07 May 2009

Scotland's unscrupulous international money men ...of the 18th century

Neil Oliver

Neil Oliver

A history of Scotland, an Open University and BBC co-production, is about to go Stateside to document Scotland's international moneymen, who weren't averse to 'playing the markets' for their own ends in the 18th Century.

Presenter Neil Oliver and a film crew will visit America and Jamaica to film the story of Scots, who in the wake of the defeat of the Jacobites, turned to the colonies and the Empire.

As well as highlighting stories such as the Glasgow tobacco merchants, who tied American farmers into restrictive deals, and Scottish slave ownership, they will also be focusing on the stories of individuals such as John Witherspoon, a humble Paisley minister, who became a major proponent of American independence. (He is said to be a direct ancestor of Hollywood star Reese Witherspoon.)

Says Neil; "It was an amazing period in Scottish history, but it is Scottish history in an international context. In the wake of the defeat of the Jacobites, there were Scots who were having to flee and others who viewed it as their best option.

"Not everyone made their fortune but there were many who did and they didn't always care about the cost to others. Having been 'victims' as they saw it, many of these Scots then became slave owners, often among the most merciless of the slave owners. Others became very adept money-makers who weren't exactly scrupulous about how they did it. In this shiny modern world, the old conflicts about about dynasty and religion were gone; the colonialists worshipped at the altar of a new God - money.

"But it was also the dawn of a new era; when Scotland made its mark on the world by exporting its most valuable commodities; its people and ideas, ideas that helped start a revolution."

Among the stories to be featured are the restrictive trade practices of the Glasgow tobacco merchants, who went all out to target smaller farmers with less commercial clout. They tied local Virginian farmers into direct trade deals, stopping them getting a fair price in the open market. The Tobacco Lords effectively bought low and sold high as at the other end they enjoyed the British Empire monopoly in Europe and could sell their produce at high prices. In some instances American farmers were lured into tempting credit deals, which also tied them to buyers, who could then virtually set whatever price they wanted.

Explains Neil: "Credit would be offered to farmers who would otherwise be paid once a year, at harvest time. This could be a loan, or some tempting goodies their ships had brought in from Scotland. But it was a deal with the devil. In return for your tobacco, you were shackled to them, and they could demand whatever price they saw fit. It was commerce without conscience, profit before any sense of ethics.

"This greedy money-making at any cost wasn't filtering down any advantages to the ordinary people of Scotland, who were incredibly poor at this time. It is ironic that it was the abject poverty that Benjamin Franklin saw first hand in Scotland that convinced him that some sort of American Britain Union was not the way forward, while at the same time the best intellectual efforts of the Scottish Enlightenment had provided America with a blueprint for liberty."

Among those who left Scotland for America, disgusted by the disparity between a wealthy elite and the impoverished general population, was Dr John Witherspoon. Fearing Scotland was losing its moral compass, he left in 1768 to take up an appointment as Principal of the renowned Princeton College, in New Jersey. He became the leading Churchman of his time advocating independence; so much so that the British specifically targetted his base, Princeton and the college, destroying just about everything in their path.

Further galvanised against the British by this action, Witherspoon worked tirelessly for five years to make for repairs to the college and on a special Congress set up by the revolutionary forces. His dedication to this cause was acknowledged when he was among those present to witness the signing of the American Declaration of Independence. Says Neil: "From Paisley to Princeton, the story of John Witherspoon is amazing but he is one of a number of individuals and stories about Scots who forged America - and indeed the wider British Empire - that will feature."

Neil McDonald, Executive Producer of the series, says: "We are delivering another five parts of the Scottish story, taking it up to the present day. The early days of Scotland were full of dramatic action, blood, gore and machinations, but if anything the action and machinations really hot up now. It is 300 years full of dramatic storylines, again much of which is known about in academic circles but which we hope to make fresh and exciting for a wider audience."

Dr Ian Donnachie, Reader in History at The Open University and academic advisor for the series, says: "As the series moves on in time it highlights major themes in the history of Scotland to our own times. Many important and controversial issues that are addressed and debated in the programmes help to explain how Scotland came to be the country it is today. No doubt the series will continue to provoke lively debate over major strands and personalities explored through Neil Oliver's lively presentation."

The series will resume on BBC One Scotland in early November, with transmission at a later point on network BBC Two.

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