The Tobacco Lords of Glasgow

Smoke gets in your eyes – but it also made the fortunes of the Clydeside merchants who shipped in the golden leaf from the New World and transformed Glasgow into an international commercial centre. Tom Devine tells how they did it.

Glasgow's transformation from a provincial town to an international centre of commerce depended ultimately on its dominance of the eighteenth-century tobacco trade from the American colonies to Europe. During the golden age of colonial commerce the Clyde ports became the principal tobacco emporia in Britain, capturing the lion's share of the trade from London, Bristol, Liverpool and Whitehaven. In some years in the 1760s, Glasgow, Greenock and Port Glasgow imported more tobacco than all the English towns combined while in the same decade more than half of all Scottish exports by value consisted of this single commodity. Colonial leaf was shipped to the Clyde from Virginia and Maryland and then re-exported to France, Holland, Ireland, Scandinavia and the German states. Commercial success on this scale brought riches to the city's merchant community, stimulated urban expansion and provided the material foundations for cultural achievement. Tobacco 'made' Glasgow in the era of the Scottish Enlightenment.

The remarkable speed and scale of Glasgow's victory in such a competitive sector of international commerce is not easy to explain. Success was neither inevitable nor preordained. At the time of the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707, the Scots already had a toe-hold in the trade but for several decades thereafter growth was relatively sluggish with imports rising only to about 8 million lb. by the 1740s. The heroic age really began from the 1750s when imports surged ahead dramatically until they reached the astonishing figure of 47 million lb. on the eve of the American War of Independence in the early 1770s. The entire British commerce in tobacco took off in these years, but Glasgow's expansion was much faster than any of its competitors.

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