Tartan Slaves


Oh, thought I, how interesting when I learnt that some Caribbean slave owners dressed their slaves in tartan but looking into it further I discovered that tartan cloth was a fabric like any other so my initial wonder more or less fizzled out. This is what I discovered.

tartan (1)

Plantation owners were obliged to supply clothing or fabric annually to their slaves; primarily for reasons of modesty and also for health. Much of the cloth bought in came from factories in Europe which was shipped out to the colonies and could be striped, checked or plain, sometimes dyed and sometimes not. The colour or design might represent a plantation – a means of identifying human property with a particular plantation – or master’s house  – but as for surprise that slaves were ever attired in tartan, well, these were designs woven into fabrics and not so different from any others chosen by other slave owners.

Slaves were people kidnapped and forced to work for someone till death without pay, kept in the meanest of circumstances – not so different from domestic stock on a farm. Children of slaves were enslaved at birth – every opportunity that life offered other people removed from them with their first breath. They were owned. They were property. Property with a value.

Having property that was potentially mobile, might try to escape, meant clothing could have another function – to identify where an escapee should be returned to if caught; the uniform or livery specific to a plantation.

The livery of house slaves was of better quality than that supplied to field workers for the house slave was visible to family and guests so in a sense represented the household. Plantation slaves were provided with most basic cheap clothing but something that was expected to last until it was replaced the following year. If someone’s clothing wore out within the year and it did because the quality was so poor then the person was reduced to covering up as best they could with the rags remaining. Quality of the cloth also varied according to the skill of the recipient and men, women and children were allocated different amounts of cloth or clothing. Women were provided with less clothing than the men they worked alongside but could be given extra if they had children – providing the estate owner with extra hands. They might also get additional clothing for providing those in charge with ‘sexual favours’ i.e. allowed themselves to be raped or sexually exploited.

The uniform of a male house slaves might consist of a coat, waistcoat, breeches, shirts, cravats, hose and shoes, mostly made up into garments whereas female slaves were often expected to make their own clothes from lengths of cloth supplied to them. House slaves might be given cast-offs by members of the family to save on the expense of clothing.  Women field slaves were dressed in skirts or dresses and men in breeches and shirts while children were given only a short gown until nearly grown. These garments could be made from all kinds of materials, fine and coarse: wool, linen, cotton, calico – patterned such as plaid (tartan) or plain and unbleached such as Osnaburg, a rough linen, like sacking, naturally brownish and produced in Osnabrück in present-day Germany or something similar manufactured in Virginia in America. On the subject of America there were sumptuary laws in some areas which prohibited people from dressing above their station which meant slaves were always supplied with the roughest fabrics available. Another rough fabric, a coarse heavy woollen material called Pennystone was imported from England. 

Many Scots became plantation owners in the West Indies and parts of America and made huge fortunes from what was basically farming, something most of them were familiar with, only without the nuisance of paying for the help. Britain was industrialising and the demand for products to trade around the world and feed the growing population in the UK was huge. Sugar, cotton, tobacco, tea plantations – whatever the product worked by slave labour mainly supplied from West Africa but also closer to their own homes guaranteed easy and immense profits. A surprising number of Scots in the Caribbean did not choose the life but had it imposed on them – transported there  because of decisions of Scottish and English courts. Some were criminals (crimes were pretty wide-ranging then) or political and religious rebels whose death sentences had been commuted to transportation. Nearly 1,000 Jacobites who weren’t butchered were rounded up and shipped out as plantation slaves. Yet more Scots were kidnapped, shipped overseas and sold into slavery. The case of Peter Williamson, kidnapped along with a large number of children in Aberdeen is well-documented and this kind of human trafficking went on throughout Scotland, certainly the northern part. Some children and adults were sold to estate owners as indentured servants – forced into slavery for a specified time then freed sometimes with a small land holding – a better future than African slaves were given. Against this barbarity the dressing of a plantation owner’s property in his clan tartan is small beer.

tartan (2)Governments working hand-in-glove with plantation owners – they were often the same people or at least members of the same families who used whatever means at their disposal to pull in labour – all the better for them that they didn’t have to pay, other than the cost of shipping to the West Indies or America.

The West Indies became a home-from-home for Scots, enforced and otherwise, when native place names were replaced with ones more familiar to them e.g. in Jamaica and Montego Bay these included Aberdeen, Alva, Berwick Castle, Clydesdale, Dundee, Dunrobin, Elderslie, Elgin Town, Farquhar’s Beach, Glasgow, Inverness, Kilmarnoch (sic), Perth Town, Roxborough (sic), Sterling Castle (sic), Stewart Town, Tweedside and Culloden – a stark reminder of how men and boys were separated from family and exported like meat carcasses.

‘The Highlander was an object of hatred to his Saxon neighbours…a filthy abject savage, a slave, a Papist, a cutthroat, and a thief.’ They were also vilified by Lowland Scots. A Highlander taken before a court stood little chance of judicial leniency. England post-Culloden, it was reported, hated Highlanders with a passion and were out for vengeance. Slaughter on the battlefield was followed by slaughter in homes across the Highlands and on the scaffold, proscription of a way of life and confiscation of land and the humble tartan on the streets of London led to outbursts of angry reaction for long after the ’45 and presumably tartan was not produced for long after then.  

Check or plaid material, tartan, if you like, was later manufactured in India for export to the West Indies. A red and white check or plaid also came to be made in Britain. It was called Bandana or Madras cloth and used in dresses, blouses and women’s head wraps – Bandanas. Checked material became commonly distributed for clothing so it is perhaps not surprising that Scottish plantation owners would decide to have checks that matched their own clans’ plaid not least to register their all-powerful state against the utterly powerless impoverished chattel. Likewise in other estates the uniform might not be of tartan or plaid, it might have no colour whatsoever yet be distinctly part of a plantation’s identity. Where clothing was not very different from other estates an owner’s initials sewn onto field clothes was used to mark his property or his men, women and children might be forced to wear a lead tag inscribed with the owner’s name around their necks. These were variations on a theme of marking human beings as marketable property.

There we have it then some slaves were dressed in tartan while others were dressed in plainer cloth which might be shipped out from Scottish mills (Wilson & Son of Bannockburn was one), Irish, Welsh, English, German or perhaps American. Huge quantities of cloth was imported annually to plantations, some was imported straight off the loom as broadcloth and some made up into clothing – breeches, jackets, skirts, hose, shirts etc but no shoes for field workers.

Meaner slave owners recycled old sheets and curtains to clothe their slaves or cut them up for patching and mending. Such was the experience of Robert Craig, an indentured weaver from Scotland bought by Londoner, Colonel Joseph Ball, a slaver who emigrated to Virginia in 1661 who thoughtfully left named slaves to members of his family on his death.  

The estates’ head driver who oversaw field work with liberal applications of his polished staff with its pronged end and his whip should raise far greater condemnation than the choice of decorative garb allocated to the poor souls worked into their graves by this monstrous system of exploitation.

Innovative engineering companies such as McKinnon’s in Aberdeen made fortunes exporting machinery to the colonies to better exploit the raw materials, crops and natural resources required for Britain and for export around the world. Interestingly that while machinery for processing mono-crop cultures imposed on colonies such as sugar, coffee, rice etc were essential tools in the profitability of slave plantations the enterprise and invention behind them offers a buffer to their association with human exploitation that went with the territory of slaves in tartan cloth.

19 Comments to “Tartan Slaves”

  1. Steven L. Akins (August 30, 2018)

    “Interesting that the order was placed by a McLauchlan but was for Lindsay tartan, not MacLachlan tartan.”

    The letter orders Linsay; i.e. linsey-woolsey cloth, not Lindsay tartan. If there were any doubt, a specimen is enclosed with the letter.

  2. It was not until 1655 that slavery for life became a legally sanctioned institution in the North American colonies. In that year, Anthony Johnson, a free black Angolian who had been brought to Virginia as an indentured servant and who had worked off his term of indenture years earlier, went to court over the ownership of a black servant named John Casor, who Johnson claimed ownership of saying that Casor had been sold to him as his slave for life. Corroborating testimony in the case was provided by a Jewish merchant named Capt. Samuel Goldsmith, with the court deciding in Johnson’s favor, legally recognizing John Casor as his slave for life, setting the precedent for lifetime slave ownership in the colonies of North America. For a time, free black people could even “own” the services of White indentured servants in Virginia as well. Free blacks owned slaves in Boston by 1724 and in Connecticut by 1783; by 1790, 48 black people in Maryland owned 143 slaves. One particularly notorious black Maryland farmer named Nat Butler “regularly purchased and sold Negroes for the Southern trade,” according to R. Halliburton, Jr.’s article Free Black Owners of Slaves, published in the July 1975 issue of The South Carolina Historical Magazine (Vol. 76, No. 3, pp. 129-142).

    In 1860 the total number of slave-owners in the South was 393,975 (including, in Louisiana, some free Negroes). The total number of Whites living in the South in 1860 was 5,582,222. Out of 5,582,222 White Southerners, only 393,975 or 7% owned slaves, and of those Southern slave owners 5,000 were Jewish, according to the Encyclopedia of World Slavery by Junius Rodriguez. Nationwide the ratio of America’s 175,000 Jews who owned slaves in 1860 was nearly twice that of White Americans, with over 2.85% (1 out of 40) of individual Jewish Americans owning slaves, compared to less than 1.5% (1 out of 70) of the United States’ 26,581,450 White residents.

    The percentage of slave-ownership was even higher among the 476,748 free persons of color living in the U.S. in 1860. In New Orleans, for example over 3,000 free negroes owned slaves, or 28 percent of the free negroes in that city. In 1860 there were at least six negroes in Louisiana who owned 65 or more slaves. The largest number, 152 slaves, were owned by the widow C. Richards and her son P.C. Richards, who owned a large sugar cane plantation. Another negro slave magnate in Louisiana, with over 100 slaves, was Antoine Dubuclet, a sugar planter whose estate was valued at $264,000 in 1860 dollars. In Charleston, South Carolina,125 free negroes owned slaves in 1860; six of them owning 10 or more. Of the $1.5 million in taxable property owned by free Negroes in Charleston, more than $300,000 represented slave holdings. In North Carolina 69 free Negroes were slave owners. In 1830 about 13.7 percent (319,599) of the black population was free. Of these, 3,776 free Negroes owned 12,907 slaves, out of a total of 2,009,043 slaves owned in the entire United States. Of these black slave owners, fifty-four (or about 1 percent) owned between 20 and 84 slaves in 1830; 172 (about 4 percent) owned between 10 to 19 slaves; and 3,550 (about 94 percent) each owned between 1 and 9 slaves, while 42 percent owned at least one slave.

  3. Gov. William Aiken of Charleston, South Carolina, was the son of a Scots-Irish immigrant from Ballymena, Ireland, who came to North America in 1789. Gov. Aiken was one of the largest slave-holders in the country, owning 600 slaves who worked mostly on his rice plantation on Jehossee Island, and whose home in Charleston is a historical landmark. One of the items in the Charleston History Museum is a Scottish outfit worn by his grandson, William Aiken Rhett, which includes a tartan kilt and shoulder plaid: https://i.imgur.com/a8elnvV.jpg It is doubtful that his slaves were quite so well-dressed.

  4. Good stuff. Worth pointing out that some Jacobites, expelled from Scotland, nevertheless became plantation and slave owners. James Robertson’s novel about Joseph Knight highlights such a case and refers to others.

    • I didn’t know that but it doesn’t surprise me. Many Jacobites were from that class of estate owners, several who had land taken off them by the crown so it would be in their blood, so to speak. Another book to add to the pile at my bedside. Cheers.

    • Been meaning to follow up and kept forgetting. Took your advice and got Robertson’s book through the library. It is a very good novel. I especially enjoyed the discussion between Boswell and the others. Well-written and a cracking telling of the story of Scottish involvement in slavery. Thanks for bringing it to my notice. L.

      • Great that you followed up. It’s a cracking novel and an important contribution to the history of Scots involvement in slavery and the dissemination of that history. Look forward to another of your blogs. Keep up the good work.

  5. I have a copy of letter from 1797 to the famous tartan wearing firm of William Wilson & Son saying

    “Send us 200 yd Linsay the The Inclosed pattern – the article is fr negro wear and must be very low priced if possible not above 1/- or under if you can”. The cloth was bound for Jamacia.

  6. Thank you for that sobering look into a most shady side of slave-owning practices, including Scottish participation. I have just finished reading “Damn’ Rebel Bitches: the women of the ’45” by Maggie Craig, which gives more information abut the deportation of Jacobites, including women, after Culloden. More power to your research!

    • Thanks. It’s an age since I read Maggie Craig’s book, will have to look it out again. Awful times it’s impossible to get your head around just how terrifying it must have been.

      • And here we are centuries later living in a world where child labour and other forms of exploitation are still tolerated. That’s why I appreciated your detailed blog with a new approach which might prod some people into having a closer look into what’s going on in our name today . (Well, nae in my name, but ye ken fit ah mean!)

      • I do. 🙂 I am a firm believer that social media has at last provided some real power to the people that the odd letter to newspapers didn’t have. I suspect that’s why so many who have enjoyed considerable influence ridicule and decry it. I also recognise social media is full of heid bangers but then so is every area of life.

  7. Fine sense of humanity.

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