This guide is designed to help researchers find material held in the Library's Rare Books and Archives & Manuscript collections relating to Scotland's involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.
The transatlantic trade in enslaved people violently uprooted millions of human beings from West and West Central Africa. People were shipped across the Atlantic to the Americas in appalling conditions to suffer cruelty, brutality and dehumanisation at the hands of their enslavers. Over 1.5 million people died during the voyage and an estimated 4 million people died directly as a result of enslavement.
Enslaved labour supplied coffee, tobacco, cotton and sugar in the Americas which was then shipped back to the European markets to generate vast profits for the slave and plantations owners. Colonial expansion and slavery encouraged 18th and 19th century discussions about human variety, including ideas about perceived racial differences.
The inaccurate and since discredited theories of race developed in this period were used by enslavers to make arguments in favour of slavery. While this guide does not detail slavery’s lingering effects in the present day, there are clear connections between slavery and contemporary racism.
About this guide
Although this guide is not exhaustive, it provides an introduction to the wide range of material held by the Library specifically relating to Scottish involvement in the slave trade.
It does not cover the wider subject of transatlantic slavery as a whole or the historical resonance of slavery through Scottish history to the present day. While providing brief introductions and contextualising the material identified, these pages are not a history of Scotland’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. Secondary material and other resources are highlighted throughout the guide, providing further reading on the subject.
The Library collections
Most of the items held by the Library relating to Scottish involvement in the slave trade were written from the viewpoint of the enslavers rather than the enslaved. This means people researching and writing about slavery must question the material they read and try to understand events from the perspective of enslaved people.
Researchers must actively look for the silences that exist in our collections. The Library is engaged in collecting material which better represents the experiences of enslaved people. These pages will be kept up to date to reflect new acquisitions or uncovered collections within our current holdings.
Consulting the collections
Historical items in the collection are available to consult in the Special Collections Reading Room.
Visit the General Reading Room to consult modern books about slavery and the slave trade.
To view maps, visit the Maps Reading Room in our Causewayside building.
You need a library card to use the Edinburgh reading rooms. This will also give you access to electronic publications that are only available through the Library.
You can use Library Search to find details of printed collection material: the 'Library shelfmark' in our reference lists on these pages will speed up your search.
Our Manuscripts and Archive Collections catalogue gives information about items in the manuscript collections that we have featured in this section.