How and why did a religious country like Scotland in 17th and 18th centuries, get involved in slavery and how was it eventually ended? by Kate Phillips



Title of talk:

How and why did a religious country like Scotland in 17th and 18th centuries, get involved in slavery and how was it eventually ended?


Bullet points of talk:

  • How Scotland got involved in enslaving people.
  • How the triangular trade worked.
  • Lives of Scots working and living on plantations.
  • How the slave trade and the institution of slavery ended.


A few paragraphs on the subject:

In 1660 King Charles 11 won Jamaica from the Spanish and offered its land to both the Scots and the English. Many from Scotland took up this offer to become Jamaica’s earliest settlers (Campbell is the most common surname in Jamaica).To push up production of colonial exports the Royal African Company was launched to sell enslaved people to work in plantations. Scottish merchants lent the settlers funds to buy slaves in exchange for sugar and tobacco to be delivered to Scotland for processing and re-sale. Kingston Jamaica became the biggest slave distribution centre in the world.

The law was changed to make enslaved people ‘property’ (chattel slaves) to ensure these merchants could recover bad debts in our courts, it also made slaves mortgageable property. The average price of a slave 2,400 lbs of sugar or £17, was paid back in a couple of harvests. Planters remortgaged their enslaved workers, expanded their estates and bought more slaves.

They sent home to Scotland for skilled builders, carpenters, masons and managers known as bookkeepers, to work their growing estates. Scotland’s hard wearing linen was exported to clothe the slaves and salted fish to feed them (salt fish and akee became Jamaica’s national dish).

Slave dealers in West Africa wanted imported iron ore, Venetian beads and printed Indian cloth in exchange for enslaved people. Slave traders avoided high import taxes by loading these goods in Scotland’s small harbours from Campbeltown to Stromness. (Twenty four ships did regular business with local merchants in Campbeltown). Their town councillors bought shares in slaving ships. Together the Campbeltown ships carried 133,275 African men, women and children into a life of slavery. Over 22,000 of these died while crossing the Atlantic.

Government ended the trade in1807. When parliament widened the franchise in 1832 the people of England and Scotland swept out the MPs who had defended slavery and ended the practice in all of Britain’s colonies.


A few paragraphs about you:

For many years I directed a postgraduate fellowship at University of Glasgow which brought rights activists from troubled countries in Africa and the Middle East to study in Scotland. In 2022 I published Bought and Sold, Scotland, Jamaica and Slavery. Dr Stephen Mullen called the book ‘one of the best popular histories of Scots in the West Indies’.


What free internet knowledge resources would you recommend ?

Starting points

For an overview of some basic facts about Scotland’s involvement in slavery I would recommend and as good starting points.

The Preview to my own book Bought and Sold, Scotland Jamaica and slavery (21 pages) can be read online at my publishers website. ( Reviews – ‘best popular history’- Dr Stephen Mullen University of Glasgow) (‘vitally important’ – Scotsman). The preview discusses how and why Scots were in slavery. The principal source of wealth for some families for well over 100 years. This chapter discusses the meaning and legacy of those years for Scotland. Extensively researched but aimed at non-academic audience.

First hand accounts

Janet Schaw called herself ‘A lady of quality’. She took a ship from Burntisland on the Forth in 1774 to visit friends and relatives in Barbados. Her letters home describe the lives of her wealthy Scots friends and her visit to see slaves at work in a sugar plantation. Her account can be found for free at

Douglas Hall has edited Thomas Thistlewood’s fascinating diaries ‘Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica, 1750-86’. Thistlewood’s account of living with his slaves in Jamaica is detailed, instructive and at times horrific. It can be downloaded for free @ google books.


Databases is a database of all off the ships we know of which carried slaves. Scots had shares in dozens of them.

Legacies of slavery is a data base which lists the compensation paid to slave owners from the fund of £20 million the British Government borrowed to compensate owners for outlawing their human property. Scots can be traced and are over represented here (one tenth of population about one third of compensation claims).


What are your weblinks?

Public Email – [email protected]


This event took place on 10th December 2023 at The Outhouse (12A Broughton Street Lane, Edinburgh)