IT was 10 years ago this month that Scotland marked the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade across the British Empire, and a decade later, there are still arguments about the Scottish role in the trade and the ending of it.
Back in 2007, a great many Scots were shocked to learn of the sheer extent of their country’s involvement in slavery, though there was pride, too, in the efforts made by Scottish people to abolish the hellish practice. The subject was debated at a university symposium in 2010 and we have also seen the publication of books such as Stephen Mullen’s It Wisnae Us, about the Glasgow connections; Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past: the Caribbean Connection, edited by Sir Tom Devine; and Eric Graham’s book Burns & the Sugar Plantocracy of Ayrshire – more about Rabbie later.
Ten years on from that bicentenary we have much greater knowledge of what transpired back in the day, and with modern slavery – and particularly the trafficking of women in the sex trade – still an abomination in the world, perhaps it is time for a brief and strictly historical recounting of the facts so that we can judge once and for all whether Scotland sinned or shone two centuries ago. Strictly speaking, slavery itself was not banned in the Empire until the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act; for the 1807 Act merely banned trading in slaves. It is often forgotten that the US Congress passed a similar law in 1807, but it took a devastating and divisive Civil War and the 13th Amendment before slavery was finally abolished in the USA in December, 1865.
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Even then, it continued globally, and it still does – the International Labour Organisation estimates that there are 21 million victims of forced labour across the world, of which 4.5 million are subject to sexual exploitation.
Forced labour is what slavery is all about and always has been. The ownership of people allowed exploiters to use their slaves almost always for economic ends, principally the avoidance of paying wages to “free” people, whether that be in domestic service or on farms and plantations or in factories.
Slavery is about 13,000 years old – as old as organised human society itself. The ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman “civilisations” depended on slavery, and the practice of owning slaves was widespread across Europe, Asia, and especially Africa during the first millennium. Despite the growth of Christianity and Islam, which both prohibit the ownership of other human beings, slavery continued to spread and Africa had a succession of kingdoms and mini-empires in which slavery flourished, usually as the by-product of wars across the continent.
When the American colonies began to develop, and a need for cheap labour emerged, the largest slave market of them all got under way, changing the face and cultures of both Africa and the Americas for ever.
Scotland’s role in the slave trade began some time after the start of the export of African slaves to the Americas in the mid-17th century. Before the Act of Union, Scotland was not allowed near the trade with the colonies on the other side of the Atlantic and had grievously failed to establish its own colony in Darien, in what is modern Panama, in the 1690s. The Act of Union in 1707 changed all that because Scottish trade now had the protection of the Royal Navy. From even before the Act until the 1780s, however, black slaves were a common sight among the Scottish gentry to whom owning a “boy” or “girl” was a status symbol.
That changed in 1778 with the fascinating case of Joseph Knight who was the third slave to take a case for his freedom to the Scottish courts, all of them pleading their cases as baptised Christians.
The previous two had been by James Montgomery or “Shanker” in 1756 – he died in Edinburgh Tolbooth before his case could be heard – and the 1769 case of David Spens, aka Black Tom, against Dr David Dalrymple of Methil, who died during the case.
Knight was owned by John Wedderburn of Perthshire, but he ran away to Dundee to be with his chambermaid girlfriend. He then sued Wedderburn for his freedom in 1774, arguing that slavery was not legal in Scotland.
Wedderburn argued that, having bought Knight in Jamaica, his “perpetual servitude” was legal and should be enforced. It took four years of debate in the courts before the Court of Session ruled that “the dominion assumed over this Negro, under the law of Jamaica, being unjust, could not be supported in this country to any extent: That, therefore, the defender had no right to the Negro’s service for any space of time.”
One of his lawyers was James Boswell, later the biographer of Dr Johnson, though he later defended slavery. The case notes are in the National Archives of Scotland and make fascinating reading, especially Knight’s 40-page account of his life.
So, by 1778, slavery was definitely illegal in Scotland, but Scots were already hugely involved in the slave trade elsewhere. Professor Philip D Morgan, the famed historian of the Caribbean, wrote that Scots “owned and managed enslaved people in many New World slave societies, from Maryland to Trinidad, from St Croix to St Kitts … the scale of Scottish involvement in the slave economies and societies of the New World was … wide and deep.”
The rise of Glasgow as the country’s greatest port and industrial city should have seen the dear green place become a massive centre for the slave trade, especially as cotton and tobacco – picked by slaves, of course – were the foundation of the city’s rise in the late 1700s.
But what actually happened was that other ports, such as Liverpool and Bristol, became the slave trade areas, while Glasgow and Scotland as a whole provided the captains, doctors, managers and overseers for slave plantations, many of which in the West Indies were owned by Scottish landowners, planters and merchants, who became very rich on the backs of their slave labour. The slave ships would take the “triangle”, carrying manufactured goods to Africa, slaves to the Americas and cotton, tobacco and other raw goods from there to Britain.
On the Liverpool slave ships alone, about 20 per cent of the captains and more than half of the surgeons were Scottish – the latter had a particularly difficult job to do, keeping captured and purchased Africans alive in horrible conditions so that they would fetch a price in Jamaica, Barbados and the USA. Scots were also recognised as good plantation managers, and one estimate is that up to 20,000 of our countrymen emigrated to the Caribbean between 1750 and 1800. Many more went to the USA, where Scottish know-how in the slave trade was especially prized in the southern states.
NOT only were Scots involved in the trade across the Atlantic, bankers, landowners and merchants back home made fortunes from the three great crops which depended on slave labour – tobacco, sugar and cotton.
Overseers were often the hardest of men – one observer wrote of seeing a slave disciplined, the overseer forcing him “down on the ground with crooked Sticks on every Limb then applying the Fire by degrees from the Feet and Hands, burning them gradually up to the Head, whereby their pains are Extravagant.”
Slaves revolted, and many escaped, but that did not halt the trade or slavery, or the Scottish earnings from slave labour. Caribbean sugar in particular was big business for Scotland – at one point Scots owned a third of Jamaica’s plantations and their produce filled Greenock’s sugar warehouses, while tobacco from Virginia made Glasgow’s merchants almost obscenely wealthy.
On Jamaica and Barbados in particular, Scottish place names and clan names abound to this day, testimony to the number of Scots who worked at every level of the slave trade, from plantation owners and financiers to bookkeepers.
One of the latter was nearly Robert Burns, and it is with Rabbie that we tarry, because his experience mirrors much of what happened in Scotland in relation to the slave trade.
We know from his own account that Burns paid nine guineas for his passage on the Nancy in 1786 as he had gained a contract as a bookkeeper on an estate in Jamaica. He would be, as he wrote, “a poor Negro driver”.
The Kilmarnock edition was published just in time, or we might never have heard of the Bard, who neatly summed up the ambivalent feelings of many Scots to the trade in his poem The Slave’s Lament in which he imagines himself a slave.
It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral, For the lands of Virginia, – ginia, O: Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more; And alas! I am weary, weary O: Burns was, it appears, a reluctant recruit to the slave trade, just a farmhand fleeing poverty, the plight of so many Scots who went west, until he took up his pen.
Even before the French Revolution of 1792, Scottish Enlightenment ideas had begun to make Scots turn against slavery, and this is the other side of the coin, because Scots were to the fore in the campaign to abolish slavery.
Many ordinary Scots signed petitions against slavery and local anti-slavery committees were formed, Edinburgh’s being one of the most active in the UK.
One of the earliest campaigners was James Ramsay, originally a ship’s surgeon from Fraserburgh who became an Anglican minister on St Kitts. His vivid testimony of the horrors of the ships and plantations greatly influenced the abolitionist William Wilberforce and the public who rallied to his cause.
The Scottish experience can perhaps be summed up by one family – the Oswalds of Glasgow. Oswald Street, like so many in central Glasgow, is named after a merchant, Richard Oswald, 1705-84, who owned and traded tobacco, sugar, and slaves. He was one of the owners of the slave fort Bance Island, off Sierra Leone, where two golf holes were created for the Scots colony who kept slaves there awaiting transportation to America.
By the early 1800s, the family views had changed. Richard’s nephew James Oswald (1779-1853), was an MP for Glasgow and a leading abolitionist – he has a statue in George Square.
One clinching fact shows how much certain Scots were involved in the slave trade. The compensation paid out by the British Government to slave owners after the Abolition Act of 1833 shows that Scots got 15 per cent of the money – perhaps £20 million – at a time when Scotland had just over 10 per cent of the population of the UK.
Another thing is also certain – before the 200th anniversary in 2007 of the abolition of the slave trade, Scottish history tended to ignore our country’s role. Several major Scottish history books simply do not mention it or dismiss it in a few paragraphs usually in reference to Robert Burns. We know different now.
So was Scotland a slavery sinner, or did we shine a beacon for the freedom of our fellow humans in Africa and elsewhere? Both, the facts suggest, but unlike David Cameron in 2015 on his infamous visit to Jamaica, Scotland can and should – must – apologise for its role in slavery.