Profile of a Glasgow Merchant

Profile of a Glasgow Merchant

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Colonel William McDowall

When anyone makes a great fortune, somewhere further down the line, large numbers of people have to labour away for very little return, even as slaves. The big question for Glasgow and Mearns is, how direct was the connection between the rich merchant and the enslaved labour?

Compared with slave trading, owning slaves on plantations was a bigger personal issue for Glasgow merchants. By the eighteenth century, the colonies were a common destination for younger sons of mercantile or landed families. Looking into the stories of many Glasgow families reveals apprenticeships spent on sugar or tobacco plantations. Those who survived the harsh climate achieved wealth way beyond their dreams, far greater than from any other venture at the time.

A prominent example was Colonel William McDowall. Colonel McDowall (1678-1748) was the 5th son of a landed family from the Garthland estate in Galloway. Since, as a younger son, he was unlikely to achieve a significant inheritance, he used his father’s connections to secure an apprenticeship in the Caribbean.


Glasgow and the Clyde ports had been trading with the volcanic Leeward Islands of St Kitts and Nevis since the 1640’s and there were three sugar houses in Glasgow at the time William McDowall set sail for the Caribbean in the 1690s. He was apprenticed for 10 years to Colonel Daniel Smith on a sugar plantation on Nevis as an overseer. Overseers were described as “poor Scotch lads who by their assiduity and industry frequently became masters of the plantation”.

McDowall served in the island militia, from where he took the title of Colonel, but was never involved with the British Army. He quickly worked through the plantation system and eventually managed one of the largest plantations on the island. By 1707 McDowall owned his own small plantation on St Kitts and purchased 12 enslaved Africans. When the French were ousted from half of the island, he was granted the 800 acre Canada Hills plantation which was to be his family’s core plantation for the next century. The plantation comprised a plantation house, 2 horse mills, a boiling house, a still house and later a windmill.

The windmill on Canada Hills Plantation St Kitts
The windmill on Canada Hills Plantation St Kitts
The Windmill on Conference Plantation Grenada
The Windmill on Conference Plantation Grenada


Colonel McDowall then married Mary Tovey, the daughter of a neighbouring planter from his early years on Nevis. Mary Tovey’s family originally came from Bristol. Once Colonel McDowall had secured his family fortunes he returned to Britain in 1724, relying heavily on his military “pedigree” to climb into society. From this time, other young Glasgow men and members of the McDowall family had arrived in the islands to manage and expand the business to other Caribbean islands, including Grenada, where the McDowall’s main holding was the Conference Plantation.

Shawfield Mansion
Shawfield Mansion

At home in Glasgow, Colonel McDowall repaired the Shawfield Mansion, damaged in the Shawfield riots of 1725, making it one of the first palatial houses built upon trade profit.

He then bought the Castle Semple Estate in Lochwinnoch for £10,000 and subsequently owned land in many other parts of Renfrewshire, stretching from Lochwinnoch, to the fringes of Mearns at Cathcart.

He had the castle on the Lochwinnoch estate demolished and built a modern Palladian villa in a similar style to the Shawfield Mansion. In 1726, he decided that, “Sugar will sell as well at Glasgow as in any other part of Britain”. He bought shares in Glasgow’s South Sugar House and diverted the route of some of his sugar ships from London to the Clyde.

He retired to his Castle Semple estate but was still involved in the shipping of slaves from Africa to the Caribbean. For example the ship “The Fair Parnelia” carried 273 slaves from the Gold Coast in 1727 but it was overcrowded and capsized in the mid Atlantic, drowning all but one of the Africans on board.

Colonel McDowall’s wife Mary Tovey succumbed to smallpox on coming to Glasgow from St Kitts and is buried in Glasgow Cathedral. Her husband died in October 1748 aged 71. His epitaph in The Glasgow Journal stated: ’He was a gentleman of fine character...... the most notable figure in Glasgow.’ The accolades for the Colonel, his son and grandson, (all named William McDowall) applauded their noble pedigree, fine character, gallant, romantic, virtuous, talented and praise-worthy nature, stating they were amongst the elite of 18th Century Scotland.

Colonel McDowall’s family continued to be involved in plantations and in the sugar trade and rose to the highest positions of society as provosts, MP’s, sheriffs, and rectors of Glasgow University.

Evidence from the archives and his letters shed a different light on this most prominent Glasgow merchant of the 18th Century. Each of the McDowall plantations required the labour of about 200 enslaved African men, women and children. These Africans appear in surviving documents, listed along with other “chattels” such as the plantation horses and cattle. Many of Colonel McDowall’s slaves were given traditional Scottish names e.g. Agnes, Kilbarchan, Glasgow, Flora.

Colonel McDowall was a most frugal planter, providing the minimum of food and shelter and expecting the maximum effort. He provided no nursing or medical facilities for the sick or dying. The intensity of the sugar planting left little room for food cultivation therefore the slaves were dependent upon the overseer for food which was in meagre supply and dependent upon the shipping trade. Ironically their main food was imported salted herring from the Clyde. If the trade ships did not complete the hazardous voyage there was no food and many slaves died of starvation, however others could be cheaply bought to replace them (evidence of 10 Negro boys bought for £23 each) such was the disposable nature of the trade. Slave insurrection was harshly dealt with, usually involving hanging or burning. Reported evidence of a gangmaster absconding was swiftly dealt with by “the ruthless Scottish militia officer, Major James Milliken”. The conditions on the plantations have been likened to a concentration camp where maximum effort was demanded, with maximum care and sustenance.

gm5Colonel McDowall also brought more than a dozen Africans back to Glasgow in the 1730s as servants. From this time, Africans would have been a fairly common sight in Glasgow’s streets, dressed up as footmen, following the colonial merchants around the city or as exotic house servants.

Their life may have been good compared with their countrymen toiling in the Caribbean, however they were still the personal chattels of the merchants. The fact that many ran away suggests that they were far from happy.

The eighteenth century Glasgow press contains many notices offering rewards for the recapture of Africans who had run away, not least from Colonel McDowall in 1748:

Run away from Colonel McDowall of Castle-Sempill,
a Negro Man, named CATO, alias JOHN:
he is middle aged, pretty tall, ill-legs, with squat or broad feet.
Any person who apprehends him, or gives any
Information of him to Colonel McDowell, shall have
A sufficient reward paid him.

From this period, Scots were dominant on most of the British Caribbean sugar islands. A generation later, at the peak of the tobacco period, Glasgow was the leading player in trade with North America.

By the abolition of slave shipping in 1807, Scots were well represented in the process of ending slave trading. However an obsession with the ‘happy ending’ of abolition may be misplaced. By the abolition of plantation slavery a generation later (1834), hundreds of Scottish and Glasgow merchants were paid substantial sums of money for the loss of their slaves. The slaves received no compensation at all.

Stuart Nisbet (2012)


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