Scotland and the slave trade
Resources at the National Library of Scotland
The role played by Scots in the slave trade and in its abolition has only recently been recognised. We hold both printed and manuscript resources recording Scotland's links with slavery. These include:
- Papers of Scottish planters and sugar merchants
- Information about slaves working in Scotland
- First-hand accounts of the voyages of slave ships
- Printed and manuscript material about the abolition and emancipation movements.
You can consult this material in our Special Materials Reading Room if you have a library card. The main catalogue has details about printed material. You can use the shelfmarks we have included here as one way to request items. Most of the manuscripts are listed in catalogues and guides at the reading room, but are not in the main catalogue. See also our guide to manuscripts collections. More about accessing material at NLS
On this page
- Caribbean plantations
- Slaves in Scotland
- Slaving voyages
- Abolition of slave trade in Britain
- Emancipation and the American Civil War
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Estate papers and business records of sugar plantations in the Caribbean provide useful information about the management of the business. The Chisholme, Ellice, Houston and Melville Papers contain good examples. There are full references to these collections in the thematic list on slavery available in the Special Materials Reading Room.
Contemporary accounts of life in the plantations and social conditions of slaves have survived in diaries and memoirs. Material includes:
- Hector Macneil's memoirs contain personal views about the treatment of slaves in the West Indies in the early 19th century [Manuscript reference: Acc.9037, ff. 81-91]
- The journal of an unknown individual from Rathven, Banffshire, describes life in a sugar plantation in Jamaica between 1823 and 1834 [Manuscript reference: MS. 17956]
Slaves in Scotland
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It did not become illegal to own a slave in Scotland until 1778.
Until then it had been fashionable for wealthy families to have a young black boy or girl 'attending' on them.
Scottish newspapers, such as the 'Edinburgh Evening Courant [Shelfmark: GIVB.2/20(1-)] and the 'Caledonian Mercury' [Shelfmark: GIVB.2/23-24] from the 1740s to the 1770s, carried adverts offering slaves for sale or rewards for the capture of escaped slaves.
The printed and manuscript collections contain accounts of slaving voyages.
Richard Holden, a Scottish merchant based in Bristol, described these experiences in correspondence to his family in Dundee between 1748 and 1759 [Manuscripts reference: Acc.11272/4].
Two very different published accounts of the voyages of slave ships from Africa to the Americas were written by two ordinary Scottish seamen.
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- Thomas Smith from Arbroath gave a graphic account of the cruelty inflicted on slaves on the Guinea coast in the 1760s. Smith wrote his 'Narrative of an unfortunate voyage to the coast of Africa' (Arbroath?, 1813) [Shelfmark ABS.1.206.001] in his old age. He was encouraged to do so by members of the Edinburgh Abolitionist Society
- Samuel Robinson from Wigtown wrote about his experiences on a slave ship around 1800. He thought that slaves were much better off than the crews on these ships. Robinson's book, 'A sailor boy's experience aboard a slave ship', was published in Hamilton in 1867 [Shelfmark 3.2782(5)].
Abolition in the British Empire
In 1807 Parliament abolished the trading of slaves in the British Empire. We hold some correspondence of the famous abolitionist William Wilberforce spread through various collections.
Some major manuscript collections contain correspondence dealing with the establishment of anti-slavery patrols in the Caribbean. Interesting examples can be found in the Murray, Melville, Cochrane, Liston, Stuart of Rothesay and Hugh Elliot papers. There are full references to these collections in the thematic list on slavery available in the Special Materials Reading Room.
Scots who supported freedom for slaves
Quite a number of the major personalities in the abolition movement were Scots, including:
- Zachary Macaulay (1768-1838) from Inveraray, saw how slavery operated in Jamaica, when he worked as a bookkeeper on a sugar plantation. A few years later he became Governor of Sierra Leone, where slaves had been freed in 1787. He played a key role in the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. He was a founder member of Anti-Slavery Society in 1823 and became editor of the 'Anti-Slavery Reporter' [Shelfmark Q.102 PER].
- William Dickson (1751-1823) from Moffat was a former secretary to the Governor of Barbados for 13 years. There he witnessed slaves being brutally treated. From January to March 1792 he toured Scotland from Kirkcudbright to Nairn presenting evidence of the evils of the slave trade. This evidence was summarised in 'An abstract of the evidence delivered before a select committee of the House of Commons' [Shelfmark 3.2725a(4)].
Scots who defended the slave trade
There were also a number of Scots who defended the slave trade, such as:
- Archibald Dalzel (1740-circa 1811) of Kirkliston, ran a number of slaving depots in West Africa. As a result of his experience he wrote 'History of Dahomy, an inland kingdom of Africa; compiled from authentic memoirs' (London, 1793) [Shelfmark E.151.a.10].
- James MacQueen (1778-1870) was manager of a sugar plantation in Grenada around 1800. In the 1820s he became editor of the 'Glasgow Courier' [Shelfmark: GIVB.2/22(6)]. This paper favoured West Indian merchant interests and opposed any rights for slaves.
Emancipation and the American Civil War
The British Parliament abolished the slave trade in 1807. But slaves working on plantations in British colonies were not 'emancipated' until 1833. In other countries, most notably the United States of America, slavery remained in place. The American Civil War from 1861 to 1865 ended slavery in the northern hemisphere.
Many Scots campaigned for the abolition of slavery in the USA. Some of the most important personalities were:
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- Eliza Wigham (1820-1899) from Edinburgh was the leading light on the Edinburgh Ladies Emancipation Society. She was also prominent in the temperance, suffrage and peace movements in the late 19th century. Read the story of her remarkable life in 'Eliza Wigham: a brief memorial' (London, 1901 [Shelfmark: 5.2591(8)]
- Jane Smeal, stepmother of Eliza Wigham, was secretary of the Glasgow Ladies Auxiliary Emancipation Society. Her father William Smeal, a Quaker and tea merchant, had founded the Glasgow Anti-Slavery Society. We hold the microfilm of the William Smeal Collection of the Mitchell Library [Shelfmark: Mf.821]. This contains manuscripts and printed material on the anti-slavery movement in Britain during the Smeals' lifetimes
- Thomas Pringle (1789-1834) from Roxburghshire was a poet and journalist. In the late 1820s he wrote many of the publications of the Anti-Slavery Society in London. He played an important part in an act passed in 1833 to free slaves working in British colonies. For examples of his poems see 'Ephemerides' (London, 1828) [Shelfmark: Ry.1.1.14(1)].
Ladies' emancipation societies
Emancipation societies were established in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Paisley with separate societies organised for and by women in Glasgow and Edinburgh. In 1833 around 162,000 women signed a petition in Edinburgh calling for an end to slavery.
We have the annual reports for 1838 and 1841 of the Glasgow Emancipation Society [Shelfmarks: APS.1.77.3 and APS.1.77.12]. Also available are the annual reports of the Edinburgh Ladies Auxiliary Emancipation Society for the 1850s and 1860s [Shelfmarks: 6.1501 and 6.1505].
American anti-slavery campaigners in
There were also many prominent American anti-slavery campaigners who visited Scotland seeking support. For instance:
- Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) from Maryland escaped from slavery in 1838. He went on to become a famous politician, campaigning for the abolition of slavery. In 1846 during a tour of Britain and Ireland he visited Scotland. We have a 'Report of the proceedings of the great anti-slavery meeting in Paisley'(Paisley, 1846) [Shelfmark: APS.1.78.241]. See also Free Church paragraphs below
- Moses Roper (circa 1815-circa 1851) wrote one of the major early books about life as a slave in the USA - 'Narrative of the adventures and escape of Moses Roper' (Berwick, 1838) [Shelfmark NF.1342.d.37]. Roper visited Scotland in 1836, speaking at many venues throughout the country
- Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) wrote one of the best-selling books of the time, 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' (1852). This played a major part in persuading ordinary people that slavery was wrong. Her first visit to England and Scotland in 1853 is described in 'Sunny memories in foreign lands' [London, 1854; shelfmark K.153.g]. Some of her papers are in the manuscripts collections. There are full references to these papers in the thematic list on slavery available in the Special Materials Reading Room
- Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) was an American Quaker minister, abolitionist, social reformer and proponent of women's rights. We hold her correspondence with the scientist George Combe, (1788-1858) [Manuscripts reference: MSS.7251-7392].
The Free Church and slavery
'Send back that money'.
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During his tour of Scotland in 1846 Frederick Douglass, the former slave and anti-slavery campaigner, demanded that the Free Church 'send back the money'.
The Free Church was founded in 1843 and was deprived of public money. It raised some funds from slave-owning Presbyterian churches in the United States.
Many people felt that the Free Church was therefore sympathetic to the slave-owners and opposed to the emancipation of the slaves. 'Send back the money' became a popular rallying cry at Douglass's meetings in Scotland. There is an account of one meeting in the pamphlet 'Free Church alliance with the manstealers' (Glasgow, 1846)[Shelfmark: ABS.1.89.2(6)].
East Africa and slavery
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We hold the papers of Sir John Kirk, (1832-1922) from Forfarshire, Vice-Consul of Zanzibar. These concern his involvement in the decline of slavery in East Africa [Manuscripts reference: Acc.9942].
We also have the papers and correspondence of Alexander Low Bruce, (1839-1893). In 1875 he married Agnes, Scottish missionary David Livingstone's daughter. This connection influenced his anti-slavery outlook. He advocated the role of commerce in bringing about the demise of slavery in East Africa [Manuscripts reference: Acc.11777].
How to find material at NLS
You will find details of most of the printed material in the main catalogue.
Useful subject searches include 'slavery', 'slave trade', 'slaves', 'plantations' and 'abolitionists'. Not all of the material is indexed by subject, so keyword searches using words such as 'slavery', 'Scotland', 'emancipation' or 'abolition' will be more useful.
To consult detailed lists of printed material on the Scots role in the slave trade and the emancipation movement, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The manuscript collections catalogues and finding aids are available in the reception area of the Special Materials Reading Room. There are detailed lists of collections that have not been fully catalogued. You can consult an alphabetical index to these collections.
Most of the entries in the catalogues and indexes relating to slavery appear under the terms 'slavery' and 'slave trade'.
To consult thematic lists of manuscript sources concerning slavery and the West Indies, contact email@example.com.
Guides to manuscript sources are useful reference works to trace additional sources. You can consult the following two guides in the Manuscripts Reading Room in the Special Materials Reading Room:
- 'Manuscript dources for the history of the West Indies with special reference to Jamaica in the National Library of Jamaica and supplementary sources in the West Indies, North America, the United Kingdom and Elsewhere', by K E Ingram. Kingston: The University of the West Indies Press, 2000 [NLS shelfmark: NRR]
- 'A guide to manuscript sources for the history of Latin America and the Caribbean in the British Isles', by Peter Walne. Oxford: Oxford University Press in collaboration with the Institute of Latin American Studies University of London, 1973 [Shelfmark: NRR]
Other useful works include:
- 'Abolitionist and apologists: Scotland's slave trade stories' — article by Eric Graham in 'Discover NLS', issue 6
- 'Women against slavery: The British campaigns 1780-1870', by Clare Midgley. London: Routledge, 1995 [Shelfmark: HP2.95.6787]
- 'The Scots abolitionists 1833-1861', by C Duncan Rice. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981 [Shelfmark: HP2.84.387]
- 'Scotland and the abolition of black slavery', by Iain Whyte. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006 [Shelfmark: HB22.214.171.124]
- Learning and Teaching Scotland - Scotland and the abolition of the slave trade
- Atlantic slave trade and slave life in the Americas: a visual record
- National Archives of Scotland — slave trade resources
For more information about printed material about Scotland and slavery, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about manuscripts, email email@example.com.