Glasgow's Sugar Aristocracy in the British-Atlantic World, 1776-1838

Primary Author or Creator:
Stephen Mullen
University of London Press
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"Mullen’s fundamental concern is the contribution made by Glasgow’s West India merchant community to economic change in Scotland. By extension, Mullen assesses how enslavement in the Caribbean impacted the Scottish economy. "

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"Glasgow was a node in an Atlantic-wide network through which people – free and enslaved – goods, capital and ideas flowed. According to Mullen’s new estimate, around 36,000 to 47,000 Scots travelled to the Caribbean between 1750 and 1834 (p.141). The Scots who went to the West Indies were overwhelmingly male. Their occupational backgrounds ranged from skilled artisans to well-educated professionals (the Scottish doctor was ubiquitous in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Caribbean). The promise of relatively high wages or the lure of economic and social advancement through involvement in plantation slavery enticed these young men to journey across the Atlantic. 

Accordingly, received wisdom among historians in this field is that Scots were primarily temporary migrants who returned home after enriching themselves in the Caribbean. Mullen calls this orthodoxy into question through illuminating case studies of Scotsmen in Jamaica, Grenada and Carriacou, and Trinidad. He highlights examples of Scots who stayed in the Caribbean for prolonged spells, thus bucking the trend of short stays followed by a return to Scotland.

Additionally, he suggests that high mortality rates and the inherent financial risks associated with involvement in the plantation economy ensured that only a small number of Scots acquired significant wealth in the Caribbean. Mullen’s analysis of Scottish planters in the Caribbean indicates they did not invest significantly in Scotland’s industrial activity. For Mullen, West India merchants in Glasgow rather than their Caribbean-based associates made the most discernible impact on Scottish economic development. 

The central argument that runs through the book is that this group of merchants – and the capital they accrued from their slavery-related business activities – played a prominent role in the move towards an industrialised economy in Scotland. It is an exaggeration (that Mullen does not make) to suggest that the Industrial Revolution would not have occurred without capital derived from enslavement.

As Mullen shows in his book, however, the proceeds of slavery still played a crucial facilitative role in the onset and progress of industrialisation in Scotland. This insight has important implications for Scottish economic history.

That said, The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy will appeal to an audience beyond readers interested only in the story of Scottish economic development. This book has a more profound significance. It forces its readers to confront more difficult truths about how Scots benefitted from the proceeds of enslavement. This excellent book is required reading for anyone interested in Scottish history and understanding Scotland."

Matthew Lee,