Glasgow: A Merchant’s City, The Labor of Slaves
The last city on my recent trip to Ireland and Scotland was Glasgow; a city whose early wealth depended on the labor of African slaves in the British colonies. If there were one city in Europe that should be obligated to pay reparations for African slavery, it would be Glasgow.
The center of Glasgow, now called “Merchant City,” contains many of the former mansions of the tobacco lords, including the Cunninghame mansion, which is now the National Art Gallery. Walking around the city’s center, one crosses such streets as “Virginia Street” and “Jamaica Street”—clear references to the slave colonies that produced the tobacco that make the city rich.
In conversations with taxi drivers and museum guides, I learned that the story of tobacco is the story of Glasgow. Everyone seemed to know that Glasgow was developed on slave labor. No mystery here.
The mystery surrounds Adam Smith. Why did he make up the story of the invisible hand in his The Wealth of Nations, instead of telling the true story that the wealth he enjoyed was created by the slave-based tobacco trade? I think the reason was his belief in the ownership of property as the foundation of civilization. For him, slaves were property, but not owners of property. Mystery solved.
The real mystery is why we continue to live in the legacy of this economics of property. We know that the owners of property, not the members of political communities, are determining the fate of Europe right now, as well as the fate of the planet.