Thomas Douglas & Company

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Thomas Douglas & Company was based in Montrose, on the east coast of Scotland.

Thomas Douglas was a merchant active in Montrose since at least 1739, when  on 3 July,  tobacco, which had been seized from a barn near Montrose, was suspected to have been smuggled into the country. Douglas, however, stated upon oath that he had obtained the tobacco overland and legally from Port Glasgow. The first full run of Montrose customs accounts (1743) indicates a considerable amount of commercial activity on his account, which lasted until 1753 (the year in which his co-partnership with Robert Dunbar, Robert Dickie & John Addison went bankrupt).

Thomas Douglas was the largest (and at times sole) exporter of tobacco from Montrose to Hamburg. His imports from Germany normally consisted of pearl ashes, deals, staves, oak knees and other sorts of timber, indicating the usual range of imports from Germany, which were normally purchased in large quantities from Baltic areas (Norway, Sweden, Russia, Poland).

Not much is known beyond the fact that the customs accounts indicate a somewhat regular traffic to Germany in the second half of the 1740s, until the penultimate year prior to the bankruptcy in 1753. But it appears as though Germany was an integral part of Douglas & Co's markets that spanned the Atlantic.  This firm is of particular interest, as it provides a good example of tobacco traders active and based outside Glasgow in a location in Scotland that was conceivably unsuited for practising a regular exchange with the two tobacco colonies, Virginia and Maryland: Montrose.

The company (Thomas Douglas, Robert Dunbar, Robert Dickie & John Addison) flourished c. 1751-1753, as far as can be determined on the basis of the Montrose customs accounts. They appear to have been amongst the larger tobacco importers of tobacco based in Montrose, certainly the largest active in 1750-1. This position also reflected back upon the structure of their general exports to Europe, which were dominated by tobacco. With their exports to the North American colonies consisting largely of domestic (presumably Scottish) 'manufactures', including the usual variety of domestic linens, cotton and leather 'manufactures', cots salt, but also Spanish wines and many more, the firm corresponded to the schematization of mid-eighteenth century tobacco firms and their business patterns.  According to the customs accounts, the partnership imported and re-exported their tobacco directly via Montrose, which, being an East coast port, clearly had some disadvantages over Glasgow.

Thomas Douglas & Co owned at least two ships: the Potomac Merchant, subsequently renamed St George, which was bound for Africa on at least two occasions, as well as the Neptune. 73 Thomas Douglas also (at times fully and later partly) owned the Delight (of Montrose), which returned to Leith from an African and American triangular voyage in 1754.74 Douglas, either on his own account, or together with his business partners, therefore actively participated in at least three triangular or in fact multi-angular voyages between 1751 and 1753.

The itineraries for these voyages were: Montrose - Netherlands (where tobacco was exchanged, presumably for 'manufactures')'; Guinea Coast or another West-African destination (where slaves were bought); West Indies (where the slaves were sold); North America (where tobacco was purchased); Montrose.  From Montrose the tobacco would be shipped on again to German or Dutch ports, in order to complete this multilateral itinerary. In the Christmas quarter of 1751, the company exported 22 chests, containing 440 pieces "small arms" to the Guinea Coast in the Potomac Merchant. The same ship was also bound for Rotterdam, the first leg of its voyage, laden with tobacco and salmon.  It returned in Christmas quarter 1752, discharging amongst staves, hoops and tobacco from Virginia, also 118 elephants' teeth, the ivory weighing 17.3.14 cwt from "Guinea", as well as some unsold glass beads that had presumably been intended for bartering slaves in Guinea.

Douglas & Co's involvement in the slave trades, however, can be found in the documents preserved in the Scottish High Court of Admiralty with regard to the 1753 voyage of the St George (formerly Potomac Merchant). The St George had sailed from Montrose to the Guinea coast in 1753, and then to the West Indies (Antigua), where it had discharged the cargo of "negroe slaves" taken on board in Africa. Without doubt the sale of the slaves in the Caribbean resulted in a generous profit for Douglas & Co, the net proceeds of which (£3,039 15s Id Sterling) were to be remitted to Douglas & Co via two bills drawn on George & Robert Udnys in London. This voyage however was probably the last one that took place on account of the co-partnership.

Earlier in 1753, the firm had allegedly still been "in good Credit", but later on in the same year, whilst their ships Neptune, St George and (presumably) the Delight and the Lion were still at sea, they went bankrupt. This bankruptcy appears to have been linked in particular to the final voyage of the St George to Africa and America (as some of the outstanding bills for the capital outlet for the voyage could not be paid). From a letter of the Scottish Board of Customs to the customs collector at Montrose dated 30 October 1753, it emerges that the initial cause of the co-partnership's bankruptcy, however, was their being liable for a larger sum of (bonded) customs duties on tobacco, on which they would in the end default. The Customs apparently anticipated the imminent default as early as October 1753.

Thomas Douglas himself, when he started his business in the late 1730s, was allegedly involved in illicit or half-legal trading activities in tobacco, which may explain the accusations made in 1739.  On at least one occasion, he also participated actively in the not entirely legal business of importing tea from Gothenburg, which took off in Scotland in the 1730s.

When the company was liquidated in 1753, their outstanding debts (which obviously represented normal and expectable operational costs that would have been easily recovered if the London bankers had remained in business) exceeded E5,000 Sterling.

•  Evidently Thomas Douglas and a group of Montrose merchants despatched ships to Guinea in search of slaves in the ... which were to be exchanged in the Caribbean for sugar or in • Virginia for tobacco, and be brought back to Montrose.

•  flurry of activity in 1753, near the end of the tobacco trade, when three cargoes arrived for Thomas Douglas & Co. in their ... belonging to one Montrose merchant, was grinding 40,000 Ib. a year in its heyday, but by the 1790s had been almost ...

•  Feb 1754 on tobacco imported in the Delight of Montrose by Thomas Douglas, Robert Dunbar, Robert Dickie, James Smith jr, and Thomas Christie ..

•  Probably the second biggest was the "Thomas & Betty" of Montrose, with just under 170 hogsheads. The others usually had around 150. By 1750 Thomas Douglas & Co. were beginning to realise that none of these was big enough.

•  The leading participant in the trade was Thomas Douglas & Company, active from 1736 to 1777 in the tobacco and general trade.

•  In such a climate of optimism Thomas Douglas and Company of Montrose chartered four snows (1) - St. George, ...

•  tobacco (highly profitable in Europe), the human cargo being picked up (along with elephant tusks) in West Africa after the fish was ... The 18th-century merchants of Montrose were typical in their customary sense of entitlement, with teas, dinner parties, balls, concerts ... around the slave ships (one of them named Montrose) of Thomas Douglas & Company - ensured it had largely ceased by 1773.

1.  In sailing, a snow, snaw or snauw is a square rigged vessel with two masts, complemented by a snow- or trysail-mast stepped immediately abaft the main mast.

See also:
•  The Slave trade
•  Slave  ships and their owners



Sources for this article include:
  • Dundee City Archives
  • Scottish Foreign Trade 1700-1760; Philipp Robinson Roessner

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    Last modified: Friday, 17 May 2024