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Published by EH.Net (May 2024).

Stephen Mullen. The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy: Scotland and Caribbean Slavery, 1775-1838. London: University of London Press, 2022. 340 pp. $120 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1909646773.

Reviewed for EH.Net by William A Wardle, former Principal of York St John University and James Watt College of Further and Higher Education.

 

This is a book that connects the local and the global in an impressive, scholarly manner. Its attraction is enhanced also by being in large part a Glasgwegian history of Glasgow. At face value, it sits within contemporary soul searching and angst about participation in and profit from slave commerce. As with other British cities, Glasgow has undertaken a civic audit of culpability, profit, and guilt. The city of Glasgow and its institutions have committed to transparency around the city’s participation in the slave trade and wider Atlantic commerce.

Mullen has been front and central to debates on Scottish involvement in the slave trade, including producing reports for the Glasgow City Council and Glasgow University. To his credit, Mullen leaves emotion to the side and provides an historical account that is grounded in research diligence. In other circumstances, we might have been anticipating a full-frontal attack on the immorality and iniquities of slave commerce in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, including demonising those Scots individuals fighting rearguard actions against the abolitionist movement. Rather than going too far in condemnation of a vile trade and exploitative plantation economies, there is a sense in which his analysis is too restrained and restricted. He might have gone further than simply reinforcing support for Eric Williams’ hypothesis in Capitalism and Slavery (1944).

This is an interesting and impressive monograph because of its methodology, depth, and research creativity. In this context, it is an exception to the recent record of Scottish historiography, which has been less than impressive, managing to co-join introspection and exaggerated claims about the impact of Scots on the modern world. Recent economic history of Scotland has produced claims of exceptional trajectories of growth, harmony, and economic development, disturbed, and dislocated by existential factors, usually Westminster-based. By contrast, this book links the local and global. It shows the impact on Scotland – or, at least, parts of it – of profits from slavery, plantations, and sugar but deploys this evidence to confirm support for an establishment theory. It eschews the temptations of revisionism, or even the circumstantial opportunity to subscribe to the new orthodoxies. Mullen is loyal to his ‘influences’, whether it be Eric Williams or Thomas Devine’s subsequent confirmation that Scotland’s economic growth was tied more strongly than that of England to the Atlantic system.

In the introduction, Mullen visits some ‘safe’ literature around divergence theory and core-periphery relations. He acknowledges that very positive effects on the metropolitan economy are the reciprocal of negative effects on colonised areas: Walter Rodney and Andre Gunder Frank meet Eric Williams. Participation in the counterfactual game of speculating whether the industrial revolution would have happened without slave and commodity trade profits sets up the author’s later evaluation of the disproportionate impact of Caribbean trade on the political economy of Glasgow. Mullen describes how Scotland had relatively slighter involvement in slave voyages, but exceptional benefit from subsequent commercial exploitation of opportunities. For these reasons, Glasgow and Scotland held out longer against abolitionist initiatives.

Mullen suggests that this book is distinctive in three respects.

The first is its methodology. Mullen says the book uniquely combines a set of linked studies of metropole and periphery. This is inaccurate, as it overlooks other key studies. Examples that come readily to mind are Manchester and cotton, Liverpool and palm oil. Significantly, it bypasses the seminal analysis and identification by Cain and Hopkins of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ and evaluating the role of the City of London and wider perspectives on British imperialism at different phases. As Mullen discusses the influence of the ‘sugar aristocracy’, it would have been intriguing to have the author’s view on how profits from sugar translated into gentry and gentlemanly capitalism. Just how convergent was Scotland? We are given the empirical detail, including chapter and verse on individual merchant families expanding their political influence, and undertaking cultural and philanthropic roles. But the author’s conclusion is something of a reversion to the broader sweep of Williams’ original interpretation. While Mullen need not have subscribed to ‘newer wave’ theories of support for imperialism, he has not taken the opportunity to either show the conformity of the Scottish case or, more radically, set out a new field theory or paradigm. Other Scottish historians, such as Murray Pittock (Scotland: The Global History, 2021) and Arthur Herman (How Scots Invented the Modern World, 2002), have made more grandiose claims based on much flimsier evidence.

The second respect in which Muller says the book is distinctive is in asking original research questions. Here we a faced with the fact that Mullen’s account of Scotland’s development has a focus on Glasgow, and an even more forensic emphasis on an elite making fortunes from the trade in sugar. From this case study, Mullen extrapolates on the continuing validity of the Williams’ hypothesis. In fact, Mullen attests that the history of Glasgow, sugar, and consequent economic growth are the ultimate evidential proof of the Williams theorem. Intriguingly, Williams had overlooked Glasgow as one of the metropoles demonstrating the link between slavery and the development of capitalism.

The third respect in which Muller claims distinction is the sheer scale of empirical research, which is indeed impressive. The book offers coverage of some 150 merchants in Glasgow and the West Indies. Mullen has been able to apply distinctive, new techniques to the history of probate, and records specific to Scotland, thereby providing fresh narrative on the destination of profit from sugar. The attention to biographical detail is remarkable.

A question arises about the narrowness of the case study by comparison with the generalised conclusion about the relationship between metropole and periphery. Mullen appears more comfortable and confident in the metropolitan context, perhaps explaining relative over-confidence in ascribing the development of under-development to asymmetrical core-periphery relationships.

Three chapters are dedicated to discussion of activity at the periphery. Mullen’s research methodology enables him to provide new evidence of the overseas experience and the relationship between periphery and metropole. In Jamaica, there is evidence of considerable capital flows to Scotland, with an exponential increase after 1800, contrary to received historiographical wisdom. Scots appeared to do disproportionately well in Jamaica but repatriated ‘profit’ to landed estates rather than to the emergent industries in Scotland.

In Grenada, again significant Scottish presence saw this expatriate group as quick to take advantage and missing few opportunities to promote themselves. Considerable wealth was repatriated to Scotland, and here Mullen is at odds with previous historiography.

Trinidad was important not just because of the number of Scots but also because of the visible presence of lesser merchants, the so-called ‘Trinidad people.’ Mullen is able to catalogue the experience of a number of less successful Scots, setting a context different to that of simple wealth generation and repatriation.

In respect of new answers, Mullen provides us with the evidence that:

 

This is a generously researched work promising a radical re-interpretation of Glasgow’s role in the Atlantic economy, from the origins of the Atlantic slave trade through to abolition. It set itself out as a different approach to the subject, combining analysis of metropole and periphery. It probably lacks analytical insight and pace on both theoretical fronts, and divergence theorising is stated rather than proven and convincing.

We do have extensive new information, but we remain within a theoretical framework developed in the 1940s. Mullen avoids the temptations of value judgements on morality and iniquity, and his conclusion that investment in Scotland from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries derived from Atlantic commerce is soundly based. Much of modern Glasgow was created from investment in that period, from architecture to industry, art to infrastructure. The application and display of this wealth are omnipresent, and Mullen raises awareness spectacularly. But whether there is popular understanding on such a scale as to justify the comment that ‘chattel slavery is a quotidian feature of life in modern Scotland’ is highly questionable.

 

Professor William Wardle is a former Principal of York St John University and James Watt College of Further and Higher Education. He has been a member of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and his bespoke consultancy engages internationally with institutions, agencies, and governments.

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