Scotland’s slaving history revealed

Hollywood's eye-opening 12 Years A Slave, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Chewetel Ejiofor. Picture: AP
Hollywood's eye-opening 12 Years A Slave, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Chewetel Ejiofor. Picture: AP
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TOWERING above the bustle of St Andrew Square, on a grand Roman-style column overlooking the intimidating bank building that used to be his home, stands the statuesque figure of a man generally regarded as one of Scotland’s greats.

Henry Dundas (1742-1811) was considered by many of his age to be the nation’s uncrowned king, a man of such immense power and status that his life was considered worthy of being commemorated by a 40-metre tall monument.

Dundas, the First Viscount Melville and MP for Midlothian, was a key figure in the Enlightenment, a political heavyweight and the driving
force behind Britain’s expansion in India.

However, says Professor Geoffrey Palmer with a weary sigh, to Scotland’s shame he was also the man who brought years of prolonged agony to thousands of slaves.

“He was probably the most powerful man in Britain of his time,” he adds, “so we gave him such a big statue. But he was the man who ensured slavery continued for far longer than it should have. He frustrated efforts to end it for years. And he did it because the fact was slavery made money for this country.”

Scotland’s role in the shameful slave trade has, says the retired university professor, been quietly brushed under the carpet for generations – even though the Jamaican telephone directory bulges with names like Campbell, Urquhart, Farquhar, McKenzie, McFarlane and Lamond.

“Seventy per cent of the names in it are Scottish surnames,” he continues. “The history of it all is gradually unfolding. Sadly, a lot of our historians have been responsible for Scotland’s role in slavery being almost omitted.

“Scotland can’t pretend this did not exist.”

Scotland’s complicity in the slave trade may have been skimmed over down the years, but a new film that focuses on America’s role in the shameful episode is about to bring into sharp focus the horrors and brutality of slavery, perhaps prompting a new generation to question just what evils were inflicted in the name of national prosperity.

The movie, 12 Years a Slave, was given its European premiere in London last week and went on release in America the same day. It followed a string of early screenings in Canada and America which reportedly left some critics in tears, while others, too upset to continue watching its gritty and disturbing scenes, simply walked out.

Tipped for Oscar glory, it is based on the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped in Washington and sold into slavery to work on Louisiana’s plantations.

Held captive, he witnessed and recorded scenes of horrific cruelty, even at one point being forced by a sadistic plantation boss to whip a young woman slave who had dared to stray out of sight.

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as one of Solomon’s first slave owners, Brad Pitt as an abolitionist, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role, the film is said to be a graphic account of a period in history that many might prefer to forget.

According to Prof Palmer from Penicuik – who was Scotland’s first black professor and is honorary president of Edinburgh and Lothians Regional Equality Council – Scotland’s role in slavery is evident all around – from our street names to statues, public buildings to schools.

Certainly, he says, some of those who invested savings in plantations that ran on the blood, sweat and tears of black slaves, were ordinary Edinburgh citizens keen to make a profit irrespective of the horrors it involved.

“In 1833, when slaves were finally emancipated, the slave-owners had to be compensated for the loss of their ‘property’,” he says. “Twenty million pounds – around £2 billion by today’s money – was set aside.

“A compensation list shows the people who received payment. In addition to the big, well-known names are people who lived in streets like Forth Street, Albany Street, India Street, Gilmour Place, York Place and Gayfield Square.

“People who lived on those streets got money for their slaves – so the slavery that shocks people today, was also about fairly ordinary people
living on ordinary streets.

“The responsibility was across the country, it was not just linked to the very rich.”

While “ordinary” citizens may have made some profit on the backs of slaves, many high-profile Scots made fortunes. Sir John Gladstone from Leith – whose son William Gladstone went on to be prime minister – was one of the most notorious owners and held ten slave plantations.

James Wedderburn, of Inveresk Lodge in Musselburgh, who made a handsome fortune from his Jamaican plantation worked by more than 1000 slaves.

There, he satisfied his lust by taking advantage of the prettiest women. Eventually his son by one of them, Robert, would make his way to Scotland to meet his father only to be callously shunned. He went on to become one of the country’s most strident anti-slavery campaigners.

As if that wasn’t enough, Wedderburn’s slave Joseph Knight sought his freedom through the Scottish courts. In 1778, and after a long hearing that involved many Edinburgh names, eight judges ruled in his favour.

Prof Palmer, whose West Indian mother’s name was Larmond – a variation of the Scots name Lamond – says slavery was such an enormous business for Scots that when the Caledonian Mercury listed the number of slaves in all the Caribbean islands in 1795, they numbered almost one million.

“Slavery was well known and the general feeling was that if we stepped out of line and tried to abolish it at the wrong time, it could have serious consequences.”

It meant that when William Wilberforce set about trying to end the miserable human trade, he came up against the formidable might of Tory MP Hendry Dundas.

“Henry Dundas frustrated Wilberforce for at least 15 years. Wilberforce had been trying to get his bill through since 1790, but every time he put forward a motion, Dundas would get it deferred.”

Even when the bill did succeed, Dundas, who controlled the vast majority of his fellow MPs, successfully argued that it should contain the condition that slavery would be “gradually abolished”. It was a crucial line which meant the vile trade continued for almost another three decades.

“Jamaica provided a third of the income for the British empire, in 1800, there were 300,000 slaves on the island and 10,000 Scots,” he adds. “It was profitable.”

Today, he sees no need for national apologies, instead he simply wants Scots to understand the role the nation played in the slave trade and the impact it has on lives even now.

“When you read the history of slavery, it’s all chains, horror, beatings and Atlantic crossings. There is not a lot of dignity in it.

“I’d rather tell it in terms of people’s relationships with other people and the names that can’t be changed. It’s about understanding how Jamaican people see Scotland as part of their identity, and how connected we are.

“It is part of history,” he adds. “If you brush stuff out then you cannot be the nation you think you are.”

• Professor Geoff Palmer will be speaking at Celebrating Black History Month at the Civic Centre, Howden South Road, Livingston, this Saturday, October 26. The event will include debate, performances, African music, arts and crafts.


ARCHIBALD Dalzel from Kirkliston firmly believed the slave trade was good for West Africans as it rescued them from constant warring in their homeland.

He managed the notorious Cape Coast Castle for ten years in what is now Ghana. Up to 1500 slaves were held there at a time before being sent to North America or the West Indies. They were kept in dingy dungeons sometimes for up to three months waiting for a slave ship.

His book, History of Dahomey – An Inland Kingdom of Africa, argued in favour of the slave trade.


DURING the early 18th century, up to four vessels a year sailed from Leith to America, Jamaica and Grenada. They left carrying items like clothes for slaves, tools and household goods, and returned with cargoes such as rum, rice, sugar and spices. Several sugar-houses sprang up in Leith to refine the sweet cargo for a population which had rapidly developed a sweet tooth.


LORD Provost William Alexander was among those who owned ships that sailed to and from the plantations – he owned four vessels at a time when it was rare for even one vessel to be owned by a single person. Meanwhile, tobacco from plantations in the Americas arrived at merchant James Gillespie’s High Street tobacco and snuff shop. The fortune he made from Virginia plantation tobacco was left to build the school that bears his name.

John Newlands, of Bathgate, made a fortune using slave labour in Jamaica. He left thousands in his will to establish Bathgate Academy.

And in 1750 Dr Archibald Kerr left Jamaican estate – with 39 slaves and annual income of around £220 – to the management of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh.


BLACK children were brought from plantations to work as personal servants for Edinburgh’s well heeled. The Dowager Countess Stair “owned” a black slave called Oronoce in the 1740s. Some were sold, other escaped and a few became integrated into society. Freed slave John Edmonstone came to Scotland from South America with his former master and went on to teach taxidermy to Edinburgh University students, including Charles Darwin.

Many owners brought their slaves to Jock’s Lodge to learn a trade, returning them to the Caribbean later to sell off at a profit.


AN advert offering a 19-year-old woman and her baby boy for sale appeared in the Edinburgh Evening Courant on August 30, 1766. Adverts were often placed for masters seeking runaway slaves, sometimes threatening to dire consequences to any who dared to help the absconders.

One advert appeared in the Courant in March 1721 seeking a missing slave called Ann, who disappeared while wearing a brass collar around her neck inscribed “Gustavos Brown in Dalkeith, his negro”.