T.M. Devine

Historical Conversations kicked off in the second semester with Brian Taylor (BBC) interviewing Prof. T.M. Devine.DTrgqTzWAAATnTw Prof. Devine discussed his long career in Scottish universities (Strathclyde, Aberdeen and Edinburgh) from the 1960s up to 2014, a period that coincided with the re-birth (or birth?) of Scottish history as a discipline. As in other Historical Conversations events, ‘pop-up’ perspex boxes showcased primary source material held in University of Glasgow Library, Archives and Special Collections – in collaboration on the night with Sarah Hepworth. This blog provides a write-up of the sources chosen by Dr. Stephen Mullen.

Copy letter book of Patrick Colquhoun. University of Glasgow Special Collections MS Murray 551

Patrick Colquhoun (1745–1820) was one of Glasgow’s famous ‘Tobacco Lords’. As a young man, he learned his trade in Virginia before returning to Scotland in 1766. Having secured a fortune shortly thereafter, he constructed Kelvingrove House in 1782. IMG_6510He was also involved in the civic affairs of Glasgow. He was Lord Provost (1782-84) and founding member and first chairman of Chamber of Commerce in 1783. However, Colquhoun soon relocated to London and became a conduit of information in the capital. This letter book contains 410 letters received by Colquhoun between 15 September 1785 and 14 June 1787 whilst in London. Many are related to matters of national importance and from notables such as Henry Dundas, thus revealing high level networks and Colquhoun’s role as a lobbyist for Glasgow’s mercantile elite.

This letter (see transcription) to Patrick Colquhoun from famous ‘Tobacco Lord’ William Cunninghame of Lainshaw in May 1787 relates to ‘American debts’. DTu63kOX0AA_MooBased on their innovative store system of entrepôt trade, Glasgow’s tobacco firms were amongst the top lenders to planters in the Chesapeake in the mid-to-late 1700s. In 1766, for example, Glasgow firms were said to be owed £1m sterling. The War of American Independence marked a ‘turning point’ in Scottish economic history, although T.M. Devine has argued there were few bankruptcies amongst Glasgow firms – contrary to popular belief – which he attributed to merchants’ successful speculation of stockpiled tobacco and the partially successful collection of debts. However, debts owed by colonial planters remained unpaid long after the Treaty of Paris ended the war between Great Britain and America in 1783. This correspondence reveals Cunninghame proposed a debt recovery scheme to his friend William Eden, previously Lord of Trade (1776-82) but then M.P. for Heytesbury (1784-93) and envoy on a three-year special commercial mission to France (1785-8). Cunninghame invites Patrick Colquhoun to ‘concur together’ with Eden.IMG_6508 In contrast to West India lobbying of the same period (directed by the London West India Committee), in this case, ‘Tobacco Lords’ led a political strategy from Glasgow designed to influence Atlantic world affairs. The scheme was intended to facilitate commercial recovery from American planters long before Jay’s Treaty in 1795 (which provided for the settlement of debts owed to British merchants). William Cunninghame & Co. eventually submitted claims of over £130,000 for debts owed. The American Loyalist Claims Commission – which had responsibility for adjudication of all claims – was wound up in 1812.


Copy letter book of Patrick Colquhoun. University of Glasgow Special Collections MS Murray 551, ff.155-6


William Cunninghame Esq. Lainshaw                                                                      8 May 1787

Not being Certain of the Stay you were to make in London, I declined troubling you on the Subject of the American Debts which has been lately agitated here until I desired my friend Mr Eden to Communicate you all that was passing and particularly the Scheme that had occurred to me for the better Securing of these Debts by certainly legislative regulations which if accepted by Government would certainly have the effect to preserve this Property at best so far as the Debtors and the different States were able to pay.

In a letter written this day to Mr Eden I have suggested some new ideas which nearly exhaust to the subjects and after a very mature Consideration makes it Clear to my mind that by unanimity, prudence and exertions these Debts from being considered as worth nothing at present may (without asking a shilling from Government) be brought to sell for [illegible] 6 10 / in the pound.

As the present session is so far advanced I would mean to abandon the Idea of any application to Parliament at present but to take some decided ground as soon as possible and settle upon a plan of application from London Bristol Liverpool Whitehaven and Glasgow all lending to the same point to be ingest upon the Minister by various interests so as to induce him to listen to the propositions and to bring them forward if possible early next Session of Parliament.

If you will have the goodness to call on Mr Eden he will show you the plan that has occurred to me and you can concur together as to the means most proper to be used. The previous step is to agree upon one specific system and then to take the strongest ground that is possible and to persue it with Zeal ability and perseverance only bringing forward the whole English interest that can be mustered up.

After you have seen Mr Eden and fully Considered my plan I shall be much obliged to you for your ideas upon it. I daresay you are not Surprised that I have not had the good fortune to countenance much of its being even a feasible proposition but this does not discourage me, strengthened as I am by the Sentiments of some of the first Men in the Nation impair’t of sound judgement & ability.


T.M. Devine, The Tobacco Lords: A Study of the Tobacco Merchants of Glasgow and Their Trading Activities c. 1740–90 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1975)

The ‘Tobacco Lords’ have become synonymous with Glasgow’s colonial past. Until recent times, however, these merchants remained mythologised as the ‘princes of the pavement’ who strutted along the Trongate resplendent in scarlet cloaks, long flowing wigs and gold-tipped canes. Hagiographical works eulogised them with little commentary about their wealth, impact or importance to the economic development of Scotland.IMG_6507 By examining the merchants as an urban commercial elite during Glasgow’s ‘golden age of tobacco’, T.M. Devine’s The Tobacco Lords helped transform how we look at this aspect of the national past. Based on a doctoral thesis ‘Glasgow Merchants in Colonial Trade 1770-1815’ submitted at the University of Strathclyde in 1971, Devine’s thesis, and subsequent monograph, did several things. The activities of ‘Tobacco Lords’ – such as Alexander Speirs, John Glassford and William Cuninghame – were placed in a cis-Atlantic context. Sources of capital (including banks and private investors) allowed the merchants to take advantage of Atlantic opportunities, providing credit to slave-owning planters of Virginia and Maryland and taking the best tobacco in return. In Glasgow, the wealthiest merchants lived in great luxury in Palladian townhouses and on vast estates located outside the city. But this was not an inert group of landed improvers: continuing in commerce, the investments of the merchants, albeit limited, had a significant impact on the development of industrial capitalism in the west of Scotland. Devine noted a diversification in investment patterns immediately before and after the War of American Independence (1775-1783), taking a more optimistic view of the impact on the Scottish economy. The famous colonial merchants, therefore, shifted seamlessly from the re-export trade of Chesapeake tobacco to Europe, to large-scale direct carrying of West India produce such as sugar and cotton, thus ushering in Glasgow’s ‘golden age of sugar’ after 1790.

Dr. Stephen Mullen, University of Glasgow



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