MY book The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy: Scotland and Caribbean Slavery, 1775-1838 (just published by University of London Press) takes a new approach, placing metropole and colony in a single analytical frame, assessing how each influenced the other.

I illuminate the world of Glasgow West India merchants and planters, described by contemporaries as a “Sugar Aristocracy”, assessing the scale and significance of the Atlantic trades and the effects of merchant capital on Scottish commercial, industrial and agricultural change.

Through case studies of some of the wealthiest islands where Scots were most pervasive – Jamaica, Grenada and Trinidad – the book examines the stories of the many thousands of young Scotsmen who migrated, often on a temporary basis, to the British West Indies in the late slavery era.

The Union of 1707 not only provided access to empire but enshrined distinctive aspects of Scottish society, the Presbyterian religion, as well as the educational and legal systems.

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Scottish legal recording was among the best in Europe throughout this era and this provides historians with the capacity to generate unique insights. Unlike England, Scottish legal recording systematically included inventories which document the personal wealth of individuals.

I traced the equivalent of many hundreds of millions of pounds of slavery derived capital which was repatriated to Scotland after 1800.

My book necessarily raises questions about the culpability and complicity of those resident in Scotland involved in an integrated Atlantic slavery economy. Many thousands of colonial merchants, planters, Africa traffickers, and migrants were directly culpable in Atlantic slavery.

There is obviously a difference in levels of culpability between, for example, a linen merchant in Dundee compared to a Scottish trafficker of African enslaved people in Kingston, Jamaica, but they were all part of an exploitative Atlantic infrastructure predicated upon the exploitation of enslaved people which ensured the profits returned to Scotland.

Manufacturing workers in 18th and 19th-century Scotland had no direct role in slavery as such but their continued employment and earning potential was dependent upon the continuation of chattel slavery in the Americas.

The National: Book cover.  The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy, Scotland and Caribbean Slavery 1775 - 1883, by Stephen Mullen.  Copyright: University of London Press

It seems uncontroversial to note that if someone benefited from textile manufacturing which was dependent on Atlantic commerce – for example, in linen or cotton works – they were complicit in an integrated Scottish-Atlantic slavery economy.

My book has implications for how some of Scotland’s most famous sons are memorialised in Great Britain and across the world.

By not going to Jamaica in 1786, Robert Burns was not involved with chattel slavery at all. He planned to go and bought three tickets but did not cross the Atlantic because his published work (especially the Edinburgh edition in April 1787) became commercially successful.

We no longer need to pose the “what if” Burns had gone because my book provides solid archival evidence of the Scots who were resident in Jamaica.

James Watt remains a figure celebrated by some institutions, despite recent research confirming he was involved with the trafficking of an enslaved boy, Frederick, in Glasgow in 1762.

The National: Illustration of James Watt (1736-1819)Illustration of James Watt (1736-1819)

My book reveals for the first time that Watt was also a financier of Glasgow-West India commerce from 1793 – while he was resident in Birmingham – during an era when chattel slavery was increasingly seen as an odious evil.

The interest from Watt’s loan to the cotton merchants the Dennistouns likely subsidised his retirement years before his death in 1819. The reality is that Watt was complicit in the Scottish-Atlantic slavery economy for most of his adult life.

David Livingstone worked in Blantyre Cotton Mill, part-owned and funded by Glasgow-West India merchants. He began as a child piecer but was paid high wages as an adult cotton spinner in the 1820s which, in his own words, funded his attendance at two Scottish universities. He was one employee among many hundreds of thousands in Scotland’s integrated Atlantic slavery economy, although to what extent this supported his personal trajectory remains open to debate.

The case of Livingstone underlines the fact the Scottish manufacturing ranks enjoyed social mobility which stood in stark contrast to the enslaved whose status as sub-human property was the very basis upon which hundreds of thousands of lifestyles depended.

James Watt and David Livingstone were complicit in Scotland’s integrated Atlantic slavery economy for many years while Robert Burns ultimately was not involved at all.

Clarifying prominent individuals’ historic connections with Atlantic slavery via verifiable, empirical evidence is not iconoclasm; it is the job of academic historians to rewrite history (or at least historiography). Historians facilitate the identification and analysis of new evidence, leading to fresh contextualisation and interpretation. Each advance in knowledge improves how society memorialises.

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The book adds nuance to hagiographical approaches exemplified by historic statuary and commemorative practices and still preferred by some modern institutions. The David Livingstone Birthplace Museum has made Livingstone’s upbringing in a cotton mill a key feature of new interpretations. The museum released a statement agreeing I was correct to include Livingstone in my audit of Atlantic slavery and built heritage for Glasgow City Council in March this year.

James Watt’s story has partly been acknowledged but this new book underlines an inherent paradox at the University of Glasgow – an institution with a reparative justice strategy that simultaneously celebrates Watt, a trafficker of a black child and West India financier in the 1790s.

Heriot-Watt University has claimed that Watt’s attitudes towards slavery perhaps changed across his lifetime, and that he favoured abolition in the 1790s, although this myth can now be dispelled. It is up to each institution how they choose to address the evidence my research provides.

Despite previous claims to the contrary, my work is politically neutral. Rather being pro or anti- Scottish or British, it objectively assesses how Atlantic slavery helped develop Glasgow and Scotland, and how this is memorialised in civic space.

This book is the opposite of “cancel culture”; it enhances rather than removes aspects of Scotland’s imperial history, posing fresh questions for the nation and some of its institutions. The book can be purchased or downloaded as an Open Access publication at