Slavery and Glasgow
Tobacco Lords

Glasgow grew from a small town to a city of commerce through its dominance of the tobacco trade from the American colonies to Europe in the 18th century. Glasgow merchants had financed trading missions to the Chesapeake since 1707 and they began to dominate the tobacco trade after 1740. Surprisingly, only a small proportion of Glasgow’s merchants were regularly involved in the tobacco trade with the big three syndicates headed by William Cuninghame, Alexander Speirs and John Glassford.

The Glasgow merchants used a store system along the shores of the Chesapeake - Maryland and Virginia. The stores were looked after by Scottish factors who stockpiled hogsheads of tobacco in anticipation of the arrival of a company vessel, which ensured a rapid turnaround. The factors offered credit as well as consumer goods, plantation equipment and money in exchange for tobacco. Many of the bigger stores used slave labour to work on company farms which provided food for the storekeeper and his assistants and also to carry out general labouring tasks.

The Glasgow tobacco lords made their money from re-exporting tobacco through Scottish ports as well as by handling the domestic demand for tobacco. They invested their money in industry and land and many built townhouses in the centre of Glasgow, spreading westwards from Trongate.

The outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1775 sparked the beginning of the end of the tobacco age. The American planters were heavily in debt to the Glasgow merchants and collection of these debts was impossible during hostilities. Glasgow tobacco fleets were also seriously threatened by hostile action. In 1783 when peace came, the now independent United States could send tobacco direct to Europe, cutting out the need for the Glasgow merchants.

Staff in Glasgow City Archives and Special Collections are actively seeking records relating to Glasgow’s black history to add to their collections. Do you know of any organisations, businesses or individuals who may have records they would like to deposit? If you do and would like to discuss the potential deposit, please contact the Duty Archivist.