On 13 June 2020, during the global conversation about Black Lives Matter, James Watt – inventor and ‘great improver’ of the steam engine – was publicly added to the list of icons whose historic connections with transatlantic slavery were exposed. The Times article ‘Black Lives Matter: James Watt, father of the age of steam, sold slaves’ came as a shock to many. My research, which underpinned this revelation, went back almost three years. In September 2018, James Watt’s father was revealed as a colonial merchant and slave-trader. With further archival work, by January 2020 it became clear that James Watt himself had a much more direct role in the trafficking of enslaved people.

Work on microfilmed records for the report ‘Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow’ (2018) led to the acknowledgement that James Watt was involved, with his father, in colonial commerce. In 2017, Dr Malcolm Dick invited me to examine the family’s connections to slavery in the collection James Watt (1736-1819): Culture, Innovation and Enlightenment (2020). And through a History West Midlands fellowship in August 2018, I spent a week in the Library of Birmingham, Archives and Collections, photographing the Watt family papers.

James Eckford Lauder, “James Watt and the Steam Engine: the Dawn of the Nineteenth Century” (1855). Wikimedia Commons.

The archive revealed James Watt was not just a beneficiary of his father but had a more direct role. In January 1762, James Watt’s brother John (known as Jockey) returned to Greenock in Scotland from Bristol. With him, he may have brought a Black boy, named Frederick, who, on 17 March, was delivered from Greenock to the Glasgow merchant John Warrand. The child was to be delivered to the Brodies of Spynie near Forres, to be employed in a country house. A receipt and a list of clothing survives for the young child. Perhaps Jockey imported the child via his father’s representatives in North Carolina or the West Indies; there are recorded incidences of James Watt senior’s involvement with slave trading in the 1740s.

After Jockey sailed to Virginia in April 1762 (later drowning in the Caribbean), responsibility for the enterprise passed to his brother, James Watt. In October, James Brodie of Spynie addressed a letter to ‘James Watt junior, Merchant in Greenock’ asking for ‘an account of what he has cost you since his arrival at Greenock…I am sensible you have been at a good deal of Trouble upon my account’. It was, therefore, the great improver, James Watt (1736-1819) – and not his father James Watt senior (1698-1782) – who took over the family business and was responsible for costs incurred by Frederick’s stay. James Watt’s correspondence reveals that he was in Glasgow in spring 1762 and so it is possible he was involved with the delivery to John Warrand. It seems likely the child ran away sometime after March. Overall, the Watt enterprise involved the occasional purchase and trafficking of enslaved people in the West Indies, North Carolina, and Scotland, prior to the famous Joseph Knight case which made slavery illegal in Scotland in 1778. Whilst chattel slavery was never codified in Scotland as it was in the Americas, Joseph Knight and his legal counsel successfully argued the system was inconsistent with Scots law.

Historians are well-versed in judging individuals by the standards of their time. There was no political movement intent on the abolition of the slave trade until 1787. However, Enlightenment philosopher Francis Hutcheson put forward ideas that chattel slavery was morally wrong in the classrooms of Old College (now Glasgow University) from the 1730s. His magnum opus, A System of Moral Philosophy was published in 1755, nine years after his death. James Watt was in Glasgow from 1753, two years prior to publication, until 1774, when he relocated to Birmingham and developed the steam engine in collaboration with Mathew Boulton. It is unknown if Watt was aware of Hutcheson’s moral condemnation, but it seems unlikely he knew nothing at all.

Involved in colonial commerce, Watt was also thoroughly enmeshed in Enlightenment Glasgow, residing in the Old College precinct from March 1758 and frequenting the Anderston Club with philosophes such as Hutcheson’s protege Adam Smith. The British movement for the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade began in 1787. In October 1791, Watt passed private commentary to French merchants concerning St Domingue: ‘we heartily pray that the system of slavery so disgraceful to humanity were abolished by prudent though progressive measures’. Thus, six months after Wilberforce’s first motion to abolish the slave trade was defeated in the British Parliament, Watt privately advocated the gradual abolition of plantation slavery (although not the slave trade). This is a similar position to Henry Dundas, whose introduction of ‘gradual abolition’ in the House of Commons in April 1792 has gathered considerable attention in recent years.

It was fortuitous for James Watt’s family that slavery was not abolished in the British West Indies until 1834. In Capitalism and Slavery (1944), Eric Williams argued that West India merchant capital, founded on plantation slavery, underpinned the financing of the Boulton & Watt steam engine. After Watt retired in 1800 – with the business subsequently managed by his son James Watt junior and Matthew Robinson Boulton – they shipped steam engines to Caribbean slave-owners from 1803 up to the final stages of plantation slavery. Steam engines allowed the greater extraction of valuable juice from sugar canes at a quicker pace, whilst requiring less cattle and enslaved labour to operate. James Watt junior subsequently commissioned glorious histories of his father which prioritised his industrial career rather than his mercantile activities. Multi-generational family involvement with the slave trade and plantation slavery and control of the public memory of the family is not uncommon, but it is unusual when the second generation is a hero of the Industrial Revolution.

The British fascination with anniversaryism tends to celebrate dead white men. We are now two centuries from the abolition of the slave trade (1807) and plantation slavery (1834). Simultaneously, historians are increasingly revealing how transatlantic slavery had, and continues to have, profound influence upon the British economy and society. In addition to reassessing existing statues and street-names, might the Black Lives Matter conversation impact future commemorative activities? 2019 marked the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the James Watt’s death and the 250th anniversary of his patent for a separate condenser. He was celebrated across the UK with little criticism. Although few looked at or even cared about his rise, the family connections to slavery were widely known in September 2018. The WattFest 2019 might just become an exemplar of the British myopia which means those enmeshed in colonial commerce are celebrated with little understanding how they came to be. But, given James Watt’s substantial heritage in the built environment and across the UK museum sector, this debate has some way to run as we move into an increasingly imperially-aware age.

Stephen Mullen is a historian of slavery in the British-Atlantic world. Learn more about James Watt and slavery in Stephen Mullen’s West Midlands’ History Podcast. 

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