EVEN while Britain was at war with France, Glasgow was getting on with the two great activities that would spur the city’s massive growth in the 19th century – trade and manufacturing.

In November 1806, having won the Battle of Jena, Napoleon Bonaparte issued his infamous declaration of Berlin or Berlin Decree. Translated into English, it begins:

From our Imperial Camp at ­Berlin, November 21, 1806.

Napoleon, Emperor of the French and King of Italy, considering:

1. That England does not admit the right of nations as universally acknowledged by all civilized people.

You will note that Napoleon makes the common mistake at the time and refers to the United Kingdom as England. Too many people around the world still do so.

Napoleon saw English and ­British as the same thing. The ­Decree continued:

Article I: The British islands are declared in a state of blockade.

Article II: All commerce and correspondence with the British islands are prohibited. In consequence, letters or packets, addressed either to England, to an Englishman, or in the English language, shall not pass through the post-office and shall be seized.

Article III: Every subject of England, of whatever rank and condition soever, who shall be found in the countries occupied by our troops, or by those of our allies, shall be made a prisoner of war.

Article IV: All magazines, merchandise, or property whatsoever, belonging to a subject of ­England, shall be declared lawful prize.

Article V: The trade in English merchandise is forbidden; all merchandise belonging to England, or coming from its manufactories and colonies, is declared lawful prize.

And so on and so forth…it was brutal stuff and since Napoleon saw no distinction between Scotland and England, it mean that Glasgow’s vital lucrative trade with the Continent and the Caribbean plantations across the Atlantic was now at risk.

Article VII was particularly unpleasant: “No vessel coming directly from England, or from the English colonies, or having been there since the publication of the present decree, shall be received into any port.”

The decree was a scarlet red flag to a Glaswegian bull by the name of Kirkman Finlay, above. Born in the Gallowgate in 1773, he came from a well-off family, and we have met his textile merchant father James earlier in this series – it was he who principally raised a Glasgow regiment for service in the American War of Independence, personally playing the bagpipes to summon recruits in the city.

When James Finlay died in 1790, it was his younger son Kirkman – named after an Alderman Kirkman who was a friend of Finlay senior – who abandoned his studies at Glasgow University and took the helm of the family firm.

He expanded the business by buying mills around Glasgow and by 1806 he was both a prosperous manufacturer of cotton in particular and also a very shrewd ­merchant.

No sooner had the Berlin Decree been promulgated than Kirkman Finlay, with information from his agents around the Continent, realised that Napoleon’s grand declaration was unable to be enforced – after Trafalgar in 1805, the Royal Navy ruled the seas and though a few French vessels continued to harass British shipping, they had minimal impact.

Indeed, even before Trafalgar, Glasgow’s trade with the sugar plantations in the West Indies had hardly been affected, and raw cotton for the city’s mills was increasingly coming from elsewhere.

Most Continental ports outside of France were nominally in support of the Emperor, but the Decree simply could not be enforced on land or at sea.

Robert Renwick and Sir John Lindsay’s History of Glasgow describes what happened next. “Aware that a ready market awaited our manufactures if they could be smuggled into the Continent, he established depots in Heligoland and elsewhere at strategic points, and organised a great system of contraband in which, if the risks were great, the rewards were correspondingly high.”

The two historians possibly go a bit far in praise of Finlay when they wrote: “In that bold game he must be held to have fairly beaten his powerful opponent, Napoleon himself.

“The result showed the world that British commerce was beyond Napoleon’s power to ruin, and the blow thus struck at the Emperor’s prestige, with the service rendered to British industry, contributed not much less to the overthrow of the dictator than the defeat of his ­military forces by the Duke of ­Wellington.”

There’s no doubt that Kirkman Finlay made his family immensely wealthy with his gamble against Napoleon, but in some ways he took on a much bigger gamble when he challenged the monopoly on trade with Asia granted by the Westminster Parliament to the East India Company.

Finlay had deduced that he and other Glasgow merchants as well as those of ports like Liverpool needed to expand their trade to parts of the world other than Europe and the Americas, and India was the obvious target.

Again using information from his business network, Finlay supplied information to MPs who in 1812 were investigating the East India Company prior to the proposed renewal of its monopoly right which included, don’t forget, the right to have the largest private army in the world.

A fellow Scot, the Whig politician Henry Brougham, intervened in Parliament on the side of those who wished to free up trade generally, and so too did the ‘uncrowned King of Scotland’ Henry Dundas. The result was that in 1813, the Company lost its monopoly trading privileges to India.

In stepped Kirkman Finlay. He prepared well for his bold venture, and fitted out a 600-ton sailing ship, the Earl of Buckinghamshire, and sent it out to Bombay, now Mumbai, arriving in 1816 – the first ship to sail directly from Glasgow to any port east of Egypt. He followed with the Glasgow-built ship George Canning, the first independent Clyde-built vessel to make the trip to India. He completed a remarkable treble in 1834 when a Glasgow ship named after him was the first to trade with China.

Finlay was a major player in Glasgow for many years, becoming Lord Provost and MP before he died in 1842 at the home he built on the Cowal peninsula, Castle Toward, which many decades later was acquired by Glasgow Corporation as a residential school for ­children.

Next week I will show how Finlay’s enterprise and that of Henry Bell ushered in a golden age for Glasgow.