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Dundee’s Connections to American Slavery

Updated: Jul 29, 2023


Solomon Northup (author of Twelve Years a Slave) wearing a typical linen suit known as an osnaburg

The manufacturing of textiles is synonymous with the city of Dundee. In the second half of the 19th century, the city became known as ‘Juteopolis’ and the population increased rapidly to service the increasing number of factories processing jute imported from India. Before that, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, linen had been the dominant industry, woven from flax imported from the Baltic. However, what most accounts of Dundee’s textile history fail to address are the city’s connections to American slavery through these thriving industries. Dundee and its surrounding towns were some of the many areas that both helped to facilitate and benefitted from the abhorrent events of slavery.


Dundee produced exceptional quantities of both jute and linen during the 19th century, much of it destined for overseas markets. Prestigious companies such as Baxter Brothers were involved in this trade, with large quantities of goods being sent abroad either direct from Dundee or via ports in Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow. The Baxter Brothers’ inventory provides interesting reading, as it notes that osnaburg was one of their popular products. Osnaburg was a very cheap, coarse, woven material made initially from linen but later also from jute. It was growing in popularity during this period as a means of clothing slaves being held in plantations in the West Indies and the United States of America. Surrounding towns also reaped profitable benefits from slavery, with huge quantities of osnaburg linen being exported from Forfar in the early 19th century.


By the middle of the century, it seems that many osnaburg suits used in the USA were being made from home-grown cotton instead of imported linen. However, another common item of clothing for slaves were linsey-woolsey dresses, made from a weave of linen and wool or cotton. Former slave Harriet Jacobs recalled these course garments as “one of the badges of slavery”.


Scenes on a Cotton Plantation, illustrated in Harper’s Weekly, 1867

Throughout much of the 19th century, America was also one of the most prominent trading partners for Dundee jute companies. Jute was often utilised as a means of transporting American cotton crops, which would have been grown and harvested by slave labour. Woven jute bags provided a breathable material which created the perfect conditions for these crops to survive long journeys. This function for jute was extremely profitable, with an estimated one hundred million yards required for this purpose per year in America.


There are clear indications that jute and linen industries in Dundee interacted with and benefitted indirectly from aspects of American slavery. However, further research is required to establish some of the more direct links between slavery and the town’s textile industries. Since these industries are largely viewed as the foundations upon which modern day Dundee was built, it is important to remember that part of the wealth and prosperity experienced by Dundee during this period was at the expense of thousands of people who were entangled within the horrific cycle of slavery.


Written by Niamh Quinn


Sources

Christopher A Whatley, Onwards from Osnaburgs: The Rise and Progress of a Scottish Textile Company: Don & Low of Forfar, 1792-1992, Mainstream, 1992


Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser - various issues


Enid Gauldie (ed), The Dundee Textile Industry 1790-1885, Scottish History Society, 1969


Madelyn Shaw, ‘Slave Cloth and Clothing Slaves: Craftsmanship, Commerce, and Industry’, Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts vol 42, 2021


Gordon T Stewart, Jute and Empire: The Calcutta Jute Wallahs and the Landscapes of Empire, Manchester University Press, 1998


Jim Tomlinson, Dundee and the Empire: Juteopolis 1850-1939, Edinburgh University Press, 2014


The London Gazette, 19 December 1854

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