Geoff Palmer: Take chains and blinkers off history

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The prominent involvement of Scots in British slavery was not well known until recently. Thankfully, that is changing.

Scotland’s initial involvement was controlled by its tobacco lords, but after the Act of Union in 1707 trade interests shifted to slave-produced sugar, coffee, cotton and rum. Although understated by our historians, article 4 of the Union gave Scots permission to trade with the slave “dominions and plantations”. Article 4 was the first of the 25 articles to be signed and had the greatest majority vote because of the opportunities it gave to Scotsmen to make “quick fortunes”.

As the forthcoming movie 12 Years A Slave will attest, the trade was big business. By the early 1800s, there was a large group of millionaire Scottish sugar barons. At the end of slavery, slave owners were given £20 million (about £2 billion now) as compensation for the loss of their slaves at emancipation in 1833. By law, black slaves were chattel (property).

The large number of Scottish claims for the loss of their slaves is recorded in the compensation list. The addresses on the list cover the country. Claims extended from the ownership of one slave to several hundred.

Edinburgh is mentioned about 80 times and claims for slaves were made from Forth St, Gilmore Place, Sylvan Place, Albany Street, Queens St, York Place, Gayfield Square, India St, Lord Russell Place, Broughton Place, Heriot Row, London St, Preston St, Clarence St, Crichton St, Regent Terrace, North St Andrew St, South St Andrew St, Fingal Place, Hart St, Nelson St, Montgomery St, Abercomby Place, North St, Princes St, Middeby St, North Castle St, Dean Haugh, High St and Hart St.

Chattel slavery has been described as probably the most profitable evil the world has known. The legality of chattel slavery, which denied black slaves the right to life, makes it very different from other unacceptable treatments of human beings which we now call “slavery”.

David Cameron, the Prime Minister, stated recently that Britain’s abolition of its part of a lengthy slavery, where people were legally reduced to chattel, should be regarded as evidence of Britain’s “powerful history”. However, it should not be forgotten that some people believe that abolition was not only achieved by the human-kindness of abolitionists; new economic circumstances that reduced the viability and profitability of the business of slavery played an important part in Parliament’s decision to abolish British (Scottish) slavery activities totally in 1838.

History, like identity, should be all-embracing. Therefore, it was worrying that at the last Homecoming of the Scottish diaspora in 2009 where the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’ birth was celebrated; only members of the white Scottish diaspora were invited. Many Scottish people were concerned that the non-white members of the Scottish diaspora were not invited. It is therefore a victory for “honest history” that both the white and non-white members of the Scottish diaspora are invited to attend the next Scottish Homecoming celebrations, which will be held at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

• Professor Geoff Palmer, Professor Tom Devine and Bishop Richard Holloway will discuss the history of Scotland’s involvement in British slavery in the St Andrew’s Day lecture at the Royal College of Surgeons on the November 30 at 6pm. Free tickets can be booked at https://standrewsday2013.eventbrite.co.uk/ or by contacting the Surgeons’ Hall Museum at 0131 527 1649/1711 or museum@rcsed.ac.uk