The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Improvement: David Dale, Robert Owen and New Lanark Cotton

Michael Morris (Lead / Corresponding author)

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    This chapter reads the iconic model village of New Lanark as a node in a global history of cotton, arguing that textiles, but cotton in particular, represents a potent way to re-think Scotland’s ‘Age of Improvement’ with specific attention to the ‘Problem of Slavery’. The first section situates New Lanark at the cross-section of the resurgence of interest in cotton as a centrepiece of global history, and the current recovery of the memory of slavery in Scotland more specifically: at New Lanark it identifies the global in the local. The second section re-evaluates the ideology of ‘gradual improvement’ espoused by New Lanark’s key owners. First, David Dale who founded the mill in 1785 and was chair of Glasgow's Abolitionist Society in the 1790s. Second, Robert Owen who pioneered factory reform but often endorsed pro-slavery arguments in the context of the movement for emancipation in the late 1820s. During his travels in the United States and the Caribbean Owen recorded observations on slavery which are reproduced here. Finally, this chapter considers some of the tensions produced where the ideology of ‘gradual improvement’ meets a world system in which racialized chattel enslavement forms an extreme pole on the spectrum of labour.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationCultures of Improvement in Scottish Romanticism 1707-1840
    EditorsAlex Benchimol, Gerard McKeever
    Number of pages21
    ISBN (Electronic)9781351056427
    ISBN (Print) 9781138482937
    Publication statusPublished - 2018


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