Abolition of the Slave Trade

Legacy of the slave trade

Engraving of Auchencruive park

Many Scottish merchants and doctors invested and worked in the slave trade and sugar plantations. Once they had made their fortune, they returned home to buy a country estate. Thus the legacy of the slave trade in Scotland is still with us - in buildings and street names.

This is Auchencruive House in Ayrshire, the home of Richard Oswald, one of Scotland's greatest slave traders. His wife, Mary Ramsay, was the daughter of the richest Scottish planter in Jamaica. They used their wealth made from slavery to extend this house and fill it with works of art.

Illustration of the slaving fort at Bance Island

Oswald's company owned a slaving fort on Bance Island on the Sierra Leone River.

They sent over 12,000 enslaved Africans to America. Many worked in the rice fields around Charleston.

The local people knew how they came by their wealth. Mary Oswald was particularly disliked for her hard attitude to money. One critic was the poet Robert Burns. He called her 'the Priestess of Mammon (the God of Riches)'.

He wrote this on her death:

Ode, sacred to the memory of Mrs Oswald of Auchencruive

Dweller in yon dungeon dark,
Hangman of creation, mark!
Who in widow-weeds appears,
Laden with unhonoured years,
Noosing with care a bursting purse,
Baited with many a deadly curse?

Colour portrait of Robert Burns

View the wither'd beldam's face
Can thy keen inspection trace
Aught of Humanity's sweet, melting grace?
Note that eye, 'tis rheum o'erflows-
Pity's flood there never rose.
See those hands, ne'er stretched to save,
Hands that took - but never gave.
Keeper of Mammon's iron chest,
Lo, there she goes, unpitied and unblest
She goes, but not to realms of everlasting rest!

At one point Burns himself was almost lured to the slave plantations by the high wages he could earn as a book keeper. Fortunately, his first book of poems was selling well so he decided not to go.

Image of Jamaica Street sign

Glasgow prospered from the wealth generated by slave labour, becoming the 'Second City of the Empire'. Echoes of the slave trade can be found today in the names of Glasgow streets: 'Glassford Street' and 'Buchanan Street' are named after tobacco merchants; 'Jamaica Street' and 'Virginia Street' are named after colonies.

After the abolition of the slave trade, Scottish activists such as Jane Smeal and Eliza Wigham campaigned against slavery. In 1833 around 162,000 women signed a petition in Edinburgh calling for an end to slavery.


Picture credits

Robert Burns, (1759 - 1796) poet by Alexander Nasmyth. Scottish National Portrait Gallery.