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Breaking the Chains – Exploring Dundee’s Connections to Slavery

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

Breaking the Chains cover design by Dolina Mechan

Breaking the Chains is a new map and walking trail created by Leisure & Culture Dundee and the University of Dundee Museums in association with the Woven Together project, which aims to reveal some of Dundee’s connections to slavery and anti-slavery.

It should really come as no surprise that Dundee was drawn into the transatlantic slave trade, as the town was already a major trading port. In 1698, the Fraternity of Masters & Seamen were among those who invested in a new scheme called the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies, which was awarded a monopoly of trade with Africa by an Act of Parliament in 1695. In an entry in the Fraternity’s accounts book dated 28 March 1698, a discussion is recorded concerning “what part of the comone stocke of the fraternitie shall be layed out upon the affrican trades”. The decision was taken to invest the substantial sum of £100. As it turned out, the Company turned its attention westwards instead and became the ill-fated Darien Company, the failure of which cost its many investors dearly.

Following the Act of Union in 1707, the new UK Parliament intended to give the monopoly on African trade to the English Royal African Company (which had been founded back in 1660), and Dundee merchants were among many in Scotland petitioning against this, clearly still eager to make money from African countries.

The town’s growing linen industry gave it a valuable commodity to trade with, and there were a number of reasons why this trade took off. One was John Drummond, who was MP for the Perth Burghs (which included Dundee) from 1727 to 1747. He was a director of the Royal African Company and it seems to have been Drummond who encouraged them to use Scottish linen to clothe the slaves that the company transported. The flax that was grown locally in Angus produced coarse fibres best suited for low quality uses such as sack cloth, so it tended to be cheaper than other types of linen and was ideal for the slave trade.

A further boost came in 1742 when the government introduced a bounty on exports of coarse linen. This allowed Scottish linen companies to compete with the many other makers elsewhere in Europe. One of these was a place called Osnabrück in Saxony which had been the main supplier to the plantations – it gave its name to a particular type of coarse fabric called Osnaburg, which Dundee and Forfar both started making in large quantities. By that time, textile production had tripled from 30 years earlier, with slaveowners in the West Indies and the United States of America being among the main purchasers.

The 1776 Crawford map of Dundee shows an Osnaburg Works in the Hilltown (University of Dundee Archives)

We can see clear evidence of how significant this trade was from the activities of the Forfarshire Chamber of Commerce, formed in 1819 to protect the interests of local merchants. In 1823 they petitioned Parliament to object to a reduction in sugar duties, stating: “The interests of the linen trade of this county are intimately connected with the prosperity of the West Indian Planters as your Petitioners supply Osnaburghs for the whole of their negroes’ cloathing”.

There are no known voyages directly from Dundee to Africa to transport enslaved people, though we know that several left from nearby Montrose. However, in 1752 a ship registered in Dundee, the Hunter, sailed from London to Sierra Leone. There it is recorded as having collected 105 slaves, only 85 of which made it to their destination in Barbados. The rest presumably died in the atrocious conditions that enslaved people were forced to endure on board ship.

There were, however, many sailings between Dundee and Jamaica in the 18th and early 19th centuries, clear evidence of a direct trade in the produce of slavery. These are thought to have begun in 1753 when the Dolphin sailed for Jamaica carrying linen for the plantations. Ships would generally return with other goods. In 1797, for example, the Caledonian Mercury reported “a brig called the Diamond… bound from Jamaica to Dundee laden with coffee, rum, and sugar.”

Advert for the Agnes in the Press & Journal 1 September 1819

Dundee established its first sugar house in 1767 on the corner of Seagate and St Mary’s Wynd (now called Sugarhouse Wynd). Here raw sugar imported mostly from the West Indies was refined and packed then exported to various countries around the world. As it turned out, the business was never very successful and the abolition of slavery in 1833 severely reduced the supply of sugar. There were attempts made to source sugar from Spain instead but those weren’t enough to prevent the building closing by 1841.

Who were Dundee’s wealthy slaveowners? A good place to start looking is the online research resource at produced by the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery at University College London. This site aims to list every person who owned, inherited or directly benefited from British-owned plantations in the Caribbean. A search for Dundee reveals only six people, but there are two reasons why this is far from being the full picture. One is that many of the wealthiest Dundonians lived not in the town but in large estates nearby, so we have to extend our search to parts of Perthshire and Forfarshire. Another reason is that some of our slaveowners also had townhouses in Edinburgh or London and are often listed under those addresses. So by extending our search, we can identify at least another 20 names.

It wasn’t just the slaveowners who came from Scotland – there was also a huge network of Scottish shipmen, overseers, doctors and lawyers working in the West Indies. Charles Campbell, a Highlander who worked as a book-keeper in Jamaica in 1813-14 later wrote an account of his experiences there, which included a horrific depiction of an overseer who was known as the ‘Dionysus of Dundee’. On an estate called Paisley, this man ordered gunpowder to be rubbed into the open wounds of an old woman who had already been whipped. He then lit a cigar and used it to set the gunpowder alight, burning the poor woman alive.

With so much wealth being generated as a result of slavery and so much trade taking place with the Caribbean, we can see that Dundee merchants had little interest in opposing the transatlantic slave trade. However, as abolitionist campaigns began to spread in the late 18th century, many began to question the morality of slavery. In 1788, when the first Slave Trade Bill was being debated, the Lord Provost, Magistrates and Town Council of Dundee, along with “subscribing Inhabitants of the said Burgh” were among several Scottish bodies who petitioned Parliament to object to the slave trade, claiming that its present state was “contrary to the principles of Justice, Humanity, good Policy, and Religion”. Another petition from the Presbytery of Dundee followed in 1792 – this one described the slave trade as “utterly inconsistent with justice and equity” and “the most criminal traffic that ever disgraced the annals of men”.

But many Dundee merchants were reluctant to abandon an industry that was bringing them so much wealth. In 1830, the Chamber of Commerce refused to support the abolition of slavery, claiming it was “a moral issue” out with their remit. It was not until 1832(a year before slavery was abolished) that the first Anti-Slavery Society was formed in Dundee, in response to a visit by two Baptist missionaries who had been in Jamaica and shocked their audience with descriptions of the conditions enslaved people were forced to endure there.

After abolition, the focus shifted to the US. Dundee merchants continued to profit by selling linen to American slaveowners, while at the same time anti-slavery campaigners waged an increasingly vocal campaign in the town. For the first time, previously enslaved people began to come to Dundee to speak to audiences directly about their experiences. Frederick Douglass is the most famous of these but there were several others. Various local ministers, most notably the Reverend George Gilfillan, were at the forefront of these campaigns, while many of their wives were active members of the Dundee Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Association, formed in 1851. Their most high-profile event was a grand festival in honour of the writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the most popular novel of its time, but they also raised funds to support anti-slavery organisations in the US and to help fugitive slaves in Canada.

So Dundee’s associations with slavery were many and varied. A lot of people profited from it, and those profits eventually found their way into almost every institution in the town, including our schools, hospitals, museums, libraries and universities. But there were also many who protested against it and by following the Breaking the Chains walking trail and reading the various blog posts on this site you can find out more about those as well as some of the city’s wealthiest slaveowners. Copies of the map are available at the University of Dundee Tower Building and the various city libraries. There is also an online version at which includes a wider map of the city showing many other street names and places with slavery connections.

Written by Matthew Jarron, University of Dundee Museums

Map written by Matthew Jarron and Erin Farley and designed by Dolina Mechan


Various issues of Journals of the House of Commons, Caledonian Mercury, Dundee Advertiser, Dundee Courier, Perthshire Courier, Fife Herald and Aberdeen Press & Journal

Early editions of the Dundee Directory

Mark Duffill, ‘The Africa trade from the ports of Scotland,1706–66’, Slavery & Abolition, 25:3 (2006) pp102-122

Michael Morris, Scotland and the Caribbean, c.1740-1833 (Routledge, 2015)

David Perry et al, ‘The Dundee Sugar House, Seagate, Dundee’, Tayside and Fife Archaeological Journal vol 19-20 (2013-14), pp103-118

C Duncan Rice, The Scots Abolitionists 1833-1861 (Louisiana State University Press, 1981)

Iain Whyte, Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery, 1756-1838 (Edinburgh University Press, 2006)

Additional information from Iain Flett and Prof Chris Whatley

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