She had kind eyes and an ever so faint smile, at least on canvas. Elizabeth Steven of Polmadie and Bellahouston was painted – as was the custom of her age – to look dignified but demure.

Her portrait, now in Glasgow Life Museums, shows her in middle life, with a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel on her lap.

But it was in death, at 89, that Miss Steven was important. Vitally so. The Victorian heiress is responsible for one of the biggest acts of philanthropy in her city’s history.

Read more: Glasgow council apologises for its role and connections to the slave trade

In March 1892 she left what became known as the Bellahouston Bequest, up to £500,000 in land and property, the equivalent of hundreds of millions in today’s money, perhaps not far off a billion.

This bonanza, her will stipulated, was to be used for the benefit of the “charitable, educational and benevolent institutions” of Glasgow. And that it has certainly done.


Smith, Colvin; Elizabeth Steven of Polmadie and Bellahouston. Picture credit: Glasgow Museums.

Colvin Smith's picture of Elizabeth Steven of Polmadie and Bellahouston. Picture credit: Glasgow Museums.


Miss Steven’s fortune contributed to many institutions Glaswegians still depend on today, such as the Royal Infirmary and Gartnavel Hospital. It paid for nearly half the building costs of Glasgow School of Art. And her Bequest, 130 years after her passing, is still paying out: nearly £200,000 in grants and donations in 2020.

She did good, Miss Steven. But with money that came from bad. Her Bequest, like much of Victorian Glasgow philanthropy, includes proceeds of one of the greatest crimes in human history.

That is because her family’s fortune was first made in the West Indies sugar trade, a business based on the trafficking, enslavement and exploitation of Africans.

Her money is still being disbursed as charity. Scotland – and this is a horribly uncomfortable truth – is still cashing the cheques of slavery. And not just from one family.

The story of Miss Stevens and her bequest is told in a revelatory new book, published this week. The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy, Scotland and Caribbean Slavery, 1775–1838, catalogues the wealth accrued from the sweet stuff we put in our tea and cakes and fleshes out the men who profited from making other humans property.

We usually think of these Glaswegians, many of whom invested in land in Scotland and married in to the gentry, as the “Tobacco Lords”. Some of their names are still written in to city streets, their likenesses commemorated in stone and steel.


Elizabeth Steven’s fortune contributed to many institutions Glaswegians still depend on today, such as the Royal Infirmary

Elizabeth Steven’s fortune contributed to many institutions Glaswegians still depend on today, such as the Royal Infirmary


Historian Stephen Mullen, the book’s author, is rebranding these traders as “Sugar Aristocrats”, because their interests shifted after America’s War of Independence from Virginia to the Caribbean.

Their money, he demonstrates, helped fuel Scotland’s historic economic, commercial and industrial growth in the 19th century.

“Glasgow’s colonial past is synonymous with Virginia tobacco commerce, although my new book underlines that Caribbean slavery was the major stimuli in Scottish economic development,” Mr Mullen told The Herald.

“Even today, Glasgow-West India merchant capital, and wealth that returned via Scots in the colonial West Indies, improves lives in Scottish society. My book provides fresh insights how this wealth was institutionalised in churches, universities, banks, mercantile and trade organisations.

“Some extant bequests disseminate slavery-derived capital across the city in perpetuity. Caribbean slavery remains a quotidian, if unseen, feature of life in modern Scotland and Glasgow.”

It is more than 190 years since chattel slavery was abolished in the British Empire. Scottish and other British owners of people were compensated for their losses. Their victims were not.

Mr Mullen, of Glasgow University, shows that even after nearly two centuries there is still a stock of slave capital in Scotland. It is not just trauma that passes through generations, but privilege too.

Glasgow West Indies merchants did not routinely buy and sell people, although Scotland was not without its slavers. But they were at the heart of an imperial Atlantic trade that depended on forced, unpaid labour.

Earlier this year Susan Aitken, leader of the city council, formally apologised for slavery. This was after another major investigation by Mr Mullen, commissioned by Glasgow authorities.


Earlier this year Susan Aitken, leader of the city council, formally apologised for slavery

Earlier this year Susan Aitken, leader of the city council, formally apologised for slavery


He detailed how 40 Lord Provosts had links to slavery – half of all those elected during the period of chattel slavery – and how no fewer than 62 streets names honour those who supported or profited from the trade.

The Merchants House, a commercial body, dominated the local council, including enjoying an exclusive right to nominate the Lord Provost. Mr Mullen has found that a tenth of its members were West Indies traders between 1768 and 1841. This was a significant slavery lobby.

Read more: Glasgow slave trade statues: let public decide next steps

Some very online and tabloid commentary has focused on the future of city statuary after Mr Mullen’s Glasgow report, flaming false narratives about “cancelling history”. But the city does not have a totemic “baddie” such as Bristol’s Edward Colston, the mass people trafficker whose monument was unceremoniously dumped in his city’s harbour during 2020’s Black Lives Matters protests.

There are eight statues of men linked, to one extent or another, to slavery in Glasgow. Six are in George Square. Nobody is chucking them in the River Clyde.


There are eight statues of men linked, to one extent or another, to slavery in Glasgow. Six are in George Square

There are eight statues of men linked, to one extent or another, to slavery in Glasgow. Six are in George Square


The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy is a bigger story than just a few bad actors. It is about the systemic accrual of slave-derived wealth across society and the economy. That includes institutions, such as banks and even this newspaper, which still exist today.

It has long been known that West Indies sugar slave capital flooded into construction, Scotland’s first real mass manufacturing industry, textiles, and farming. Mr Mullen’s new book expands that to look at commerce and credit.

“While West India merchant capital had a significant influence on Scottish industrialisation, this study suggests a rethink is required,” he concluded. “The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy were a commercial interest first, and an industrial interest second.

“Indeed, in terms of extent of holdings, the greater investments lay in commerce; wealth held in banking and insurance; and the laying out of large-scale loans across the west of Scotland.

“The true effects on the development of Scottish banking can only be surmised, but large reserves of West India merchant capital were held in account current, and in stocks and shares, all of which stimulated wider development.

“The effects of the major loans both taken and loaned by the Sugar Aristocracy are even harder to gauge, but a large cross-section of Scottish society, including many involved with developing industries, were both indebted to them and accrued annual interest from outlying [and often large-scale] loans.”

The Royal Bank of Scotland, Mr Mullen explained, opened up its first Glasgow branch in 1783. It “ultimately became the premier lenders to the West India merchants”, the historian wrote.

Just as the Royal Bank moved west there was another big development in the city. Publisher John Mennons produced his first edition of the Glasgow Advertiser, complete with the global scoop that Britain had made peace with its former colonies. America was independent.

The Advertiser was to change its name. It became the Glasgow Herald. And its paid shipping and jobs advertisements catalogued the city’s links with Caribbean sugar.

Our editor of the time, Samuel Hunter, was an instinctive conservative. But even he conceded slavery was wrong – and should eventually be abolished.

Mr Mullen reports that 1,700 individual voyages from Clyde ports to the Caribbean were announced on our pages between 1806 and 1834. This was a big trade.

Some 16,000 Scots left the Clyde for colonies such as Jamaica or Trinidad. Few came back with great fortunes. “Scots were more likely to die young from disease in penury in the West Indies than to repatriate wealth to Scotland, ” Mr Mullen wrote. “Small fortunes of less than £500 were the typical return. In modern terms, however, this was still substantial capital.”

This wealth that came back from the Caribbean could be huge. But it was not evenly spread about Scotland.

“Scottish adventurers were less likely to return with wealth to the Highlands, for example, than to west-central Scotland,” wrote Mr Mullen. “The profits and processes associated with slavery made some, but not all, parts of Scotland economically ‘great’ and may have contributed to the underdevelopment of others.”

But it was not just a few rich men who benefited from slavery in the West Indies, the historian stresses. “Scotland was a pro-slavery nation, with large swathes of the population complicit in the Atlantic slavery economy,” he concluded.

The Sugar Aristocrats and their families washed their slave money, flushing it through landed estates, industry and commerce. Today we would call this laundering the proceeds of crime.

They also gave a lot of their loot away, and they married into the gentry, buying respectability in the process.

Moses Steven was one of the biggest names in the sugar trade. In 1783, the year this paper was born and the war with America ended, he was a partner in Buchanan, Steven & Co, a West Indies trading operation. That was when he bought the estate of Polmadie, in the city’s the south side. He also married the daughter of the laird of neighbouring Bellahouston. Both properties were to go his children, the youngest of whom, Elizabeth, died more than a century later.

She is the lady with the kind eyes and the Spaniel lapdog, the great philanthropist of Glasgow. And inheritor of blood money.