By Amanda Keeley Thurman
(Ed Note: In print, this article was incorrectly attributed Lanee Lee)
“The people make Glasgow.”
While that is the city’s motto, and while that may be true today; historically, it was the tobacco trade that made Glasgow an economic powerhouse and led to the creation of the ridiculously wealthy and notorious Glasgow Tobacco Lords. Prior to the 1700’s Glasgow was a mostly agricultural community with an unstable economy that was subject to the crown. One of the economic limitations imposed by the English was the Navigation Act, which hindered the Scottish from profiting in the growing trade with England’s colonies (including America), but Glasgow’s location and savvy merchant skills would propel them into an economic boom and turn mere merchants into Tobacco Lords.
What was the tobacco trade?
Glasgow was part of a triangular trade system in which goods such as sugar, rum, and tobacco were exchanged between Europe and the new world, including colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean. Unfortunately, the third prong of this trade route included ports in Africa in which slaves were brought to America’s shores and traded for our keystone export – American tobacco. The 1707 Act of Union is what initially sanctioned Glasgow merchants to engage in trade with the colonies, but interestingly enough the first documented shipment of Virginia tobacco to Glasgow was back in 1674, in scandalous violation of England’s laws.
Beyond merely trading tobacco, Glasgow merchants went further by setting up shop on the shores of Maryland and Virginia. At the stores they would keep barrels of tobacco stocked and ready so that trading ships would waste little time upon port entry. Here, farmers could also exchange tobacco for various goods, tools, money and credit.
How did Glasgow benefit from the tobacco trade?
Simply put, it was Glasgow’s position on the west side of Scotland, along the River Clyde, that made it the perfect jumping off point for trading with the West Indies and America. Why? Well, Europe’s taste for Virginia tobacco was rapacious and Glasgow just happened to be located where the trade winds hit Europe first, giving Glasgow merchants at least a two-week advantage over other ports in Europe. This edge is what prompted France to give Glasgow the monopoly on all of the imports of tobacco into French territories.
Now responsible for 50 percent of Europe’s tobacco imports, and up to 80 percent of its re-exports, which was greater than all of Britain’s trade combined, Glasgow hit the jackpot. With Clyde ports quickly becoming top dog in the tobacco trade, Glasgow went from a rural country town to a bustling metropolis virtually overnight. Enter the age of the Glasgow Tobacco Lords.
Who were these Tobacco Lords?
These were the guys that made loads of money in the tobacco trade, and boy did they like to flaunt their wealth. The Glasgow Tobacco Lords made sure everybody knew who they were by wearing ostentatious clothing as well as building lavish mansions and churches throughout the city. For example, the Tobacco Lords definitely had their own style. They would parade their swag in the streets with flashy scarlet cloaks and Tricorn hats atop their silver wigs while tapping their silver-tipped walking canes. Naturally, they did all their strutting along paved roads such as Trongate, which has been said to have been claimed as their own by the Tobacco Lords.
All around the city of modern-day Glasgow, street names serve as a reminder of its tobacco trade past. For example, in an area of downtown known as Merchant City, the Lords liked to flaunt their outlandish outfits and was the prime location where they chose to build their opulent mansions. Their own names as well as the names of their grand residences–and of the places that earned them their fortunes–still grace the streets of Glasgow today. The infamous Buchanan Street is named after Tobacco Lord Andrew Buchanan, while Virginia Street is named after Tobacco Lord Alexander Speirs’ Virginia Mansion. His name was also given to Speirs Wharf. The same goes for Ingram Street and Dunlop Street, named after Archibald Ingram and James Dunlop. William Cunninghame’s over-the-top mansion on Queen Street still stands grand, and has been repurposed as the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art.
If the Tobacco Lords had their own style, their own streets and their own estates, then clearly they would have their own churches. The sensational St. Andrew’s Parish Church, located near the home of Alexander Speirs, was commissioned by the Tobacco Lords as another way to showcase their fortunes. Still considered one of the most impressive 18th century churches in Scotland, St. Andrews is now a center for performing art.
With grand churches to worship, one would naturally need an impressive place to rest in peace. Necropolis, the city of the dead, is a dramatic cemetery located high up on the hill overlooking the city. These men were rich, powerful, and wanted people to know it in life as well as in death. Just like their outrageous estates and churches, their eternal monuments spared no expense.
Despite the fancy garb, things were not always as they seemed. Malcontent colonists felt cheated by the tobacco trade, and tensions steadily grew approaching the 1760’s. The colonists believed that the Glasgow Tobacco Lords were manipulating prices and causing tobacco farmers to fall into major debt. You see, the English merchants made their money by selling the tobacco to Europe, but the Glasgow Tobacco Lords pre-arranged deals and then offered credit, giving huge loans to these planters. This line of credit would allow the tobacco farmers to purchase goods before their crop was harvested.
Unfortunately, many farmers found themselves deep in debt and were put in the difficult position of selling their crop for ridiculously low prices. Some of the high profile planters that were indebted to the ruthless Tobacco Lords and near bankruptcy included future Presidents of the United States George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson even stated that Tobacco Lords had submerged them in so much debt that it would be impossible to recover without selling one’s land and property.
Impact of the Revolution on Tobacco Trade
The year of 1775 was not good for Glasgow Tobacco Lords. The start of the American Revolution also marked the end of the big tobacco trade. Not only was it unfeasible for planters to pay off debts, but Tobacco Lords could no longer pick up cargo as Glasgow ships were not safe due to the hostile conditions of numerous battles.
Once the war was over and America gained independence, the tobacco planters no longer needed the Glasgow merchants as middlemen. They could now sell tobacco directly to Europe for themselves.
Some Tobacco Lords never recovered from the blow and lost everything, like John Glassford. He was said to be one of most successful of the Tobacco Lords, owning the biggest fleet of ships at that time as well as various tobaccos plantations. He made fortunes at the tobacco trade, but due the American war he died buried in debt.
However, some merchants cashed out just in time and found new thriving business ventures, such as the trade of sugar and cotton from the new world. Others like William Cunninghame were savvy enough to buy tobacco stock off his panicked partners and then sold them high, helping to maintain his fortunes.
The tobacco trade provided fifty years of major growth for the city of Glasgow, and the wallets of shrewd merchants. Owing directly to American tobacco, a small town in Scotland became an industrial city–and its merchants– wealthy lords. While the American Revolution ended the tobacco trade boom in Glasgow, reminders of its illustrious past are still present in the city today, making it hard to forget that tobacco, in fact, first made Glasgow.