James Watt and slavery: The untold story

James Watt and slavery: The untold story

Recently History West Midlands has sponsored researchers led by Dr Malcolm Dick of the University of Birmingham, in an exploration of different, and previously unreported facets of the complex life and personality of James Watt; the Scottish engineer who became an icon of the Industrial Revolution.

Searching voluminous archives at the Library of Birmingham one of them, Dr Stephen Mullen of Glasgow University, went beyond the “heroic figure” of Watt the engineer and developer of the steam engine, to investigate the time before Watt moved to Birmingham to join Mathew Boulton in their historic partnership.

Dr Mullen spent months delving into more than 50 years of little-studied correspondence from Watt; his father James Watt Senior; and his brother, John, about their extensive involvement in transatlantic mercantile trade with the North American colonies and the sugar plantations of the Caribbean.

Dr Mullen's research reveals a dark side to the story of the Watt family.

For the fist time it provides evidence that Watt's family and Watt himself were not only complicit in the slave trade - they participated directly and benefited extensively from the profits that slavery generated.

On our sister initiative Revolutionary Players, www.revolutionaryplayers.org.uk you will find a unique digitised resource of prints, drawings, paintings, letters and much more.

Keywords: James Watt, Slavery, Library of Birmingham, Scotland, James Watt, Dr Stephen Mullen

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‘Those who consider James Watt only as a great practical mechanic form a very erroneous idea of his character: he was equally distinguished as a natural philosopher and a chemist, and his inventions demonstrate his profound knowledge of those sciences, and that peculiar characteristic of genius, the union of them...

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