Early Africans in Renfrewshire

We might think that folk of other nationalities coming to Scotland is a relatively modern phenomena. Ever since the Portuguese ventured down the West African coast in the 1400s, Africans were present in Scottish ports. Alan Steel has shown that in the 1490s there were a number of Africans in the court of James IV. The largest number of Africans to arrive at any one time were brought over by colonial merchants returning from the colonies from the late 1600s.

Colonel McDowall of Castle Semple was one of the earliest in Scotland to bring large numbers of Africans to Renfrewshire and Glasgow from his sugar plantations in the Leeward Islands. Although these Africans undoubtedly started out as slaves, in Scotland they had a number of wider roles.

In 1727 the Colonel brought back two young boys, one for a friend, andanother as a trusted companion for his son at the High School in Glasgow. Presumably having a black companion made the young William McDowall stand out as unusual and exotic, just like his father parading down Argyle Street with black footmen on his coach. The Colonel’s first wife, Mary, brought back a retinue of personal servants from St Kitts in 1728. Mary died shortly after of smallpox and is buried in Glasgow Cathedral. The fate of her Africans is unknown.

Apart from many servants, Colonel McDowall brought back several skilled Africans as estate workers, one of whom worked for many years as a carpenter at Castle Semple. The Colonel left little record of how he treated his servants and assistants, whether black or white. However, we can gain a little insight from his view of the tenants on his estate. As we may imagine, the gap between landowners and their tenants in the early eighteenth century was a wide one. When he purchased Castle Semple on returning from the Caribbean, the Colonel began making great changes to the landscape, which had a large effect on the daily lives of his new estate tenants. He quickly fell out with them, calling them ‘scoundrels’ and ‘enemies to the laudable spirit of improvement’. When the Colonel began draining Castle Semple Loch in 1726, he wrote ‘such is the temper of the creatures here that they choose to live upon potatoes and oat meal on their own dunghills’. If this was his view of his Scottish tenants, we can only guess what he thought of his Africans.

Were the Africans at Castle Semple content? Although their lives were presumably better than their fellows toiling on the Colonel’s Caribbean sugar plantations, they were still his chattels, and he could do what he liked with them. One example was named Cato. Cato was born in West Africa around 1700, and shipped to the Caribbean. He was subsequently brought home to Castle Semple, and spent many years working on the estate. However in 1748 Cato ran away, and the following advert appeared in the Glasgow press:

Ruins of McDowell’s mansion house at Castle Semple

Ruins of McDowell’s mansion house at Castle Semple

‘Run away from Colonel McDowell of Castle-Sempill, upon the 30th of January, a Negro man, named CATO: he is middle aged, pretty tall, ill-legs, with squat or broad feet. Any person who apprehends him, or gives any information of him to Colonel McDowell, shall have a sufficient reward paid him’ (Glasgow Journal 25th January 1748).

Regardless of what the Colonel thought of his Africans, the last word comes from his second wife, Isabella, the daughter of a prominent landowner near Edinburgh. The following was recorded by Lochwinnoch historian Andrew Crawford:

“The old Colonel brought home from St Kitts about 1727 a negro as a flunkie or footman. This blackamore was not suitable to the refined taste of Lady McDowall. She kept a constant war with her husband about this black. She advised the laird to put the Negro away. One day he ordered his carriage to be prepared for a long journey. She asked him what was his business. He replied that he would not live without his favourite Negro and he was determined to separate from her. She was obliged to be content with the black colour of the Negro skin”.

© 2013 Stuart Nisbet