As Tom Devine has recently emphasised, the role of Scots in the slave trade has largely been ignored in traditional scholarship—a result too of the fact that prominent eighteenth-century Scots, including some of the leading thinkers of the Enlightenment, were opposed to it. For David Hume, slavery was ‘more cruel and oppressive than any civil subjection whatsoever’, while Adam Smith wrote about the destructive effects of slavery in his The Wealth of Nations. Another reason for the neglect of the Scots’ participation in the slave trade lies in the relative unimportance of Scottish ports in the trade: the circular slave trade was concentrated in the ports of Bristol, Liverpool and London—ports already well-established in the trade with Africa, and specializing in the slave trade. As a result, there was little of a market for Scottish ports to enter, providing one reason why the number of ships trading in slaves leaving Scottish ports was low, with an estimated total of 4,500 slaves embarked. The opposition to slavery in Scotland was another factor, with much of the existing scholarship focused, in fact, on the role Scots played in slavery’s abolition.
Yet despite this opposition, and while the Scots were not involved in the direct trading of slaves at a significant level in Scotland itself, they nonetheless played an important role in the trade. Scottish merchants and agents based at English ports were involved, with as many as one in ten traders in London who traded with Africa in the mid-eighteenth century being Scottish. In Bristol too there was a contingent of Scottish merchants, while at least five Scots were responsible for the management of Liverpool slaving firms. Scots acted as managers of the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa, and private traders also left their mark, embarking on their own slaving expeditions. One of these private traders was Robert Gordon from Moray who, between 1745 and 1769, sent out 12 ships on 18 different expeditions from Bristol, concentrating primarily on Cape Coast Castle, Annamaboe and Angola. Further to such slaving expeditions, Scots were also working at Company forts on the west African coast, especially as overseers and surgeons: ethnicity and patronage played an important role in bringing out these Scots to slave trading forts.
Beyond the influence of Scots channelled through the Company, Scottish trading consortia were active in Africa itself, shaping the trade and trading practices directly. In the mid-eighteenth century, one such consortium was formed between five Scots, namely Richard Oswald, Augustus Boyd and his son John Boyd, Alexander Grant, and John Mill; an Englishman, John Sargent, was also brought on board. Together they bought a slave trading ‘castle’ or factory on the Windward Coast near the mouth of the Sierra Leone River—an area abundant in natural resources and slaves. The timing of the purchase was crucial, with the consortium buying the fort at a time in the mid-eighteenth century when the demand for sugar was outstripping supply: new plantations were set up in the West Indies at an increasing rate, and these required slave labour in larger numbers than ever before. The consortium capitalised on this demand, successfully developing, first, the castle’s military defences, and then its commercial facilities. Blocks of houses were built to give space to visiting traders wishing to display their merchandise, and rooms for factory agents meeting African chiefs were constructed, as were facilities in which those taken captive could be held before the so-called Middle Passage. With the demand for slaves ever-increasing, however, even these extended facilities were not sufficient. Hence the proprietors of the fort pushed even further inland, establishing out-factories there; further expansion of the main fort took place under the management of John Aird, another Scot and the principal agent of the factory. Nine out of the 13 agents of the factory were of Scottish descent.
The example of this partnership of Scots trading in slaves highlights the ways in which Scots were engaged in the slave trade in Africa itself, actively contributing to the alteration of the human landscape in Africa, as well as influencing slave trading practices. These Scots, like merchants and agents from other countries, benefited from the demand for slaves, making good business.
For more on the Scots in Africa, see chapter 12 in The Scottish Diaspora.