In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Glasgow

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Source Collections
  • From Market Town to Integrated Atlantic Economy
  • The “Golden Age” of Sugar, c. 1790–1838
  • The Slave Trade and Plantation Slavery
  • Enlightenment, Abolition, and Pro-slavery Debates
  • Representations of Glasgow and Its Atlantic World

Atlantic History Glasgow
Stephen Mullen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0301


Glasgow was a leading port in the British-Atlantic world for around 200 years. The granting of Royal Burgh status in 1611 facilitated a transformation from market town into the principal Scottish center for transatlantic trade. The first Atlantic voyages undertaken by Glasgow’s merchants most likely occurred in the 1630s, departing—due to the shallowness of the river Clyde—from the deep-water port of Ayr. To enable transatlantic trade along the Clyde basin, in 1667 Glasgow merchants constructed Port Glasgow. Along with Greenock, these outport towns became departure points for the New World. Despite being technically barred from the plantations due to the English Navigation Acts, Glasgow’s early Atlantic traders flourished. By 1700, sugar refineries at the Trongate generated large fortunes, although overall trade was small scale in comparison with later events. In 1707, the incorporating Union joined the English and Scottish parliaments. Article IV of the Union allowed Scots free trade in the British Atlantic Empire. Glasgow’s merchants, assisted by factors who crossed the Atlantic, monopolized the trade in slave-grown produce: tobacco, and to a much lesser extent, sugar and cotton. Briefly the global center of the Virginia trade, the War of American Independence (1775–1783) ended Glasgow merchants’ tobacco monopoly, though these entrepreneurs focused their commercial attentions elsewhere. By 1790, more import and export goods from the West Indies passed through Clyde ports than from either America or Europe. The Atlantic exchange of goods promoted an integrated economy that transformed the Royal Burgh of Glasgow into a metropolis and Scotland’s largest city (Glasgow became accepted as a “city” through long usage of the term). The city of Glasgow thus underwent successive phases of improvement based on the Atlantic trades, eras referred to as the “golden age of tobacco” (1740–1783) and the “golden age of sugar” (1790–1838). David Armitage’s three concepts of the contours of Atlantic history provides a conceptual framework that allows analysis of relevant historiography. Cisatlantic studies—especially the early work of T. C. Smout—traced the development of Glasgow, its mercantile community, and their operations in the west of Scotland with little contextualization of colonial activities. Other historians such as Allan Karras have examined Scottish networks in North American and West Indian colonies. More recently, in studies of the Scottish diaspora in the Caribbean, historians such as Douglas Hamilton adopted transatlantic approaches. Study of abolition and pro-slavery groups is a developing field. Despite (or perhaps because of) Glasgow’s economic dependency on slavery and its commerce, philosophers and opponents critiqued the system and campaigned for abolition, thus attacking the very foundation on which the British Empire was based. Glasgow is one of several cities on the west coast of Great Britain (others include Bristol and Liverpool) that was dramatically transformed while integrated with the Atlantic world. By 1825 Glasgow was described as “The Second City of Empire.”

General Overviews

There is no single text that focuses on Glasgow and the Atlantic world, although selected overviews have located the city in the appropriate transatlantic context. Williams 1944 cited Glasgow as a leading British seaport that developed whilst part of the North Atlantic slavery nexus. Farnie 1962 was the first to describe a “Scotch-Atlantic empire” revolving around a Glasgow that developed due to Virginia tobacco imported to Clyde ports. The essential two-volume collection Glasgow by Devine and Jackson 1995 and Fraser and Maver 1996 traced the rise of the city from its beginnings to 1912. The city’s relationship with the Atlantic world is revealed through the lens of colonial traders. Reed 1999 and Maver 2000 underlined the integral role of Atlantic traders in the urban development of modern Glasgow. Fry 2001 revived the vision of the Scottish Empire and noted Glasgow’s profound imperial involvement, a concept much elaborated upon by Devine 2003. Murdoch 2010 offers a more recent textbook survey of Scotland’s connections with the Americas. Thus, Scotland’s deep connections with the British-Atlantic Empire—with Glasgow at the center of Scottish transatlantic activity—has attracted scholarly attention.

  • Devine, Thomas Martin. Scotland’s Empire 1680–1815. London: Allen Lane, 2003.

    T. M. Devine situates Glasgow firmly as the premier Atlantic port in Scotland. Connections with Empire—including America, Canada, and the Caribbean—are traced, including the various impacts of colonial trade on Glasgow and Scotland more broadly. Devine argued that imperialism and its economic foundation, chattel slavery, was not only privately profitable but a significant contributor to the economic and agricultural development of 18th-century Scotland.

  • Devine, Thomas Martin, and Gordon Jackson. Glasgow. Volume I: Beginnings to 1830. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1995.

    Several chapters in this edited collection trace Glasgow’s transition from medieval market town to bustling Atlantic entrepôt. Devine’s chapter “The Golden Age of Tobacco” synthesizes earlier work, while the urban development of the city and eventual modernization of the middle ranks is considered. However, there is little about Glasgow’s West India merchants or the city’s connections with chattel slavery.

  • Farnie, Douglas. “The Commercial Empire of the Atlantic, 1607–1783.” Economic History Review 15.2 (1962): 205–218.

    DOI: 10.2307/2598995

    In an overview of English, Scottish, and British trade before and after the Union of 1707, Douglas Farnie’s article traced the contours of an Atlantic world commercial empire (despite the Anglo-centric aim to reveal “the role of England in the growth of Atlantic trade.”) Farnie, however, ignored the role of sugar in Glasgow’s development, thereby underestimating the vibrant Atlantic world urban economy that developed from the 1660s onward.

  • Fraser, W. Hamish, and Irene Maver. Glasgow: 1830–1912, v.2. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1996.

    There is limited analysis of Atlantic world connections in the second volume of this edited collection, although Jackson and Munn’s chapter “Trade, Commerce and Finance” reveals the development of a maritime infrastructure (at the Broomielaw) within Glasgow. By 1841, more tonnage was shipped outward at Glasgow Harbor than at Greenock, thus paving the way for the harbor’s later connections with large-scale shipbuilding.

  • Fry, Michael. The Scottish Empire. East Linton, Scotland: Tuckwell, 2001.

    In this lightly referenced popular history, Fry briefly noted Glasgow’s transformation to great center of production as specialist industries developed to process slave-grown commodities across successive phases of the Atlantic world relationship: tobacco, sugar, and cotton.

  • Maver, Irene. Glasgow. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000.

    This narrative account of Glasgow focused mainly on the 19th and 20th centuries, through a brief survey of trade, politics, and culture in the pre-industrial era. Maver considered the rise of the “Merchant City.”

  • Murdoch, Alexander. Scotland and America, c. 1600-c. 1800. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-137-10835-7

    This textbook synthesizes works related to Scotland’s connections with the Americas. The chapters “Scotland and Slavery” and “How Glasgow Flourished” reveal the city’s connections with tobacco and sugar in America and the West Indies over two centuries.

  • Reed, Peter. Glasgow: The Forming of the City. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

    This edited scholarly collection contains chapters on Glasgow’s origins and first growths, the development of new towns, and the river Clyde. The city’s early urban and socioeconomic development is therefore placed in the appropriate Atlantic world context, especially by tracing the importance of colonial mansions such as the Shawfield Mansion.

  • Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944.

    In this classic text Williams forever altered how historians view the relationship between Great Britain and the New World. By tracing an exploitative global relationship, Williams asserted profits from the slave trade and the colonial trades powered the British industrial revolution. Glasgow was cited as a leading example of a port city whose banks and industry developed due to the colonial trades.

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