Stewarton’s most famous son, David Dale was a leading Scottish industrialist, merchant, and philanthropist. An excellent book entitled David Dale, A Life by David J. McLaren published by Stenlake in 2015 points out that like many other mill owners during the late 18th century, Dale imported his raw materials from the USA, South America, and the West Indies, all of which at the turn of the nineteenth depended on slave labour.
As the founder of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and the Royal Bank’s first agent in Glasgow, he had many friends, colleagues and business acquaintances heavily involved in businesses dependent on the slave trade for their profits. Coffee, sugar, rum, tobacco, and cotton all relied on the slave trade.
The London Abolition Committee formed in 1787 by the likes of Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp and William Wilberforce campaigned against slavery across the country but parliamentary progress was slow. The Commons taking their lead from Henry Dundas, the trusted lieutenant of British prime minister William Pitt, and the most powerful man in Scotland, prevaricated time and again calling for more evidence and voting down a resolution put forward by Wilberforce in 1791.
It was against this backdrop that The Glasgow Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in 1791 with David Dale as its Chair and they circulated widely a paper calling for the abolition of the slave trade. The paper detailed some of the sufferings that slaves endured and argued that all trade dependent on slaves should be abandoned whatever the short-term consequences for Glasgow businesses. Reflecting Dales personal humanity and religious beliefs, the paper described slavery as being a system
‘so contrary to every sentiment of humanity and religion that it must be rejected with abhorrence’.
Addressing the business community directly, the paper refused to believe that:
‘in this enlightened age, narrow selfishness and sordid attention to mere profit and loss has taken such a hold of mankind as to deaden their feelings of right and wrong and to render them indifferent to the sufferings of their fellow-creatures’.
With similar societies being established across the country the tide was turning and, on the 2nd April 1782, parliament gave its notional support to Wilberforce’s motion on the abolition of the slave trade.
However, Dale remained sceptical believing that words would need to be put into action and warning that plantation owners would do everything in their power to keep their slaves, he called for every:
‘Constitutional means for procuring the real, speedy and effectual Abolition of the (Slave) Trade’
Dale was correct in his scepticism and he never lived to see the banning of the slave trade as it took a further 25 years before the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act abolished slave trading throughout the British Empire. He died at his home, 43 Charlotte Street, Glasgow on 6th March 1806 and huge crowds of mourners lined the streets of Glasgow.
Dale was not directly involved in the trading of slaves; he was not a politician or a figure of Enlightenment with the status of Adam Smith or Robert Burns. He could have said nothing, but he decided to take a principled and public stand and to use what influence he had, even at the risk of upsetting many of his friends and business associates. For that, we should be eternally grateful. David Dale from Stewarton (1739-1806).