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Is Greenock’s ‘Sugar Shed’ to become the museum of slavery in Scotland?


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Ships and sugar had been for 250 years the foundations of Greenock’s prosperity. However one other phrase beginning with S can also be intertwined with the city’s fortunes.

One MSP thinks a brand new nationwide museum acknowledging Scotland’s historic hyperlinks with slavery ought to be created there. However why Greenock?

The Triangular Commerce

Within the 18th and 19th Centuries Greenock and close by Port Glasgow had been Scotland’s gateway to a profitable in commerce in sugar, tobacco, rum – and typically people.

As in Glasgow, these hyperlinks are nonetheless mirrored in avenue names – Tobago Avenue, Jamaica Avenue, Antigua Avenue, Virginia Avenue.

Fortunes had been made and the retailers loved years of prosperity but it surely got here at a horrible value.

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McLean Museum and Artwork Gallery

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This engraving from the 1760s reveals the tobacco ships docked at Port Glasgow

Slavery existed in Africa earlier than the Europeans got here however the colonisation of the Caribbean islands opened up a darkish new chapter.

When, in 1562, the English sailor Captain John Hawkins captured 300 Africans and offered them within the “Americas” he made a lot cash others had been fast to observe.

At first the London-based Royal African Firm had a monopoly on this sinister cargo however different cities, notably Bristol and Liverpool, lobbied efficiently to get entangled.

Then, in 1707, the Act of Union paved the way in which for Scottish ships to hitch what turned often known as The Triangular Commerce.

The primary stage of the voyage took them to West Africa, carrying items akin to glass, textiles, steel or weapons that may very well be exchanged for captured Africans.

All alongside the coast had been “slave forts” the place captives – taken there normally by African middle-men – had been stripped and chained, able to be traded.

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Slave forts like this one in Senegal made it simple for ships to choose up their human cargo

The following stage of the journey – the center passage – was brutal for the human cargo, crammed into tiny areas within the maintain for months, typically overwhelmed, branded or sexually abused by the crew. Based on some estimates a fifth of slaves died at sea, many taking their very own lives in despair.

There have been earnings to be made on either side of the triangle. Within the 18th Century a “robust and ready” slave may promote for greater than £100 – that is £11,000 in in the present day’s cash. Younger ladies had been valued as a result of they might produce extra slaves.

The ultimate leg of the journey noticed the ships return to Scotland laden with extra excessive revenue items akin to sugar, rum and tobacco.

You may additionally be inquisitive about:

  • The commercial large that turned Scotland’s Covid capital
  • The Scottish streets and monuments constructed on the slave commerce

Whereas the numbers of Scottish slave ships formally recorded as crusing from Greenock and Port Glasgow are small by comparability with Liverpool or Bristol, Scots had been concerned in different methods.

A fifth of masters on slaving voyages from Liverpool are believed to have been Scottish and Scots performed a distinguished position in lots of England-based slaving enterprises.

On Bunce Island, a fortified outpost on the mouth of the Sierra Leone River, a customer within the 1770s described white males enjoying golf attended by African caddies in tartan loincloths.

The plantations had been additionally seen as locations to develop into wealthy, engaging hundreds of Scots to the Caribbean in an try to make their fortune.

By the early 19th Century a 3rd of the plantations in Trinidad, the world’s largest sugar producer, are believed to have been Scottish-owned.

The earnings available from transporting slaves had been quickly dwarfed by the riches flowing from the commodities they produced.

Proximity to the North Atlantic Commerce Winds gave Scottish ships an enormous benefit when it got here to fetching tobacco from Virginia’s plantations.

Earlier than the Clyde was deepened, permitting huge ships into the center of Glasgow itself, Port Glasgow grew into one of many world’s busiest tobacco ports.

James Watt – a fame beneath the highlight

Greenock’s most well-known son is James Watt, whose improved steam engine was a defining improvement of the Industrial Revolution.

However in recent times, the fame of Scotland’s greatest recognized engineer has been re-examined, with some historians suggesting the Watt household each benefited from and took part within the commerce in people.

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James Watt is revered because the inventor of the trendy steam engine, however his household benefited from buying and selling items produced by slavery

Two years in the past a report from Glasgow College – which has an engineering faculty named after James Watt – described the inventor’s father as a “West India service provider and slave dealer who supported Watt in his profession”.

Caribbean planters had been additionally vital customers of Watt’s steam engines, utilizing them to extract extra juice from the sugar cane.

In 1791 Watt cancelled an order for a steam engine from a French firm in what’s now Haiti, describing the transatlantic slave commerce as “disgraceful to humanity”, and arguing for its gradual abolition by “prudent” measures.

However as a youthful man – earlier than the anti-slavery motion gathered momentum – there’s proof Watt was himself concerned in bringing a younger boy named Frederick, in all probability a slave, from the Caribbean to Greenock, on his technique to serve in a rustic home in Moray.

What is definite is that Watt’s household, like hundreds of others all through Scotland, profited handsomely from the commerce in items produced by slaves.

The Sugar Shed

Slavery was abolished within the British Empire years earlier than Greenock’s first business sugar refinery was established in 1850.

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However the legacy of slavery endured, the descendants of slaves offering a budget labour for imports.

In Virginia greater than 500,000 individuals had been nonetheless enslaved however American independence had put the brakes on the tobacco commerce.

Sugar, although, was a rising enterprise alternative. Inside twenty years Greenock had 14 refineries, with 400 ships a yr arriving from the Caribbean.

The A-listed Sugar Shed, a cavernous warehouse now standing empty beside Greenock’s James Watt Dock, is a dilapidated monument to the commerce that sprang from the labour of plantation employees.

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Greenock’s “Sugar Shed” has been prompt as the positioning for a museum chronicling Scotland’s relationship with slavery

MSP for Greenock and Inverclyde Stuart McMillan thinks the Black Lives Matter motion underlines the necessity to “personal our previous”.

He argues the Sugar Shed is the best location for a nationwide “museum of human rights”, highlighting not simply slavery but additionally different historic injustices such because the Highland Clearances.

“Greenock was the departure level for greater than 600,000 individuals leaving to go to the New World,” he defined.

“By way of the Highland Clearances, many folks left the Highlands and got here and settled on this a part of Scotland… only a few individuals know in regards to the Highland Clearances however that is a little bit of the story that may be informed.”

A waterfront redevelopment incorporating a museum like that seen in Dundee, he says, may assist reinvigorate an space which these days has a few of the highest deprivation ranges within the nation.

However the concept of bringing collectively the Highland Clearances and chattel slavery – the place people had been legally owned as property – in a single establishment has its critics.

Fellow SNP politician, Glasgow councillor Graham Campbell, thinks such “huge historic occasions” deserve their very own devoted museums and should not be “clubbed collectively”.

He suggests a multi-site museum mannequin, just like the Tate or the V&A which operates in each London and Dundee – however with Glasgow on the centre.

“The epicentre must be in Glasgow as a result of this was the primary metropolis which benefited from it,” he argues.

Whereas Black Lives Matter has given impetus to longstanding requires such a museum, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown up new obstacles, with a lot of Scotland’s museums going through monetary challenges.

However the UK at present has solely devoted slavery museum – the Worldwide Slavery Museum in Liverpool – and whereas doable places could also be debated, campaigners are united within the conviction that this facet of Scotland’s historical past wants better recognition.

“This is part of Scotland’s story that must be informed,” says Stuart McMillan.

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