Scotland, India, and Australia: Scots and free trade in the Empire

In 1855, after travelling through Victoria for two years, English author William Howitt reflected in his diaries on the amount of energy expended by Scots on commercial endeavours in the colonies. “We give the Scotch much unbounded credit for enterprise and the quality which their own word ‘canny’ so well expresses,” wrote Howitt, “that we are not surprised to find a host of Scotchmen on whatever shore we may step, where money is to be made. Neither the snows of Canada nor the heats of India present any obstacles to them.”

In Scotland, a prevailing strand of thought during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was that the Empire provided plentiful opportunities for Scots from many backgrounds; Scots at home looked upon the achievements of migrant Scots with great pride, and they saw emigration as a testament to the innovative and dynamic qualities of the Scottish people. The commercial middle class of Scotland considered the Empire as a place of great opportunity where they could exercise their entrepreneurial dynamism and enterprise. Central to the Scottish imperial mission was the presence of Scottish business in the colonies and in the commercial apparatus of the Empire.

Australia offered Scots a regional platform for extending their commercial interests into other parts of the southern hemisphere and the Empire. In particular, Scottish merchants played a large role in the consolidation of Australian trading connections with India.


It is well established that Scots were disproportionately represented in the lucrative commercial empire of the East India Company (EIC). Indeed, novelist Walter Scott wrote that “India is the corn chest for Scotland where we poor gentry must send our younger sons as we send our black cattle to the south.”

In the wealthy province of Bengal, Scots accounted for 47 per cent of ‘Writers’, 49 per cent of officer cadets, and over half of assistant surgeon recruits. In Madras, from 1720 to 1757, all of the Principal Medical Officers were Scottish. Between 1776 and 1785, of the free merchants awarded permission by the EIC to trade within the East (but not with Britain), around 60 per cent were Scots. By the first decade of the nineteenth century, Scots owned over a third of private merchant houses in Calcutta.

Apart from wealthy merchants, Scots were also overrepresented in the military services in India. Of the fourteen royal regiments garrisoned in India half – or around five to seven thousand men – were raised in Scotland. There was, therefore, a considerable Scottish presence in India throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century.

The Scottish-India relationship was extended to Australia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and much of this expansion was in the hands of merchants. Robert Campbell was a Scottish-born merchant who had a great impact in opening free trade to and from Australia in the earliest decades of the nineteenth century. At the age of 27, Campbell travelled from Greenock to India in 1798 to join his older brother, John, who was a partner in the Calcutta merchant house of Campbell Clarke & Co., which had been established in 1790. The firm was one of the earliest to engage in commerce with Australia. In 1796, they sent their first cargo to New South Wales in the Sydney Cove, which became shipwrecked. Soon after his arrival in 1798, Campbell was admitted to a partnership in the firm, and a few months later he left in the Hunter for New South Wales on another attempt to develop commercial ties with the colonies.

With the governor’s permission he took up residence on land bought in 1798 at Dawes Point, where he began to build warehouses and a private wharf. Between August 1798 and February 1800, he established a regular trade between India and New South Wales, and by 1804 Campbell & Co. (the Clarks had left the partnership in 1799), had £50,000 worth of goods in its Sydney warehouses. Between 1800 and 1804, the colonial government contracted Campbell to supply the Sydney and Derwent regions with supplies of livestock from India, and in these four years alone the trade was worth £16,000. In 1805, he initiated a colonial sealing industry, travelling to England with a cargo of oil and fur skins for the British market, and thus violating the monopoly rights of the East India Company to control trade from Australia.

Campbell’s Scottish birth was not merely a coincidence, and his family’s merchant enterprise was grounded in a distinctly Scottish trading network that extended from Calcutta to Sydney to Glasgow. The Campbell & Co. merchant house in Calcutta always recruited its agents and workers from familial relations at home in Scotland. His biographer observes that Campbell and his family exhibited “a distinct preference for their own race … Their partners, if not actually members of the family, were Scots, and so were the captains of the ships they employed or hired, their up country and overseas agents were of the same race, and inevitably, so were their creditors.”

Campbell played a leading role in opening up the Australian colonies to free trade and undermining the monopolies of both military officers and the East India Company. He also exemplified the ways in which Scots infiltrated imperial networks in a distinctly self-conscious fashion. He was among other Scottish traders from India, including William Douglas Campbell, Charles Hook, and William Walker, who were largely responsible for breaking the monopolies on foreign trade from Australia in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Scots then, were arguably instrumental in promoting and enacting colonial free trade in Australia and the British Empire.

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