The current iconoclastic spasm over our civic statuary appears to be part of a pattern which requires us to be burdened with the guilt of Scotland’s past misdeeds since many of our countrymen were indeed involved in the slave trade.
It’s undeniable that many individual Scots profited from the slave trade, either as plantation owners in America and the West Indies, or as dealers in human cargo, like Richard Oswald of Auchencruive, the wealthiest trafficker of the 18th century. Despite his despicable activities, he has been described as a ‘liberal’ by at least two Pulitzer Prize-winning US historians simply because he was sympathetic to the cause of American independence.
Slave trafficking undoubtedly had a trickle-down effect in Scotland’s economy: for example, the production of linen provided ‘slave cloth’ for the plantations and sailcloth made in Arbroath for ships engaged in the trade. Plantation remittances were also integral to Scotland’s economy, their legacy most notably visible in the street names of Glasgow.
To some extent Scotland’s role in the slave trade was the product of its own tragic circumstances. After the Darien disaster, the crop failures of the late 17th century, and the defeat of the first Jacobite rebellion, the nation was on its knees.
With Culloden, Scotland’s trauma was compounded as its struggling gentry looked overseas for opportunities. The attainted Earl of Cromarty, for example, sent three daughters out to Charleston, a popular destination for exiled Jacobites, in the hope that they might marry into the rich slave-owning ‘plantocracy’.
Look behind the case of Knight v Wedderburn, in which Henry Dundas, no less, upheld the principle that no human being could own another human being, and what do we find? The pursuer, John Wedderburn, Jamaican sugar plantation owner, claimed ownership of Joseph Knight, so hardly deserves our sympathy; yet Wedderburn was the teenage boy who, 20 years earlier, had travelled to London to plead for his father’s life after he had been condemned to death as a Jacobite.
His mission failed. The last he saw of his father was on Kennington Green, where he witnessed him being hanged, drawn, and quartered, after which he worked his passage to the Caribbean. In the parlance of modern psychopathology, this would be classed as an adverse life event. In no way does it vindicate his claim of ownership of a fellow human being, or mitigate the injustice perpetrated against Knight (see more in Part One), but it does add further pathos to a dark narrative.
The ‘Dundas despotism’ was a grim passage in Scotland’s history, occurring as it did in the shadow of the American and French revolutions. It was an era of many miscarriages of justice in the form of rigged trials and the transportation of such relatively moderate radical democrats as Joseph Gerrald and Thomas Muir.
The Dundas family, in general, was much despised by Edinburgh’s artisan and labouring classes at the height of its power. On the King’s birthday in 1792 a window-smashing mob laid siege to the George Square home of Henry’s nephew, the judge and MP for Edinburgh, Robert Dundas, as he huddled inside. Contrary to today’s popular belief that he was the target of public anger because of Uncle Henry’s support for the slave trade, the truth, yet again, was more complicated.
The public’s anger had several causes, one being the Lord Provost’s decision to bring in troops, many of them drunk, to control the crowds celebrating (or otherwise) the royal birthday. There was also much resentment at a royal proclamation against seditious writing such as Thomas Paine’s Right of Man and the effect the 1791 Corn Law was having on the price of food. Slavery was just one issue of many.
No defence for Dundas
Despite Dundas’s role in securing a landmark ruling which outlawed slavery in Scotland, defending him is well-nigh impossible; no professional historian would think of whitewashing his reputation. He was undeniably one of those responsible for delaying the abolition of slavery, yet what will the destruction of his statue achieve other than the perpetuation of some sense of victimhood among the descendants of those who suffered? Is that what they truly want?
Many Scots participated in the slave trade, yet Scots legal custom, at least within the country’s own jurisdiction, was fundamentally averse to the concept of slavery even before the institution of race-based exploitation existed as we know it today. The dog that doesn’t bark in this case would appear to be Judge Thomas Grahame of the Admiralty Court.
Thanks to American historians such as William Dunlap and George Williams we know that a full decade prior to the 1772 landmark English case of Somersett v Steuart, in which (Scots-born) Lord Mansfield damned slavery as ‘so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it’, Grahame had granted freedom to an enslaved black sailor on the grounds that the ownership of one human being by another was not an admissible concept under Scots law. Yet this key determination seems absent from any Scottish history book.
Black enslavement was a reality when Scipio Kennedy arrived in Culzean in 1705. His status rose from slave to employee, and his contract of employment survives. His life seems to have been tolerable. He had a Scottish wife and family, a comfortable house on the estate, and was left money in at least one family will. This in no way makes up for the fact that he had been sold into bondage aged six, but at least it casts light on social attitudes in a country which had rejected hierarchies in its national church, a background not unrelated to George Davies’ theory of a distinctly Scottish ‘Democratic Intellect’ which thrived in Scotland’s 19th century universities.
Today, Glasgow University has signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of the West Indies for a £20 million Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research. This ‘restorative justice’ acknowledged that many 19thcentury benefactions, including funds raised for its Gilmorehill campus, were provided by donors who had, at least partly, profited from slavery.
The political clout of the ‘Virginia Dons’ and the pro-slavery campaigning of Glasgow Courier editor James MacQueen was far-reaching. The university senate appointed rich plantation owner and Jamaica’s receiver-general of taxes, Robert Cunninghame Graham, Rector in 1785. Admittedly, this man was a living paradox. A pro-Jacobin who welcomed the French revolution, as MP for Stirling he attempted to introduce a reforming Bill of Rights.
This dichotomy wasn’t unusual. Charles Gordon, owner of the Georgia Estate in Jamaica and Cairness House in Buchan, also supported the French Revolution, and his son Thomas fought with Byron in the Greek independence wars, yet somehow their slaves weren’t freed until the law forced Thomas’s hand in 1834, when he scooped just over £600,000 compensation in today’s values.
Such dodgy connections notwithstanding, Glasgow’s professors endlessly condemned slavery. The philosopher Gershom Carmichael who taught there from 1694 stated plainly that ‘men are not among the objects which God has allowed the human race to enjoy dominion over.’ His pupil and successor, Francis Hutcheson, who taught Adam Smith and David Hume, was equally vociferous in denouncing chattel slavery. Smith succeeded Hutcheson, and both he and his successor, Thomas Reid, founder of the ‘Common Sense’ school of philosophy, continued to condemn the practice.
This progressive ethos continued into the 19th century. Theory became action with the admission in 1832 of African American ex-slave, James McCune Smith, to the medical faculty. It would be over 40 years before Oxford admitted its first black student. Smith had been freed under New York’s Emancipation Act aged 14 and entered an African Free School where his abilities were soon recognised. After being refused admission to several American universities because of his race, he spent five years in Glasgow, earning three degrees. Those who welcomed McCune Smith in Glasgow included Professor of Moral Philosophy and social reformer James Mylne, whose father-in-law, Regius Professor of Civil Law John Millar, made an economic case against slavery in Origin of the Distinction of Ranks(1778) and authored two petitions urging Parliament to abolish it.
Smith returned to the USA, becoming a successful physician and active abolitionist. Frederick Douglass regarded him as the single most important influence on his life. Do any of the would-be Dundas statue topplers know, or indeed care, about this extraordinary man?
Nor was he the first. Jamaican William Fergusson enrolled in Edinburgh’s College of Surgeons in 1809 and would go on to become the first, and last, African descended governor of a British Colony, Sierra Leone.
It was only two years ago that a plaque to Douglass, fugitive slave, journalist, orator and abolitionist, was finally unveiled at the Gilmore Place house where he stayed during his 1846 visit to Edinburgh. Douglass, who took his name from Scott’s Lady of the Lake, exulted in ‘the free hills of Scotland’ and often drew parallels between the Scottish Independence wars and the struggle for black freedom in the United States.
I wonder what he’d be making of us now…
Featured image of Melville Monument by Gareth Davies via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0; Image of James McCune Smith via YouTube
Further info: Podcast interview with Geoff Palmer, Bella Caledonia, June 23;
William Ross says
An interesting and well balanced article. The author might also have noted that no nation in the World had finally repudiated slavery in the 18th Century and if would have been astonishing had Scotland been different, given its colonial opportunities. In the early 19th Century however, British Judeo- Christian civilization disabled slavery and then destroyed it through political campaigning, evangelization, legislation and then military action.