Scotlands History

Tobacco, sugar and cotton

The discovery by the British of tobacco only dated to the end of the 16th century. By the end of the 17th, ‘the noxious weed’ was grown on a plantation basis in the American colonies, with slave labour used for gathering the crop. 

The first cargo of Virginia tobacco reached the port of Glasgow in 1674 (the main British tobacco trade then being through the port of Bristol). This was 30 years before the 1707 Act of Union, so in theory Glasgow traders were not authorised to trade with English colonies. The 1707 Act legitimised and opened up the Atlantic trade to Scots, and Glasgow’s port and west-coast site meant it was best placed to exploit this market.

By the 1770s Glasgow had almost cornered the British tobacco market. Street names such as Jamaica Street and Virginia Street date from this time. Glasgow’s main export to the Americas was originally linen, but soon diversified to cover other fabrics (muslins, plaids, stockings) and manufactured goods.

Glasgow became likewise involved in the West Indian sugar trade, and sugar refining soon became a major industry in Greenock as well as Glasgow. After the Americans declared independence in 1776 the main commodity traded became cotton.

Glasgow’s trade in these three imported commodities played a key part in creating a complex manufacturing economy which lasted and diversified through the 19th century.

  • Painting of John Glassford, a wealthy 18th century tobacco lord, and his family

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