Behind the Scenes - Glasgow’s Black History

Glasgow's Black History

People Make Glasgow is the official slogan of the city, representing the confidence, pride and boldness of those who populate the city. However, did you ever wonder how Glasgow earned its status as one of the most prominent port cities, leading to the title of the “Second City of the British Empire” in the 19th century? Who are the less mentioned People who played a weighty role in the city’s success? Here we discuss Glasgow’s Black History.

Trading - Glasgow’s Black History

Starting with the Acts of Union in 1707, when Scotland extended its trade routes with the markets of the British Empire and joined the “triangular trade” (Britain, West of Africa and America). The trade turned people working on the plantations of tobacco and sugar into commodities, also known as the “slave trade voyages”. How did this operation work though? Initially, goods were shipped from Britain to Africa to be exchanged for captive Africans that would further be sold as slaves in the West Indies or America. This scheme was operated by Glasgow’s “Tobacco Barons” and made possible through the slave ships that departed from the River Clyde. The Scottish traders would dress slaves in the various clan tartans when working on the many Scottish-owned plantations, to express a sense of “ownership”. 

So, what did these great lords of tobacco achieve? By the late 1700s, the lords developed this “business” to the point where Glasgow’s River Clyde was handling more than half of the British tobacco trade, which generated lots of profit and wealth for the closely-knit group of merchants. As a result, trading the slave-grown produce generated an expansion of the city and set the steppingstones towards the industrial revolution. The Lords built up a reputation and rank for themselves in the city and used the profits attained through exploitative doings as an advantage leading to the nation’s spectacular industrial rise. 

Where does this stand today? The urban heritage bears their legacy through the gridded pattern of the old tobacco mansions that now lay the foundation for buildings that we cherish and celebrate. Also, some notable tobacco lords are nowadays immortalised through the active busy streets of the city centre that carry their names. Walking around Glasgow's Merchant City, the historical links to the slavery period are almost impossible to avoid. Do you know which notable buildings and streets pay tribute to Glasgow’s ‘golden age of tobacco’?

Gallery of Modern Art

Does GoMA sound familiar? Located in the heart of Glasgow, the Royal Exchange Building, was built in 1778 by William Cunninghame, one of the four main Tobacco Lords in Glasgow. He made an enormous fortune through the tobacco trade, which allowed him to build the private mansion and its location reflected his wealth and status within the Glasgow society. Hints of its original grandeur can still be seen today on the first-floor galleries and in the original ellipse area with its unique roof and circular balconies. The ‘newsroom’ was back then a beautiful back garden and all these spaces turned the building into a home for the wealthy family. Most people visiting the Gallery of Modern Art nowadays probably don’t realise they are in the former house of a tobacco baron. In 1817 the building was sold to The Royal Bank of Scotland, marking the transition from a suburban to a flourishing business district. In 1827, the building became an Exchange house. In 1949, the building housed Stirling Library and in 1996, the building finally became the Gallery of Modern Art. The building not only has changed purposes throughout time but also changed from a private to a public space which can be seen in the physical alterations and can be felt in the Building’s contribution to the city.

GOMA

Tobacco Merchant’s House

Walking further South, we stumble upon the last surviving tobacco mansion in Glasgow, also known as the Tobacco Merchant’s House at 42 Miller Street. It was built in 1775 and was bought by the tobacco merchant Robert Findlay. Soon after that, his son made sure Merchant City became the heart of the tobacco trading as he developed the Virginia Buildings to be the main premises for his generation of traders. It was restored by the Scottish Civic Trust in 1995, which now have their headquarters there. 

Virginia Mansion - Corinthian Club

On Ingram Street, the noticeable Corinthian Club sits on the foundations of the famous Virginia Mansion, built-in 1752 by the tobacco merchant George Buchanan. It subsequently housed various wealthy tobacco families until its demolition in 1842, due to its prime location symbolizing the highest social status at the time.

Buchanan Street

Also, some of the streets nowadays carry the names of the tobacco barons that owned the lands, acquired from their vast profits made from trading slave-grown produce. The streets commemorate the lords, as well as the sources of their fortune. Andrew Buchanan, Archibald Ingram, John Glassford and James Dunlop are a few examples. These buildings and streets that have been mentioned have marked different centuries and nowadays represent the symbiotic relationship between old and new.

Can you think of any other buildings that carry a weighty past in Glasgow’s Black History?

 

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