The century leading to the American Revolution of 1775-1783 had witnessed an economic revolution in Glasgow and its ports of Port Glasgow and Greenock further down the river Clyde. It was based largely on overseas expansion in the West Indies and North America to develop the production of sugar, tobacco and assorted luxuries. These were the foundation of much of Glasgow's westward trade. Tobacco in particular was central and by 1770 Glasgow was a major entrepot for Virginian tobacco which was then re-exported to Europe. The wealthy "Tobacco Lords" were the city's elite. Servicing the colonial economies was a major stimulation to local industrial growth, which also relied on materials such as fibres, pig iron, chemicals and wood imported mainly from the Baltic region. Moreover, the profits from tobacco and sugar stimulated the whole community, feeding directly on through the Glasgow banks into other trades and into industry. The Chamber of Commerce established in 1783 and the Glasgow West and East India Associations raised the influence of commerce and industry to national significance.
The Revolution of 1776 in the American Colonies was, therefore, the signal not for the collapse of Glasgow trade, but for a rapid shift in its direction. Firstly, the West Indies grew in importance as a market for "slave goods", bulk-produced clothing, shoes and crockery, and the tonnage of shipping sent there was soon greater than that to both the USA and Europe. West Indian sugar replaced tobacco as the great earner, and firms such as Alexander Houston & Co initiated the importation of raw cotton, initially from the West Indies and later from the USA, when new links were forged with the old colonies. Secondly, there was, towards the end of the century, a rapid rise in the number of vessels bringing wood and flax from the Baltic. Thirdly, the flow of emigrants from the West of Scotland was largely diverted from the USA to British North America (Canada), with the result that a new area of demand from the settlers arose, and at the same time Canadian timber became available. Nearer home, there was a huge increase in the volume of trade with Ireland that employed a third or more of the tonnage of shipping active in the Clyde towards the end of the century. Finally, new opportunities for Glasgow traders to ship colonial produce to the Continent followed the completion of the Forth & Clyde Canal in 1790. They also acted as agents for goods from the Carron Ironworks in Falkirk, destined for America, and for Dundee cloth to the West Indies. The tonnage of goods on the canal rose from 129,486 in 1800 to 307,388 by 1830.
Two qualifications must be made about trade around 1800. On the one hand the long French wars (1792-1815) interfered directly or indirectly in economic activity and especially with shipping, when vessels were seized by enemy warships, and with seamen, who were seized by "friendly" press-gangs; French and Dutch connections were especially disrupted. On the other hand, despite the troubles between Britain and the USA, Britain remained the natural market for much of the latter's produce and Glasgow merchants would then ship American goods and commodities on to other parts.
Merchanting is a matter of personal connections, enterprise, initiatives and credit-worthiness that did not die with the "Tobacco Lords". For example, because the Atlantic dominated Glasgow's foreign trade her ships were generally larger and stronger than the British average, commonly of American build, and owned by powerful mercantile groups: they could be used elsewhere. For instance, the move of James Dunlop from Virginia to Montreal in 1776 set a precedent for Glaswegians who carried emigrants to the northern colonies and began the extraction of timber in New Brunswick. Allan Gilmour went to Miramichie in 1812, and subsequently made Gilmour, Pollok & Company into major traders and, more significantly for Glasgow, built the largest fleet (and the largest ships) employed in overseas trade.
Other initiatives also produced developments of huge potential in the first third of the 19th century. Cotton imports served an industry that required outlets. Gilmour, Pollok & Company made cottons for their North American connections. More ambitiously, Kirkman Finlay, merchant and manufacturer (and Lord Provost and MP), opened the largely unknown German market and launched an assault on the East India Company's monopoly east of the Cape of Good Hope. Paradoxically, Glasgow already had experience of Indian markets through the "Country Trade" which permitted Glaswegians to trade within India, but trade to India was gradually established (after the government cancelled its monopoly in 1813). In 1816 Finlay & Company despatched the Earl of Buckinghamshire with 750,000 yards of cottons. The Chinese market was not opened until 1833, but Glasgow merchants were active in Australasia from the 1820s, and Greenock was a major outlet for emigrants to the Pacific by the 1830s.
All these developments added up to considerable expansion in the volume, distribution and composition of trade and in the Clyde's enviably efficient fleet of large merchantmen. Significantly for the future, this fleet was increasingly owned by shipowning companies, usually linked to the major trading and industrial firms, and sharing their operations between Glasgow and Greenock. The former was the commercial hub of the system, but enterprise and initiative would have counted for little without changes in the physical movement of goods within the port. Larger ships in the city centre depended on advances in civil engineering that enabled the Clyde to be deepened to 14 feet in the 1770s and "canalized" between 1809 and 1812, when Glasgow city became a Customs Port and shipping operations were gradually transferred upriver with great savings in the cost of handling goods, especially heavy ones.
Finally, the heady mix of large ships, new facilities, exotic cargoes and great wealth must not obscure the bustling coastal trade. Though not yet very important in long-distance coastal trade, Glasgow and Greenock were at the heart of the western Highlands and Islands trade. The distribution network was extensive; everything, including wood, coal and corn, went west and north; dairy products and fish returned, usually in country fishing boats, sometimes in the packets running to Campbeltown, Oban, Inveraray, Lochgilphead and elsewhere. It was this "local" traffic for which Clyde steamers were originally developed after 1812 and which gave rise to long distance steamers beginning to have a serious impact on Clyde trade and industry by the 1830s, when Glasgow was ready commercially for the massive expansion of maritime - and related industrial - activities during the rest of the 19th century.
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