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Osnaburg Linen

Osnaburg linen

Acknowledging Dundee’s links with enslavement

As Dundee’s linen industry grew, the proceeds were inextricably linked to the enslavement of people from Africa and the Indies. A coarse cloth called Osnaburg was bought in huge quantities by slave-owners in the West Indies and the US, and evidence shows that Frederick Douglass, a former slave turned abolitionist, was invited to speak in Dundee. This panel explores the links between Dundee, colonialisation, and the business of enslavement, and how these links exist today through the city’s statues, buildings and street names.

osnaburg linen cartoon

1. Osnaburg Linen production

Osnaburg was a coarse linen cloth, purchased by slave-owners in the West Indies and the USA to make clothes for enslaved people on their estates. William Baxter of Balgavies belonged to a family that had been connected with the weaver trade in Dundee from the beginning of the eighteenth century and, in 1836, Messrs W. Baxter & Sons became the first mill in Dundee to weave large quantities of linen by power loom, in a large new factory at the company’s Dens Road works.


2. Trading commodities

Products that were imported into Dundee from the British Colonies included raw sugar from plantations in Jamaica, and dark rum from the newly formed colony of British Guyana, formalised in 1831. The Dundee Sugar House was located on the Seagate, where it operated from 1767 to 1841.


3. Joseph Knight

Joseph Knight was taken to Jamaica from West Africa as a young teenager, where he was bought by a Scottish plantation-owner called John Wedderburn. Joseph was brought to Ballindean, near Dundee, in 1768 – one of the few Black people in Scotland at that time. Although he was well-fed, dressed and educated, he had no prospect of freedom or independence; he was also at risk of being sent back to Jamaica, where conditions were very dangerous. After a four-year legal battle, Joseph Knight’s final appeal for freedom was granted in 1778, at the Supreme Court in Edinburgh – a decision that also led to the abolition of personal slavery in Scotland. In 1807, the slave trade in British Colonies became illegal and British ships were no longer allowed to carry enslaved people, although it took until 1838 for all enslaved people in the colonies to be freed.


4. Jute harvesting

Dundee’s jute industry was closely associated with colonialisation. From 1757, Britain’s control of India increased and from 1858 onwards, the British government directly ruled India. Jute was grown and harvested in India, by local people, then shipped to Dundee on behalf of the increasingly wealthy mill-owners. By the early 20th century, India had developed its own jute industry and production in Dundee tailed off.

5. Seal

Wax seals were often used on documents relating to the purchase of enslaved people.

6. Wearing Osnaburg Linen

The experience of wearing a coarse cloth like Osnaburg was extremely unpleasant. The prominent Black author Booker T. Washington, who was born into slavery in 1856, compared it to, “A hundred pinpoints in contact with the flesh”.


7. Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was one of the former enslaved people invited to speak in Dundee. Having escaped slavery in the USA in his early 20s, Frederick became a well-known orator and social reformer and he spoke at several venues in Dundee in 1846 and 1860, including hotels and churches.


8. Enslavement ships

British ships that are known to have transported enslaved people include ‘Dolphin’, ‘Minerva’ and ‘Mercury’.


9. Dundee’s leading abolitionists

Despite the efforts of local abolitionists, the first Anti-Slavery Society was only formed in Dundee in 1832 – a year before the enslavement trade was finally abolished. The Reverend George Gilfillan, and his wife Margaret, were Dundee’s most active abolitionists. Rev Gilfillan invited many formerly enslaved people to speak in Dundee, while his wife Margaret was President of the Dundee Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Association, a popular organisation in the 1850s.


Lasting reminders

The panel also contains Dundee street names associated with global trading at this time; the names of local mills which were producing linen; and two quotes stitched around the edge:


“Where is there a shred of ground to believe that ever a Scotsman considered himself as the property as chattell as the slave of his brother”
Joseph Knight


“Slavery is the common enemy of mankind”
Frederick Douglass

This panel was stitched by

June Anderson

Janie Brooks

Ishbel Duncan

Mairi Fraser

Polly Golliher

Gillian Leiper

Jenni Liandu 

Maliwa Liandu

Womba Liandu 

Abigail Ocansey

Morag McQueen

Yingying (Leona) Ren

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