’s Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy is a meticulously researched book centred around a dataset of 150 Glasgow individuals who profited to varying degrees from the Atlantic slavery economy during the nineteenth century. One quality that stands out in this monograph is its ability to make accessible the complicated and dense set of data collected by its author. The book reads more like a detailed social and economic portrait of a merchant community in Western Scotland, Britain and the Caribbean, than a more traditional work of economic history relying mainly on statistics. Naturally, the book has limitations in terms of the data it presents, which the author readily admits in Chapter 5 where he explains that inventories left out much in terms of data concerning individuals: the estates they may have owned, or their remaining debts at the time of death. Therefore, inventories do not necessarily paint the most precise picture of all the Scots who had business activities in or with the Caribbean. This “omission” is however plainly acknowledged by the author, and does not invalidate his larger argument about the ability of Scots to amass and repatriate wealth earned in the Caribbean during the period understudy.

11This stimulating monograph will be of special interest to those interested in Scotland during the Age of Revolutions, and Scots’ now well-recognized role in the British imperial apparatus of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is also a vivid contribution to larger historiographical debates on the legacies of slavery in Britain that will fuel conversations about the extent to which slavery-related money found its way into present-day financial institutions and contributed to urban infrastructures and landmarks. It also continues to bring illuminating details on the old but persistent debates on the links between slavery’s economy and capitalism during the nineteenth century, with Mullen asserting that the colonial wealth reaped by Scots from the Caribbean plantation economy had a substantial impact on the economic development of a city like Glasgow. This research particularly shows that the preservation and reinvestment of this wealth in Glasgow and Scotland during the nineteenth century had been both largely underestimated, but cannot, considering the existing research, be considered as a decisive factor in Scotland’s transition to an industrial economy during the nineteenth century.

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Electronic reference

Andy Cabot, Stephen Mullen. Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy: Scotland and Caribbean Slavery 1775–1838Miranda [Online], 29 | 2024, Online since 19 April 2024, connection on 22 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Andy Cabot

Docteur en histoire du monde Anglophone
Chercheur associé au LARCA - Université Paris Cité

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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