Britain and the Sea (BBC One)

David Dimbleby is currently presenting a series on Sunday nights on BBC 1 called Britain and the Sea. Episode three aired on Sunday 1 December 2013 entitled ‘Trade and Romance’ and covered the West Coast of Scotland. In his own boat, Rocket, Dimbleby sailed from Craobh Haven to the city of Glasgow, a city that he described a number of times in the programme as the Second City of Empire.

As Dimbleby entered the port of Greenock, he started to explain why Glasgow was the ‘Second City of Empire’. It should be noted that Tom Devine was credited under the ‘Thanks’ at the end of the programme, although he did not appear and Dimbleby took all writing credits.

Tobacco, sugar and cotton came to Glasgow from America because it was a shorter sea route than to London and saved up to three weeks:

Screengrab from BBCiplayer (copyright BBC)

Screengrab from BBCiplayer (copyright BBC)

A quarter of the world’s locomotives and a fifth of the world’s ships were built on the Clyde as heavy industry took over in the second half of the nineteenth century:

Screengrab from BBCiplayer (copyright BBC)

Screengrab from BBCiplayer (copyright BBC)

At James Watt Dock at Greenock, warehouses were built for the sugar, known as the Sugar Sheds from 1886, as the large ships sailing from America could go no further down the Clyde, and with 400 ships a year coming into Greenock. As Scotland processed a quarter of Britain’s trade in sugar, Dimbleby argued that the Act of the Union helped Scotland as they could now engage in free trade within the British Empire, particularly with America.

And more tobacco was coming through the Clyde than in all of the rest of Britain combined creating the ‘Tobacco Lords’. They built up the city of Glasgow with their wealth and had streets named after them:

Screengrabs from BBCiplayer (copyright BBC)

Screengrabs from BBCiplayer (copyright BBC)

Dimbleby ends the journey in Glasgow, pointing out the Glenlee (the Tall Ship at the Riverside Museum) that was built in 1896 and carried cargo from Glasgow to Liverpool and South Africa and Australia. He ends the programme by explaining that the city of Glasgow was built on its commercial wealth from trading with the Americas and the Empire, justifying its claim to be the ‘Second City of Empire’.

But for Dimbleby this is a heroic aspect of Scotland and Glasgow’s history – without stopping to consider that it built its wealth on the exploitation of others. Would any other city today like to boast that it grew out of the wealth accrued from possessing an empire? I’m not sure London would be proud today to claim that it is the first city of Empire, that the City of London grew out of exploitative financial relationships with the colonies and unequal trade agreements. Or that Glasgow should be proud that it built its wealth on trading in sugar and tobacco that were grown on labour-intensive plantations (almost all slave plantations). Not to mention the exploitation of the shipbuilders etc on the Clyde.

It was actually a fascinating programme, very well put together, as we followed David Dimbleby on his journey. And he is, of course, a great presenter. It’s still on iplayer to watch until 15 December, and it’s well worth the watch. It informed viewers about greater Glasgow’s links with imperial trade and the history of shipbuilding. It wasn’t all about Glasgow, as the earlier parts were great when Dimbleby was sailing through the canals and locks. Of course, empire was not all ‘bad’ either, but if Dimbleby had only shown some awareness of the complexities of Britain’s imperial history, if only with an aside, then I would have felt much more comfortable at the end.


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