‘The gentleman – at times rocking backwards and forwards in his seat, desperate to be heard – finally revealed the issue that made him really angry: ‘And what about the white Scottish slaves?’.
A heated debate developed at the launch of the book Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past: The Caribbean Connection in Glasgow’s Trade Hall on 22 October 2015. This debate perfectly encapsulated the wilful denial of Scotland’s involvement in Caribbean slavery. A mature gentleman sitting in the front row loudly criticised the book’s editor, Professor Tom Devine, as well as authors, contents and slant of the book.
He was sitting directly in front of a panel of three leading authorities on slavery in Scottish universities: Professor Devine, Dr Nuala Zahedieh (University of Edinburgh) and Professor Simon Newman (University of Glasgow). Amongst the audience were academic historians, postgraduate research students, academic publishers and journalists: the ideal venue for historical misinformation to be identified and reported upon.
Firstly, the gentleman asked Devine and the authors how much money they had made from the book. Nothing, was the reply. The critic then accused academic funding bodies of being founded on slavery, inferring that the historians profited indirectly through their work and grants. And then came the angry query about ‘the white Scottish slaves’.
This historical denial and whataboutery is nothing new. I’ve been accused online of profiting from the slave trade through my academic work. Similarly, in a letter sent claiming the Jacobites were white slaves, I was informed: ‘Scotch historians only copy Anglo-centric shite from Unionist historians’. I was publicly accused – by a left-wing academic – of peddling ‘counterfactual evidence’ when I stated that some working classes profited from slavery and not just the elites in Scotland. Such inaccurate ad hominem attacks are based on myths. They are designed to deflect from the wider story of Scottish profiteering from black chattel slavery in the colonial period.
This article addresses the ‘white slaves’ myth. I’ll set out my opinion from the start: there were no white Scottish slaves. In fact, if the gentleman had actually read the first page of Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past he would have noted that Devine (along with many other historians) has drawn a fundamental legal and material distinction between the experience and status of the Scottish poor as well as the indentured white servants and the chattel slaves of the Caribbean.
The White Slaves narrative
The myth of Scottish slaves in the Caribbean is a sub-set of a narrative more commonly associated with the Irish in colonial America. It has been underpinned by two polemical books: Theodore W. Allen’s The Invention of the White Race and more recently, Don Jordan and Michael Walsh’s White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America. The authors were not professional historians. Allen was a writer and activist. Jordan is a television director and Walsh a journalist, which perhaps explains the sensationalist interpretations of White Cargo. The American historian Michael Guasco recently suggested the text should be read in ‘conjunction with more analytical and thoroughly contextualized works’ – a diplomatic way of urging caution when considering the authors’ conclusions. So, I had a look. Chapter sixteen concerns the Jacobites forcibly transported from Scotland after the uprisings in 1715 and 1746 who, according to the authors, were sometimes enslaved: those sent to the Caribbean were treated worse than those sent to America. There is no question that Jacobites were harshly dealt with in what was a concerted attack on the Highland way of life – but they were never regarded or treated as chattel slaves.
Ironically, the White Cargo bibliography includes two books written by the late Anglo-Canadian journalist, John Prebble. According to Tom Devine, it is difficult to differentiate in Prebble’s work what was ‘based on reasonable research and what was the product of the imagination’. Prebble’s ‘victim histories’ of Scotland (Glencoe, Culloden, The Highland Clearances and Darien) sold in huge numbers from the 1960s onwards; exemplars of the Scottish school of pseudo-historiographical victimology. Modern academics have added more nuance. For example, Darien (1698-1700) was indeed a disaster for Scotland and deliberate lack of support from the English in the Caribbean contributed to the death of many Scots. But let’s not forget the poorly planned venture represented a failed attempt at Scottish colonisation. Indeed, one scheme proposed by the Duke of Hamilton at Darien sought to import slaves to be worked to death in the gold mines of Panama. This was not some romantic quest to establish a new society based upon utopian socialist principles. It was a mercantilist venture designed to improve personal fortunes and Scotland’s balance of trade through colonisation and exploitation.
Whilst the slant of Prebble’s books defined a generation of victimhood, popular histories have been replaced by online blogs. Elizabeth McQuillan’s ‘The hidden Scots victims of the slave trade’ in the Caledonian Mercury is completely devoid of any relevant historical evidence or analysis. Incredibly, after repeating the ‘white slaves myth’, the article suggests that ‘pressure groups [in Scotland] were looking for an official apology’ as their ancestors were white slaves. It seems almost embarrassing that the article ends with Robert Burns’s The Slaves Lament which concerns the African slave trade from Senegal to Virginia (a song he almost certainly didn’t author, according to Glasgow University experts. However, he nearly made a trip to Jamaica as a slave plantation overseer in 1786). This type of ahistorical blog enters an echo-chamber of misinformation cited as credible sources, sometimes in response to articles about migration or the Scottish role in slavery. The ‘white slaves myth’, based upon weak foundations flourishes in the unchecked environment of the Internet.
For those familiar with Hogan’s Law, this is nothing new. Liam Hogan has written articles on the myth of the Irish slaves, a myth which has been hijacked in America by right wing groups and white supremacists to deflect from the legacy of black racialised chattel slavery and the ongoing quest for reparations in America. The Scottish white slaves strand differs from the Irish version in one important way. Whilst the Irish slaves myth has been used to cultivate white victimhood in America, the Scottish version is used mainly to deflect from the wider historical narrative of Scots involvement with British imperialism and specifically Caribbean slavery.
It wisnae us – white Scots were slaves first. It wisnae us – it was the English. It wisnae us – it was the rich landowners. It wisnae us – the working classes weren’t involved. It wisnae us – it happened 200 years ago. Repeat ad nauseum.
Some are born free, others as slaves
An English concept, chattel slavery was established by the Barbados Slave Act of 1661 which ratified enslaved African peoples as property with no right to life. Prof Simon Newman has recently traced the transition from indentured servitude to chattel slavery in Barbados, arguing that the early development of the plantation economy depended on exportation of vagrants and the poor as well as criminals and political and religious exiles. Thus, the labour force of the embryonic tobacco and sugar plantations was created by forced and voluntary emigration from Scotland, England and Ireland. White indentured servitude was eventually superseded by African slavery from the 1630s which became entrenched in the colonial legal system after 1661.
Chattel slavery developed into a hierarchical system of exploitation based on class and subsequently race which evolved into the most lethal form of slavery known to mankind. Indentured servants had legal personhood whilst enslaved persons were viewed as sub-human chattel. They were listed in plantation inventories next to cattle with names such as Fido, Caeser and Jumper, and sometimes places names such as Scotland. The enslaved were treated as beasts of burden to be bought and sold and worked to death on sugar plantations. Mutilation as a punishment was permitted as was murder by hanging, slow burning and starvation in gibbets. The penalty for slaves striking a white person was death, unless the assault was to protect a slave’s owner.
Furthermore, indentured servants worked for set periods (usually three to seven years) and, in theory at least, there was an end to their servitude. By contrast, the Uterine law meant the offspring of slaves were born into the status of their mother, thus thirling successive generations for life to plantations and owners and perpetuating the hereditary cycle of racial hierarchy.
So, what of the ‘white slaves’?
In the colonial period, Scots were both forcibly transported and voluntarily emigrated to the New World. Only small numbers were transported as criminals. David Dobson suggests only 600 prisoners were deported to the Americas between 1707 and 1763. These numbers are broadly supported by Roger Ekirch, of Virginia Tech, USA. Of 395 prosecuted in Edinburgh High Court between 1718 and 1775, nearly one half (181) were transported to America. Many Jacobites were also banished and transported after uprisings in 1715 and 1746. In Banishment in the Early Atlantic World: Convicts, Slaves and Rebels, Gwenda Morgan and Peter Rushton describe the fate of many of the banished. Of 1700 prisoners taken in Scotland after the 1715 uprising, more than 450 Jacobites were sent to North America and 170 to the Caribbean. The authors note one form of ‘mercy’ was to make Jacobites sign allegiance to the King, followed by signing indentures and eventual transportation.
Many Jacobites refused to sign the seven-year indentures offered by the British Government. Yet, in the eyes of the law, they were prisoners to be transported to the colonies under indenture, not chattel slaves. In fact, many who did sign indentures bought the contracts from ship captains and freed themselves from their term of labour.
Eric Graham has recreated one such journey. In 1716, John Dunbar wrote from Chester Castle to relatives in Scotland pleading for the ‘means to get me set at liberty when I arrive in the Indies … when I am sold as a slave, to relieve myself from bondage and servitude’. Despite Dunbar’s assumptions, he used a credit note supplied by family to purchase a privileged berth in the ship he was transported in. On arrival at Sandy Point on the James River, he was released as a free man, presumably after purchasing his indenture from the captain. Instead of labouring in tobacco fields as a ‘white slave’, Dunbar took up the life of a mariner in Virginia and eventually returned to Scotland. In 1723, he inherited the family estate of Bishopmiln near Elgin. Many other Jacobites transported to South Carolina remained. In some cases, their indenture was bought by the Governor and they were instantly recruited to fight Yamassee Indians on the frontier.
Others, according to Morgan and Rushton, survived their indenture, such as William Cumming, who served in Public Office as a member of the House of Assembly (which slaves could not do). Even more revealing, on his decease, Cumming bequeathed his property – including forty slaves and three servants – to his son. Slaves were not allowed to own property and definitely not other enslaved people.
After the 1745 uprising and defeat at Culloden a year later, punishment was even harsher. Of 3463 Jacobite prisoners, 936 were transported and 348 banished. Some were intercepted by the French. Others made it to the colonies and their labour sold by agent, one of whom commented that he would make a ‘proper disposition of them amongst his friends, who I fancy will make them useful members of Society and in time they may possibly become good subjects’. However, none of the 1745 transportees signed indentures in Great Britain and were intended to be set for ‘lifelong service’. Even then, their children would have been free in contrast to the children of chattel slaves. However, again according to Morgan and Rushton, ‘those [Jacobites] who signed indentures in Jamaica had their terms reduced to seven years’. The crucial point about Dunbar and Cumming is that they were able to progress in a matter of years from unfree labourers to free persons: one returned to Scotland, the other rose to plantocracy elite in the colonies. This was only possible because they were white and therefore legally regarded in the colonies as human beings.
Adherents of the white slaves myth commit the cardinal sin that those striving to be historians avoid: judging the past by standards of today. Yes, indentured servitude is illegal in many countries today. But at the time, the indentured system in England and Scotland was not considered oppressive bond labour. It was an accepted rite of passage – virtually all workers were in some form of hierarchical work relationship: rural servants, maids or apprentice tradesmen. There were significant differences between servitude in England and Scotland and indentured servitude in the Anglo-Caribbean in the early seventeenth century, but the indentured servants, banished exiles or transported convicts were neither de jure or de facto enslaved.
The forms of labour were different not just in law but also in practice. And conditions for white indentured servants in the eighteenth-century Caribbean improved – even exiles had a privileged status far above the enslaved. Rigidly established hierarchies of race and class ensured that even the lowliest white overseer was able to exert power and authority over the most privileged chattel slave (see Trevor Burnard’s outstanding work Master, Tyranny and Desire). Lives of indentured servants were undeniably grim but they were not chattel slaves. Historians have a duty to clarify differences between the two forms of labour and how they were conceptualised and experienced at the time. They were two entirely different legal and social realities.
No triangulation, just a straight line
There was another crucial difference: scale. The Atlantic slave trade was the largest coerced migration in history. It is generally regarded that 12-20 million Africans were shipped to the New World. Over 3m were transported in British ships. Scottish indentured numbers are miniscule compared to many millions of Africans forcibly transported to chattel slavery in the New World.
Scots had limited direct involvement in the ‘triangular trade’ simply because the ‘trade’ was already monopolised by the English merchants prior to Union. Indeed, there are only 31 recorded Scottish slave voyages 1706-1766, carrying perhaps 4-5000 slaves. By comparison, over 1000 voyages cleared the port of Liverpool in a ten year period after 1790. Here it really ‘wisnae us’ (in general), but this limited involvement facilitates another form of whataboutery: disregarding the profound involvement of Scots as overseers, bookkeepers, merchants and attorneys across the Caribbean. Instead of undertaking triangular trade voyages, Scottish ships went straight to the plantations.
‘White slaves’ propagandists also infer another myth: indentureds were ‘spirited’ children, forcibly transported vagrants, or banished religious and political exiles. Many were, of course. Dobson’s and Ekirch’s figures show many hundreds of Scots transported and banished. However, for Scotland at least, the much wider story is one of voluntary emigration to the Caribbean, or more accurately a phenomenon known as sojourning. These young men travelled to the slave economies intending to make as much money in as short a time as possible in order to return to invest in a landed estate, thus improving their status.
There are no shipping records before 1840, so emigration estimates are necessarily based on anecdotal evidence. For the period 1750-1800, it is estimated that around 17,000 Scots went voluntarily to the Caribbean. My doctoral research on Clyde-Caribbean connections suggests these numbers increased 1800-1838. By the 1830s, the indentured system was no longer as widespread although waves of Scottish adventurers still flooded into the West Indies in the hope of profiteering from the labour of chattel slaves. There is a growing body of evidence delineating the lives of Scots profiteers who made the journey to, for example, St Kitts, Jamaica, Grenada and British Guiana. So, even if judged on its own terms (ie. forced vs voluntary migration), there is no comparison. And new research reveals another narrative, although one that will represent a sharp shock to our Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past critic.
Scotland and slavery
If there is one key message from the book Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past: The Caribbean Connection, it is the view that Scotland had a ‘greater per capita stake than any of the four nations of the UK in British imperial slavery’.
This conclusion is principally based upon the research of Dr Nicholas Draper (UCL) and the Legacies of British Slaveownership project. When slavery was abolished on 1 August 1834, the British Government awarded the slaveowners £20m compensation. Of this compensation, Scots claimed £2m. Scots represented 10 percent of the British population, yet collected around 15-16 percent of all absentee awards claimed in Great Britain (many slaveowners were resident in the colonies).
Individuals in Glasgow were amongst the most concentrated groups of claimants in Great Britain. Absentee West India planters and merchants in Glasgow owned over 14,000 slaves which resulted in a total award of over £460,000. Contemporary estimates suggest this total is worth c.£30m today or even up to £2 billion depending on what price index is deployed. There is no question that Scots had sustained involvement as profiteers in the plantation economy from the c.1660s – 1838. Who were the real victims?
It has long been recognised the past is usable and, evidently, the ‘white slaves’ myth has been hijacked for negative purposes. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult for ‘white slaves’ promoters to continue to insist that Scots were victims, not profiteers, of slavery There is a growing body of evidence on Scottish slaveowners. If this annoys some misinformed critics, then so be it. Historians have a duty to explain – without fear or favour – in a clear, concise manner based on empirical research of verifiable sources. Analysis should be undertaken in an unbiased fashion (or at least in the knowledge of said bias). Conclusions should be based upon reasoned and judicious interpretation of representative material and appropriately contextualised. If serious historians demolish myths and challenge the preconceived ideas of many, they are simply doing their job.
Featured image: Inside a Jamaican ‘House of Correction’, International Slavery Museum exhibit Diego Sideburns CC by ND-by-ND 2.0
Susan Dwyer Amussen, Slavery and the Transformation of English Society;
Mark Duffill, African Trade from the Ports of Scotland;
David Dobson, Scottish Emigration to Colonial America: 1607-1785