My family and the slave trade

Once again,  a simple Google search for one of my ancestors has turned up some astonishing results. As I mentioned in the last post, I’m in the process of revisiting the Glasgow branch of the Robb family. In doing so, I found myself searching for information about Archibald Graham Lang (or Laing) who married Jean Robb, youngest daughter of Glasgow merchant George Robb, the older brother of my 3 x great grandfather Charles (which apparently makes Jean my first cousin 4 x removed).

I was shocked to find both Archibald and Jean in a list of Scottish slave-owners who applied for compensation after the abolition of the slave trade in the 1830s. Their claim, numbered 107, related to the parish of Manchester, Jamaica.

‘Archibald Grahame Lang’ also features in a separate list for Glasgow, where he is named as the third claimant in two claims to estates in Trinidad. More detailed information is available for these claims: the first concerns ownership of 32 slaves and the amount of compensation awarded was £1608 9s. 5d, while the second relates to 4 slaves and the compensation is £246 7s. 3d.  In both cases Archibald is said to be an absentee rather than a resident of the estate in question, and a merchant rather than a rentier.

Slaves working in the fields in Jamaica

Scrolling through the general list for Scotland, I was also intrigued to find the names Elizabeth, George, Jane and John Robb associated with claim No. 107 for Manchester. If I hadn’t already seen Archibald Lang’s name in the list, I might have dismissed these as unconnected with my family: after all, Robb is a common Scottish name. But George  was the name of Jean Robb’s older brother, and his wife’s name was Jane (nee Thomson). Moreover, the third Robb sibling was Elizabeth (if it’s the same person,  this dates the claim to some time before August 1836, when she married John Burns and changed her surname). I’m not sure who John Robb might have been.

These lists have been compiled as part of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project at University College London. As the project’s website explains:

It has long been understood that Scots had a disproportionate presence in Caribbean slavery as part of the participation in the ‘opportunities of Empire’. One dimension of this was Scottish slave-ownership. While it is possible to argue that the high point of this was at the end of the period of slave-ownership in the 1830s – though we cannot be certain – we believe that people living in Scotland accounted for at least 15% of absentee owners at a point when the Scottish population was less than 10% of the UK population as a whole.

One of the largest single groups receiving compensation were Glasgow merchants, despite the prior absence of a significant direct participation in the slave trade. In total, Glasgow merchants took about 10% of the compensation paid to British merchants.

We know from census records that Archibald Graham Lang was a ‘merchant, foreign trade’ and later an insurance agent. One of the companies he worked for was Wighton, Gray & Co. in Buchanan Street, Glasgow. The first claimant in the Trinidadian cases cited above was a William Gray. Moreover, it’s possible that Archibald and Jean Lang’s share in slave ownership may have been inherited, as may that of George, Jane and Elizabeth Robb. George Robb senior, the father of George, Elizabeth and Jean, was himself a Glasgow merchant. Perhaps even more significantly, when George died his widow Penelope married the West Indies merchant and Receiver-General for Jamaica, John Young of Meadow Park. John Young died in 1827, and it’s likely that at least some of his Caribbean wealth – including perhaps the ownership of slaves – passed to his widow’s children.

Meadow Park House, Glasgow

In my last post I wrote about George and Jane Robb moving south to Essex, where they occupied substantial properties at Little Friday Hill, Chingford, and Mistley Abbey near Colchester, all the time living on the interest of their money and income from investments. It’s salutary, and a little chilling, to reflect that at least some of that income was derived from the ownership of other human beings.

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5 Responses to My family and the slave trade

  1. MUHAMMAD ABDULLAH says:

    GOOD AFTERNOON.THIS IS VERY INTERESTING.I AM TRYING TO LOCATE INFORMATION ON THE SLAVEOWNERS OF MY FAMILY WILLIAM ,ADAM HEATH, AND THEIR DESCENDANTS ? I FIND WILLIAM HEATH ON THE ” SLAVE REGISTERS OF FORMER BRITISH COLONIAL DEPENDENCIIES,1812 – 1834.” CUPID -AFRICAN ABOUT 1757 -MANCHESTER,JAMAICA.OWNER WILLIAM HEATH. 1817 -SARAH HEATH -ABOUT 1753 -ST.JAMES,JAMAICA..OWNER WILLIAM HEATH.ANY INFORMATION THAT CAN HELP ME WOULD BE GREATLY APPRECIATED ? THANK YOU-sheikhmo1999@yahoo.com-P.O.BOX 338-COMPTON,CA.90223

    • Martin says:

      Thank your for your comment. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can help you.Have you tried searching at Ancestry.com or familysearch.org? Good luck!

  2. Kate Strong says:

    Hi there, I just found your blog post, I randomly was watching an Australian episode of Who Do You Think You Are and the guy found his great grandfather was the Roxburgh in this company. My mothers mothers maiden name is Gray and her father came from Lanarkshire in Scotland. Which is Glasgow really. Ive always felt there was something not quite right about that side of the family and I wondered if you had come across anything about this Gray. I dont see him on my direct descendants but he may be a brother of even my great great grandfather.

    • Martin says:

      Hi Kate. Thanks for your helpful comment. I haven’t looked at my Scottish Robb ancestors for a while, but recently I’ve been reading about the 18th century slave trade, and it’s still shocking to think that some of my ancestors’ wealth might have derived from this source.

      • Kate Strong says:

        Hi Martin, thanks for replying. A few years back when I was doing genealogy I found I was nearly a direct descendant, as are millions probably, from the people on the Mayflower on the east coast of the US. Intuitively I knew something was up, because I think theres a pattern of Master/Slave down through the generations. But, having done family constellations therapy, what Ive also come to find, is that sometimes we can sabotage our wealth, on an unconscious level ,its a form of guilt for having acquired ill gotten gains in the family. Its paying for the sins of the father. My hair stood on end when I saw the name Gray and the slave trade in Scotland/West Indes, on the other side of my family. And much much closer in time than the Pilgrims.

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