A Free Press but not a Free People


Many objects in Glasgow Museums’ collection bear witness to Scots’ participation in slavery during the 1700-1800s. A copy of the Grenada Free Press and Public Gazette, published on 27 August 1828, is one such example. The pages are faded and yellow now, but the words printed on the back page speak loud and clear. Among adverts for handkerchiefs, crackers, socks, candles, hams and horses, two adverts in particular stand out.

One reads: ‘WANTED TO PURCHASE, TWO healthy, well-disposed NEGRO BOYS – for whom liberal prices will be given. Apply to the Printer. St George’s 20th August 1828

Photograph of an advert in the Grenada Free Press and Public Gazette
Advert in the Grenada Free Press and Public Gazette, 27 August 1828 (Glasgow Museums ETHNN.866)

To a modern-day person, seeing an advert for the sale of human beings placed right next adverts for everyday items and livestock is shocking and unsettling. Nonetheless, there is abundant evidence that trading in enslaved people was considered acceptable and relatively normal, as shown by a recent study into runaway slaves in Britain in the 1700s [https://www.runaways.gla.ac.uk/for_sale]. Newspaper adverts like the ones shown here were tools used to attempt to control and suppress the lives and freedoms of black enslaved people, not just in the colonies, but also within Britain.

The ‘Printer’ mentioned in the advert was the newspaper’s publisher and owner – an Aberdeenshire man named Alexander McCombie, who had bought property in Grenada around 1817. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Scots Presbyterian Kirk there, and owned a number of enslaved people including children. His newspaper, The Grenada Free Press, was the voice of the island’s white planters and merchants. They would have picked up copies of the newspaper, pored over the latest news from Europe and America, and perused the sales adverts. A slave-owner wishing to dispose of human property might have responded to the ‘Wanted’ advert, and McCombie would have put him in touch with the buyer. Not only, then, was McCombie a slave-owner himself, he also facilitated the ongoing buying and selling of enslaved people that carried on within the colonies, despite Britain abolishing its slave trade many years earlier.

On the same page, immediately below, is another advert, which similarly testifies to the ways in which enslaved people were regarded as property. The advert is about Thomas, a young man who had run away from the Cape Sale plantation in Grenada in July 1828. His owner, James Bain, wanted him back and put an advert in the paper offering a reward to anyone apprehending Thomas.

A runaway advert in the Grenada Free Press and Public Gazette, 27 August 1828 (Glasgow Museums ETHNN.866)

The advert reads: ‘RUNAWAY From Cape Sale Estate, about three weeks since, A DARK MULATTO YOUNG MAN named THOMAS, about 28 years of age, 5 feet 8 inches high, and stout made. Any person apprehending and delivering him to the Manager on the Estate, or to the Subscriber in St. George’s, will be suitably rewarded. JAMES BAIN. St George’s, 13th August, 1828.’

James Bain was a Scottish planter and owner of the Cape Sale and Belmont plantations in Grenada, as well as a property in the main town of St George’s. Lists of the enslaved people on his estates, compiled between 1817 and 1834, show that Bain owned more than 200 people, although this number would fluctuate a little. When enslaved women on Bain’s estates gave birth the number would rise, as their new born became Bain’s property. Likewise, when Bain’s enslaved people died, often from exhaustion, fever, disease or in some cases suicide, numbers would decrease.

Whether Thomas managed to avoid recapture we cannot be sure, but we know that James Bain retired to Elmbank Place in Glasgow to enjoy the wealth he had obtained by exploiting and enslaving people in Grenada.

Katinka Stentoft Dalglish
Curator of Archaeology

For more information on Glasgow Museums’ collections please visit http://collections.glasgowmuseums.com

Images © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection.

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