When we think of planters, absentee slave owners, and West Indian merchants living in Britain in the late 1700s and early 1800s, I think we’re most likely to think of those living on vast country estates and in the major ports of London and Liverpool. While absentee planters and London’s West India Committee have received a great deal of attention from historians, Glasgow’s West India Association remains under-discussed. Historian Iain Whyte, however, has argued that contemporaries viewed Glasgow’s Association as the most powerful West Indian society outside London. With fairly detailed minutes and records of the Association available on microfilm from the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, one can catch a glimpse of the activities and interests of West Indian planters and merchants in Britain yet outside of London.
Glasgow West Indian merchants were wealthy, politically active, and influential, particularly prior to the Burgh Reform Act of 1833 which significantly widened the franchise. The first meeting of the Glasgow West India Association took place on 22 October 1807 at the Tontine Tavern in Glasgow. In attendance were approximately 20 planters and merchants with interests in the West Indies. At this first meeting they unanimously resolved: “That much inconvenience having been felt, and much injury sustained by the want of mutual co-operation in matters affecting the general interests of the Trade, it was an object of great importance that the different Planters and Merchants connected therewith in this Place should form themselves into a Public Association for the protection of their various rights, privileges and interests”. By 1808 the association had 28 company members and 43 individual members who all paid an annual subscription (25 guineas for company members and five for individuals).
Family and business ties connected many of the Association’s members over the years. The association also received support from the Glasgow Courier under the editorship of James MacQueen. West Indian planters and merchants in Glasgow were united in their opposition to emancipation and worked together to fight for compensation for absentees in Britain and slaveholding colonists.
Between 1807 and 1833 the Association addressed a number of issues of concern to its members. These included infrastructure, agricultural produce, slavery, legal issues, trade and taxation, committee work, and other general concerns of the West Indian interest. Their discussions specifically relating to colonial slavery revolved around the foreign slave trade, educating slaves, the African Institution, emancipation, potential problems following emancipation, private property, free labour (including ensuring the continuance of production and using other potential labourers), the slave population, the origins of colonial slavery, and compensation. When it came to organising and campaigning against emancipation and for support and compensation, the Association sent representatives and petitions to Parliament (records indicate that petitions were sent in 1826, 1828, 1830, and 1833), pleaded on behalf of the colonists, and paid £50 to have an agent in London’s West Indian Society.
Cooke, Anthony. ‘An Elite Revisited: Glasgow West India Merchants, 1783-1877’. Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, 32 (2012): 127-65.
Lambert, David. ‘The “Glasgow King of Billingsgate”: James MacQueen and an Atlantic Proslavery Network’. Slavery & Abolition, 29 (2008): 389-414.
Whyte, Iain. Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery, 1756-1838. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.