James and Richard Oswald – Beneficent Clergyman – Merchant, Diplomat and Slave Trader

This post was meant to be about another beneficent Glasgow clergyman, the Rev. James Oswald, however as I researched his family it became clear that the broader family history was perhaps more interesting. His brother was Richard Oswald, who became a merchant in London and also helped establish the treaty between the United States and Great Britain which ended the American War of Independence.

However, by no stretch of the imagination can Richard Oswald be described as a benefactor of Glasgow. As I hope to show he married into a rich family which brought him property in the Caribbean and the American colonies, included in which were plantations which used African slave labour. He dealt in sugar, tobacco and other commodities and helped provision the British army during the Austrian War of Succession and the Seven Years War. He was also responsible for the shipment of around 13,000 African slaves from Bance/Bunce Island, in the Sierra Leone river estuary, to the British colonies in America and the Caribbean.

The major part of this post will therefore depart from my usual objective of discussing benefactors of Glasgow. Why? I’m not really sure. Richard Oswald had lots of skills and business acumen, however it was all underpinned by his activity as a major slave trader. I suppose therefore I’m reacting to his significant part in the slave trade which involved him setting up a ‘slave trading post’ off the West African coast. Hopefully, therefore, these notes will help, even in a small way, dispel the myth that trading in African slavery was predominately an English activity, carried out from English ports, and that we Scots were above doing anything like that. It has become clear in recent years that Scots were at the heart of the machinery that made slave trading work and profitable. They were also responsible for some of the most appalling treatment of their ‘cargo’ as ‘it’ was shipped across the Atlantic.

In 1795 Robert Burns wrote “ A Man’s a Man for A’ That”, a sentiment that Oswald appears not to have shared. As it happens Burns also wrote a poem about Oswald’s wife Mary Ramsey, but more of that later.

The brothers’ great grandfather was James Oswald* of Kirkwall, Orkney. He had a son, also James, who at some point crossed over to Wick in Caithness where he became a bailie of the town. What his occupation was has not been established. He married Barbara Coghill and had two sons, James and George who both became clergymen, each marrying daughters of Richard Murray of Pennyland.[1]

*Lots of James Oswalds in this story!

James was born in 1654 and attended King’s College Aberdeen graduating as M.A. in 1674. Initially he was a session clerk and teacher in Thurso, however that was to change when he was admitted to the ministry in the parish of Watten in Caithness, an Episcopalian charge, in 1683. He remained at Watten until his death in 1698. He married Mary Murray in the year he became minister there and had two sons, Richard, born in 1687 and Alexander, born in 1694, and two daughters.[2] Both sons became very successful merchants in Glasgow. In 1751 they purchased the Scotstoun estate from the Crawford family and by 1759 they jointly owned Balshagray.[3] Notably they were also influential in their cousin Richard, son of George Oswald and the main subject of this post, becoming a merchant, he serving an apprenticeship with them.

George was born in 1664 and graduated M.A. from Edinburgh University in 1692. He became minister of Dunnet parish church, also in Caithness, in 1697, his charge being a Presbyterian one. He married his sister-in-law Margaret Murray and had five children of whom two were boys; James, (the beneficent clergyman) and Richard (the slave trader). He died in 1725.[4] One unusual episode he had to deal with during his ministry occurred in 1699 when two parishioners were accused of witchcraft. Having sought advice from the Presbytery he was advised to confront the accused with witnesses and report back. Nothing seems to have come of it as there is no further record of it in the Presbytery Records. This case also appears to have been the last recorded incident of witchcraft in Caithness.[5]

James Oswald – the Beneficent Clergyman.

George’s eldest son James was born in 1703. His early education is unclear with a suggestion that he attended King’s College, Aberdeen. It seems he did attend the divinity class given by William Hamilton at Edinburgh University in 1723. For how long and to what extent is not known.

He must however have attained a reasonable divinity education as when his father died the Caithness presbytery began the process of George succeeding his father at Dunnet in March 1726, ending with his ordination in August of the same year.

He remained at Dunnet, preaching in English and Gaelic, until December 1750 at which time he transferred to the parish at Methven in Perthshire. His move there was not without some difficulty. He was proposed by the parish patron for the position in 1748 however the Perth presbytery was against the appointment, not necessarily on a personal basis but because they were against patronage and would have preferred the parish lay elders to have decided their next incumbent. It took two years and various rebukes from the church hierarchy, including civil charges of intimidation, before a General Assembly committee ‘made it happen’. This led to a number of the congregation seceding from the church.

From about that time, and for the rest of his life, he began to write about the church, its purpose, methodology and potential for schism, gaining a reputation as an ‘ecclesiastical politician’. His first publication was in 1753 relating to church authority and obedience however it was in the mid-1760s that he began to make his name as an author. In that decade he was an unsuccessful candidate for the chair of ecclesiastical history at Glasgow University, in 1765 he wrote ‘Scripture Catechism, for the Use of Families’ and a year later he wrote perhaps his most important work ‘An Appeal to Common Sense in Behalf of Religion’, which was well received at home and abroad, and went to a second edition in 1768 and a second volume in 1772.[6]

During this period, he became moderator of the General Assembly in 1765 [7] and was awarded the degree D.D. by Glasgow University in the same year.[8]

He married Elizabeth Murray of Clairdon in 1728 and had seven children, four of whom were boys. Two of the sons, George and Alexander, became noted merchants in Glasgow, George inheriting the Scotstoun estate circa 1766 from his second cousins Richard and Alexander who both died without issue, brother Alexander buying the Shieldhall estate in 1781.[9] It’s also perhaps worth mentioning that brother Alexander had a son, another James born in 1779, who, like his father, was a merchant and became one of two MPs for Glasgow in 1832, following the Reform Act of that year.[10] His statue is in the north east corner of George Square in line with the Cenotaph; Oswald Street in the city centre  is named after him.[11]

Elizabeth died in 1746, not long after the youngest son Andrew was born in 1745. In 1749 James married Margaret Dunbar, there being no children of this second marriage.[12]

He continued at Methven until 1783 at which time he left his charge to go and live with his son George at Scotstoun. He had continued to write, having more time to do so from the early 1770s due to ill health resulting in his pastoral duties being carried out by others. For most of his life he and his brother Richard had exchanged letters, some of which dealt with his writings, particularly concerning a follow up to ‘Appeal’. His brother also helped him financially at Methven when his stipend was reduced as a result of the patron and one other heritor being in financial difficulties.

He died in 1793 and left £100 to the Glasgow Society for the Sons of Clergymen (still in existence and now known as the Glasgow Society for the Sons and Daughters of Clergymen), and a similar amount to its Edinburgh counterpart.[13] He also donated £20 to the Glasgow Merchants House.[14] Small amounts it would seem but in today’s terms these sums equate to somewhere between £25,000 and £2.4 million.[15]

Richard Oswald – Merchant, Diplomat, Slave Trader.

James’ brother Richard was born circa 1705. Where he began his education is not known however around 1725, shortly after his father died, he became apprenticed to his cousins Richard and Alexander who, as previously stated, were successful merchants in Glasgow trading in tobacco, sugar and wine. He became their factor in the British colonies in America and the Caribbean travelling as required to satisfy the needs of the business, supplying planters and collecting payment and chasing debts. On  his return to Glasgow in 1741 he became a partner in his cousins’ company.

During the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) Oswald had made large profits, presumably for his cousins’ company and himself, resulting in him moving to Philpot Lane in London in 1746 where he continued to deal in tobacco and sugar and eventually, horses and slaves. Between 1756 and 1758, helped by a family member who was on the government Treasury board, and other influential London based Scottish merchants, he began provisioning the British army with bread, wagons and so on, which led to him supplying the army in Germany with bread during the Seven Years War (1756-1763).[16] His contracts and commissions during this war netted him a remarkable £125,000, worth £18 million to £2 billion today.[17]

His business activity had clearly grown in size and scope between these two wars. He was making lots of money but where did his working capital come from? No doubt some of it would come from the usual sources of the day and his profits, however two events during this period I believe, significantly changed the level of capital he was able to apply to his business.

Firstly, he began shipping African slaves to the American and Caribbean colonies around 1748 and then he married an extremely rich heiress in 1750.

Looking at his marriage first; he married Mary Ramsay in St Martins in the Fields, London on the 17th November 1750.[18] She was the daughter of Alexander Ramsay of Jamaica and Jean Ferguson, whom he had met in Jamaica whilst working for his cousins. Alexander was an extremely wealthy plantation and hence slave owner living in Kingston. He had died in 1738, his will being probated in Jamaica in that year and referring to him owning one hundred and one slaves, fifty one adult males and fifty adult females, all valued at £3727.[19] Mary as an only child inherited her father’s estate on his death which included properties in the West Indies and the Americas.[20] Through his wife therefore Oswald had access to a significant fortune. As it turned out there were no children of their marriage.

By the time of his marriage he had already got involved in the trading of slaves. In 1748 he and other London based Scottish merchants, the partnership being known as Grant, Sargent and Oswald, purchased Bance Island from the Royal African Company of England which had built a fort there around 1672.

The fort was rebuilt, and the infrastructure put in place to obtain slaves from the mainland. They did not venture into the interior themselves but imported guns, alcohol, and cloth which they exchanged with local chieftains for native captives they brought to the island, these captives resulting from local ‘induced’ wars.

Oswald was the lead partner in the venture whose main customers were the rice planters of Charlestown, South Carolina. By 1756 he had established a close business and personal relationship with Henry Laurens, a very rich rice planter and slave dealer there. From Bance island the slave ships would carry around three hundred slaves per ship plus ivory and camwood. Laurens sold the slaves locally and from his commission on the sale, would purchase rice to send to London along with the ivory and camwood. By this process both men increased their wealth exponentially.[21], [22] Between 1748 and 1784 around thirteen thousand men, women and children were shipped from Bance Island to the Americas.[23]

However, the American War of Independence was to change the relationship between Oswald and Laurens, both becoming active participants in ending it.

In the meantime, following the end of the Seven Years War in 1763 Oswald began putting by now his vast fortune to more use by acquiring land for both business and personal use. He purchased four plantations in the Caribbean amounting to 1,566 acres, and 30,000 acres of land in Florida. Over the next twenty years he also purchased the Auchincruive estate in Ayrshire (7,000 acres) and the similarly sized Cavens estate in Kirkcudbright and Dumfriesshire. His main residence became Auchincruive House which was built in 1767 to a design provided to the previous owner James Murray by Robert Adam.[24]

His business activities however began to suffer following the rebellion of the British colonists in America which resulted in the American War of Independence beginning in 1775. As a direct consequence he reduced his overseas activities and also divested himself of his property in Virginia and Florida. He always had been to some extent politically active, but not in any formal way, simply through friends in Whitehall. The war changed that as he began writing papers on a variety of subjects, including military, using his business background and experience of the Colonies and their businessmen to inform his writing.[25] One particular memorandum written in 1781 was entitled ‘The Folly of Invading Virginia, The Strategic Importance of Portsmouth and the need for Civil Control of the Military’ from which we may be able to assume where his sympathies lay.[26]

It was at this time that his friendship with Henry Laurens came to the forefront of settling the Independence War. Laurens had become President of the Continental Congress (the provisional government of the rebellious colonies) during the war and had then been appointed American envoy to Holland. On his way there c.1780/81 he was captured by the British Navy, imprisoned in the Tower of London and charged with high treason. In 1781 Oswald paid bail of £50,000 to release him from the Tower, Laurens remaining in London until he was exchanged for the British Commander in America, c.1782.[27]

Probably because of his American contacts, in April 1782 Oswald was appointed by the Prime Minister Lord Shelburne as his diplomatic agent to ‘treat for peace’ with the American delegation in Paris which consisted of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Jay and subsequently Henry Laurens. Oswald was the main negotiator for the British side but was considered by some to be too lenient towards the Americans and too ready to concede issues. However, by November 1782 a provisional treaty was agreed and signed by the four Americans and Oswald. The formal treaty (Treaty of Paris) was signed on the 3rd September 1783, being essentially the same as the provisional one signed the year before.[28]

“At least in part, United States Independence was negotiated between a British slave trader and his agent for rice growing slaves in South Carolina”[29]

Oswald returned to London, sharing his time between his town house at 9 Great George Street and Auchincruive, relinquishing the management of his business to other family members.

A year after the treaty was signed he died at Auchincruive on the 6th November 1784. His wife had life rent of the estate until her death in 1788 at which time his nephew George Oswald of Scotstoun was left one part of it, the other going to Richard Oswald’s great-nephew Richard Alexander Oswald.[30]

Richard and Mary were buried in the Oswald vault at St. Quivox parish church,[31] however she had died in her London home and it was the last part of her journey home to Ayrshire that prompted Robert Burns to write a poem about her which he called ‘Ode, Sacred to the Memory of Mrs. Oswald of Auchincruive’.

Some of the sentiments expressed in the poem came from Burn’s previous knowledge of Mary when he lived in her neighbourhood where her tenants and servants detested her with a passion. However, it was the arrival of her funeral cortege at Sanquhar inn, depriving him of lodgings there for the night thereby forcing him to ride on a further twelve miles on a tiring horse, himself fatigued and the weather stormy and snowing, which pushed him to write a scathing account of her life. The lines below illustrate his feelings about her as he wrote the poem after his arduous journey.[32]

Johann Zoffany, Mrs Mary Oswald<br /> about 1763-4© National Portrait Gallery, London https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk
Figure 1. Johann Zoffany, Mrs Oswald about 1763-4© National Portrait Gallery, London. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk

‘Laden with unhonoured years

Noosing with care a bursting purse

Baited with Many a deadly cure.’


‘Pity’s flood there never rose

See these hands, ne’er stretch to save

Hands that took but never gave

Keeper of Mammon’s iron chest

Lo, there she goes, unpitied and unblest

She goes, but not to realms of everlasting rest!’

The rest of the poem suggests she is destined for hell, along with her husband.[33]

When slavery was abolished in Britain in 1833, Richard Alexander Oswald, the grandson of James Oswald, the beneficent clergyman, was awarded compensation of £5,645 18s 6d for the loss of the 297 slaves he owned jointly with his wife in Jamaica.[34]

Today this would be worth somewhere between £500k and £27.5m.[35]

[1] Henderson, John (1884) Caithness Family History. Edinburgh: David Douglas. pp. 232,233. https://archive.org/details/caithnessfamilyh00henduoft/page/232

[2] Scott, Hew. (1928) Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd. Vol. VII. p. 139. https://archive.org/stream/fastiecclesiaesc07scot#page/139/mode/2up/search/oswald

[3] Smith, John Guthrie and Mitchell, John Oswald. (1878). The Old Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry. 2nd ed. Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons. LXXXVII Scotstoun. http://gdl.cdlr.strath.ac.uk/smihou/smihou087.htm

[4] Scott, op. cit. p. 120.

[5] Henderson, op. cit. p.235.

[6] Sher, Richard B. and Stewart, M. A. ‘Oswald, James .(1703-1793)’. In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/65580

[7] Scott, Hew. (1928) Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd. Vol. IV. p. 223 https://archive.org/details/fastiecclesiaesc04scot/page/223

[8] University of Glasgow. The University of Glasgow Story, James Oswald. https://www.universitystory.gla.ac.uk/biography/?id=WH15263&type=P

[9] Smith and Mitchell, op.cit. LXXXIX Shield Hall. http://gdl.cdlr.strath.ac.uk/smihou/smihou089.htm

[10] London Gazette (1832) 28 December 1832. Issue 19008, p. 2837. https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/19008/page/2837

[11] MacIntosh, Hugh. (1902) Origin and History of Glasgow Street Names. Glasgow: Citizens Press. http://www.glasgowhistory.co.uk/StreetNames.htm

[12] Scott, op.cit. Vol. IV. p.223.

[13] Sher, Richard B. and Stewart, M. A. ‘Oswald, James .(1703-1793)’. In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/65580

[14] Ewing, Archibald Orr and others. (1866) The Merchants House of Glasgow. 2nd ed. Glasgow: Bell & Bain. p. 589.

[15] Measuring Worth (2019). https://www.measuringworth.com/m/calculators/ukcompare/

[16] Hancock, David. ‘Oswald, Richard (1705?-1784)’. In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/20924

[17] Measuring Worth (2019). https://www.measuringworth.com/m/calculators/ukcompare/

[18] Marriages (PR) England. Westminster, London. 17 November 1750. OSWALD, Richard and RAMSAY, Mary. FHL Film Number 561155. https://www.ancestry.co.uk/

[19] University College London. Legacies of British Slave Ownership. Alexander Ramsay. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/2146660479

[20]Lee, Sydney, ed. (1895) Dictionary of National Biography.  Vol. XLII London: MacMIllan and Co. pp. 329, 330. https://archive.org/details/dictionarynatio37stepgoog/page/n340

[21] Yale University. Rice, Slavery and the Sierra Leone – American Connection. https://glc.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/bance%20Island%20in%20Sierra%20leone.pdf

[22] Aberdeen University. Scottish Slavers in West Africa. https://www.abdn.ac.uk/slavery/pdf/scottishslavers-westafrica.pdf

[23] Devine, T. M. (2004) Scotland’s Empire 1600-1815. London: Penguin Books. p. 246.

[24] Historic Environment Scotland. Auchincruive Estate Oswald House (Auchincruive House). http://portal.historicenvironment.scot/designation/LB99

[25] Hancock, David. ‘Oswald, Richard (1705?-1784)’. In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/20924

[26] Hathi Trust Digital Library. Richard Oswald’s Memorandum etc. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uva.x004817329&view=1up&seq=9

[27] Yale University. Rice, Slavery and the Sierra Leone – American Connection. https://glc.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/bance%20Island%20in%20Sierra%20leone.pdf

[28] Wilson, James Grant and Fiske, John. eds. (1888) Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography. Vol. IV. New York: D. Appleton and Co. https://www.ancestry.co.uk/search/collections/americancyclopedia/

[29] Yale University. Rice, Slavery and the Sierra Leone – American Connection. https://glc.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/bance%20Island%20in%20Sierra%20leone.pdf

[30] Edinburgh University Library Special Collections, GB237 Coll – 521.  Correspondence of the Oswald Family of Auchincruive, including Richard Oswald. https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/

[31] Hancock, David. ‘Oswald, Richard (1705?-1784)’. In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/20924

[32] Lee, Sydney, ed. (1895) Dictionary of National Biography.  Vol. XLII London: MacMIllan and Co. pp. 329, 330. https://archive.org/details/dictionarynatio37stepgoog/page/n340

[33] Robert Burns World Federation. Ode, Sacred to the Memory of Mrs. Oswald of Auchincruive’. http://www.rbwf.org.uk/ode-sacred-to-the-memory-of-mrs-oswald-of-auchencruive/

[34] University College London. Legacies of British Slave Ownership. Alexander Ramsay. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/46072

[35] Measuring Worth (2019). https://www.measuringworth.com/m/calculators/ukcompare/