Legacies of Empire in GoMA’s Handling Kit

In 1707, the Treaty of Union between England and Scotland gave Scottish merchants access to the English colonies, especially in North America. Glasgow, with its geographical location on the River Clyde being one of the reasons for its involvement in the colonial trade, grew significantly in wealth and stature from the transatlantic slave trade, which relied on the exploitation, displacement and enforced labour of millions of enslaved African people.  From 1710, Glasgow became the centre of an economic boom which lasted nearly fifty years. This gave rise to the infamous ‘Tobacco Lords’, Scottish merchants who acquired great affluence and status through the tobacco trade, and who came to dominate what is now the Merchant City area of Glasgow. 

The Gallery of Modern Art has innate ties to slavery as it was originally built in 1778 as a townhouse for William Cunninghame, one of Glasgow’s most prominent eighteenth century merchants. His connection with slavery stemmed from his own interest in American tobacco, and in later years, Caribbean sugar. As a young man, he had lived and worked in America for a decade, representing leading Glaswegian tobacco merchants and then his own business. He knew the importance of the slave trade to their business, and that enslaved people produced the products through which he, and other Glasgow businessmen, accumulated their wealth. Like other Glasgow merchant mansions, such as the Virginia and Shawfield mansions, Cunninghame’s house symbolised a business empire founded on slavery.

To mark Black History Month, we’re offering a glimpse into our object handling kit, where you can learn about objects in our collection that have connections to the trade in enslaved African people. 

Brass tobacco box

Tobacco boxes, such as this one, were fairly common in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. They were personal items that came in a range of shapes and sizes and consisted of compartments for a clay pipe, tobacco and matches. Initially, tobacco boxes were quite small as tobacco was expensive and perceived as a luxurious commodity. They were predominantly produced in the Netherlands using either brass or silver and then exported to the rest of Europe and the Americas. As more money was invested and the tobacco trade grew, the price of tobacco decreased, resulting in an increase in the size of boxes and pipe bowls alike. 

Tobacco box of brass with compartments for clay pipe, tobacco and matches, each with hinged lid, © Glasgow Museums.

Glasgow’s rise as an economic powerhouse was due to the tobacco trade being the main source of income. The success of this trade relied on the exploitation of slave labour as well as a specific system for storing tobacco. This system consisted of permanent and self-sufficient tobacco stores across rural Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina, with the tobacco being purchased directly from the planters and traded for manufactured goods. This ensured that tobacco was delivered at the best quality during harvest time. 

For Tobacco Lords like Cunninghame, these tobacco stores helped to create a myth of detachment and non-involvement, when in reality, they were the economic facilitators behind the brutality of the slave trade. 

Sugar breakers and nippers

Sugar breakers and nippers are a testament to the increasing demand for sugar as a domestic good by the eighteenth century. During this time, sugar was transported from the Caribbean and South America to Western Europe in large cone shaped sugar loaves. Sugar breakers and nippers were essential for breaking lumps of sugar off to sweeten beverages. Once crushed into smaller pieces, nippers and tongs were used to serve the sugar. The sugar nippers in our collection are made of fine silver and therefore would have belonged to a wealthy family, perhaps a household that was not too different from Cunninghame’s mansion. For households that were less affluent, iron nippers and wooden sugar boxes were also available, demonstrating how accessible sugar had now become.

Sugar nippers, silver, © Glasgow Museums

To supply this growing demand, the Carribean Islands, especially Barbados and Jamaica, and South American colonies became the major suppliers of sugar, which in turn resulted in an increase in the number of enslaved Africans that were involved in the demanding and dangerous process of growing sugar canes and refining it into a product for export. Both growing and processing sugar was highly labour-intensive, and many enslaved people were literally worked to death. In addition, during the colonial period, the arrival of sugar culture deeply impacted both the society and economy of the Carribean; it not only dramatically increased the ratio of slaves to free men (which increased the very real threat of rebellions and their occurrences), but it also increased the average size of slave plantations. It may seem strange to think that this grocery item that you can get for less than £1 in any supermarket has such a brutal history, but it’s a history that needs to be acknowledged. 


Take a closer look at the figure in the medal and what he’s holding. What do you think this medal is celebrating? 

Bronze medal, © Glasgow Museums

The medal was given to all schoolchildren in Britain in 1834 to celebrate the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. One side portrays a now freed man with radiant light shining upon him, with his arms raised and holding broken shackles.  He’s standing on a broken whip, with more broken shackles lying on the ground around him, and in the background there is a hut and palm trees. Other details include a broad leaf plant- probably tobacco or sugar cane and the inscription around the edge of the coin cites verse 23 from Psalm 118: ‘This is the Lord’s doing; It is marvellous in our eyes’.

The other side of the medal has the following statement: ‘In commemoration of the extinction of colonialslavery throughout the British Dominions in the reign of WIlliam the IV Augt 1 1834’. From this text, it might be assumed that William IV was in support and proactive of abolishing slavery. The truth, however, was that the king spoke openly against the abolition of slavery in the House of Lords, arguing that the living standard of workers in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland was worse than that of the enslaved people in the West Indies. According to him, the enslaved people in the colonies were well cared for and “in a state of happiness”, despite the numerous first-hand accounts of enslavement that testified to the brutal conditions they were subjected to. 

The Slavery Abolition Act that outlawed slavery in the British colonies was passed on 23rd August 1833, following on from the Slave Trade Act of 1807. There were lots of different factors that led to the Act, including slave revolts, home grown abolition movements, religious arguments, government policies and the economy. By the 1800s, the economy wasn’t as reliant on the transatlantic slave trade as it had been during its peak in the early 1700s. 

The Act immediately freed all enslaved people under the age of six, whilst older enslaved people had to go through a period of “apprenticeship” of eight years. In this system, they could work as before for their former owner as well as other plantation owners for a small wage. This period aimed to prepare the former enslaved people for freedom, yet realistically this so-called “apprenticeship” differed little from slavery. The complete emancipation was voted by Parliament to take effect from 1st August 1838, when 750,000 people were freed from the bonds of slavery. 

As part of the Slavery Abolition Act, the British government was to distribute a financial compensation to all owners of enslaved people, paid for with a loan of approximately £17 billion today. This money was meant to ‘compensate’ slavers for the loss of what had, until then, been considered their property. These loan payments only ended in 2015, meaning generations of British taxpayers have been implicated in a legacy of financial support towards these horrific crimes against humanity. Never has a single penny or reparation, nor a single word of apology been granted by the British state to the people it enslaved, or to their descendants.

At GoMA, we’re so lucky to be able to house our collection in this beautiful building; yet, we would be doing ourselves and more importantly our visitors a disservice if we didn’t acknowledge its dark past. This is why as an organisation, Glasgow Museums is committed to providing its visitors with access to this information, through its Legacies of Slavery in Glasgow Museums and Collections blog and the recent appointment of Curator of Legacies of Slavery and Empire, Miles Greenwood. 

Although Glasgow is still dealing with some of the legacies of slavery and colonialism, such as racism and inequality, it is mostly a welcoming and open city. However, we have to recognise the role it played in one of the world’s most brutal crimes against humanity and to ensure these atrocities never arise again. 

Useful resources: 






This Collection Musing is part of a project on the history of GoMA funded by Glasgow City Heritage Trust


  1. A quibble: the reference to William IV was standard legal jargon, not an attempt to give him credit.

    A serious comment: compensating slaveholders in order to buy off opposition seems to me a very good idea. Compensating former slaves or, to the extent that they can be identified, their descendants would be an even better one

    • Hi Paul,

      Thank you for taking the time to read the article and commenting. You’re right- a better idea indeed!

      Best wishes,


    • Hi Neale,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article- maybe when we’re able to offer our object handling sessions again you could come into GoMA and see the medal for yourself!

      Best wishes,


    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your comment. It was the BLM protests in Glasgow in June and the debates around changing the street names that inspired me to write this article!

      Best wishes,


  2. Thank you for posting this – it’s really fascinating to read about the connections to slavery in GoMA’s collection. I’m pleased to see you highlighting this and not shying away from difficult histories.

  3. I’m shocked to read about the financial compensation only ending in 2015, I had no idea! Thank you for bringing it to attention.

    • Hi Rosie,

      Thanks for your comment! I know- it’s shocking and so many people are unaware of it!

      Best wishes,


  4. This is a very timely and thought-provoking piece. Thank you for acknowledging GoMA’s links to slavery and bringing this important information to light, I hope it will inspire others to do the same!

  5. This is a really great article, thanks so much for taking the time to write about it. It’s a hugely important topic that doesn’t get talked about enough so articles like these are truly a step in the right direction.

    • Hi Holly,

      Thanks so much for your comment! At GoMA, we’re always taking steps to be as inclusive as possible, which can’t be achieved without recognising our, and more widely Glasgow’s, connections to slavery. Your acknowledgment of this means a lot!

      Best wishes,

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