chapter  5
21 Pages

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Improvement

David Dale, Robert Owen and New Lanark Cotton
WithMichael Morris

Michael Morris’s chapter frames Robert Owen’s New Lanark as a physical, geographical, economic and ideological locus for competing moral imperatives associated with improvement during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Pursuing a cultural history of the Scottish cotton industry, Morris presents this model Scottish industrial village, situated near the Falls of Clyde, as a complex ‘emblem of improvement’. New Lanark helps to connect the expansion of Scottish industry in the late eighteenth century—a principal material counterpart to Scottish Enlightenment ideas with thematic resonances throughout the period’s literature—to global debates on slavery, imperialism and industrialization. Through assessments of key writings by New Lanark’s directors David Dale and Robert Owen, Morris reveals the geopolitical implications of Scotland’s industrial transition to cotton production. This includes debates around slavery abolition in the 1790s and 1820s that the market’s Caribbean slave economy acted to stimulate. This question, as Morris argues, often suggested uncomfortable comparisons with the physical conditions found in British industrial cotton processing. Using analytical methods drawn from recent theoretical approaches to global history, the chapter brings arguments around economic improvement in the West of Scotland at the end of the eighteenth century into a larger exchange. Morris places the Scottish context in dialogue with various debates for social and political emancipation in the early nineteenth century—including in post-war radical London, post-Independence Mexico and Jamaica before the passing of the 1833 Anti-Slavery Act.