The earliest enslaved person in Glasgow?

Dr Anthony Lewis, Curator of Scottish History
black board with red outline and yellow text describing a gravestone like epitaph to a John Spreul

Mortification board from the old Merchants House showing John Spreull’s gift to Glasgow’s poor.

Images © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

6th November 2019

In 1705, the Glaswegian businessman, John ‘Bass’ Spreull published an account of Scotland’s prospects for international trade. He suggested that Scotland should make appropriate trade links with the West Indies, Virginia, the Guinea coast and what he called the ‘Negroes Coast’, by which he probably meant West African countries such as Senegal where European countries had established a trade in enslaved human beings.

Spreull promoted a trade of Scottish and Glaswegian made metals, linens, figurines, alcohol and tobacco in exchange for ‘black negroes’, elephant teeth (ivory), beeswax, honey and gum Arabic. He also suggested trading Scottish weapons, metalwork, salted fish, meat and textiles to the Guinea Coast in exchange for gold. He argued that Glasgow made plaid and bonnets ‘may do for their Kings and Queens’.

Glasgow Museums has two objects representing John Spreull. A painted wooden board from the old Merchants House records his bequest of £100 Scots to the city’s poor in 1722 (PP.1976.19.2).

There is also a drawing of land once called Spreull’s Court, in Trongate (OG.1957.21.42). Trongate was the area where the city’s Tolbooth was, and where the city’s Town Council met. The objects indicate that Spreull was a member of the city’s business community, and lived close to its political community, but did he ever see an enslaved person himself?

The answer is maybe.

John Spreull was an investor in the ill-fated Darien scheme in which the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies tried to establish a plantation in Panama, as was the Duke of Montrose. The Duke showed off his social status and trading ambitions by keeping an enslaved black servant at his house in Glasgow’s Drygate, later called ‘Duke’s Lodging’. Glasgow Museums has several watercolour paintings of this property.

‘The Duke’s Lodgings, Drygate, front view, 1843’

by William Simpson

Images © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

The reference to his enslaved black servant person comes from the Montrose papers in the National Records of Scotland, where an account for medical care for his servants from 1702 to 1709 includes ‘the black’ (GD 220/6/974). This probably refers to an enslaved person from Africa, or possibly from an American or Caribbean plantation. Unfortunately nothing more is known about him or his duties.

He may have worn a ‘slave collar’ similar to the one in Glasgow Museums’ collection. A silver collar was made for the Duke of Montrose by the Glasgow goldsmith, James Luke, in 1703 who charged for the weight of the silver, and another 12 shillings for ‘fashion’ (GD220/6/1097). What this was is not recorded, but it was clearly for someone or something special. Luke was also an investor in the Darien scheme and saw business opportunities in the slave trade.

Montrose and Spreull tried to drive forward Scotland’s ambitions to trade with Africa, the Caribbean and America and create its own colonial foothold. Both owned properties in Glasgow. One wrote about the slave trade and the business opportunities it presented, and the other owned a slave in the city. Looking at the pictures of the ‘Duke’s Lodging’ perhaps you can imagine the scene in the early 1700s, with an enslaved black servant, dressed in livery and wearing a fashioned silver collar, attending the Duke and his guests, and embodying the wealth and prosperity that afforded those who invested in the slavery economy.

Dr Anthony Lewis,
Curator of Scottish History

dark printed painting of John Spreul - only his face is visible against the dark background

John Spreull (1657-1722)

Mitchell Library
GC 920.041435 COR