'An enormous victory for Edinburgh and the people of Scotland' - reaction to Melville Monument slavery plaque

The installation of a plaque on the Melville Monument - outlining Henry Dundas’ role in the slave trade - has been welcomed as “an enormous victory for Edinburgh and the people of Scotland”.

Wednesday, 17th March 2021, 5:12 pm

Edinburgh City Council has approved plans to add a plaque to the St Andrew Square landmark - denouncing Henry Dundas’ role in deferring abolition of the slave trade and his role in expanding the British Empire.

The approval has been welcomed by activists, with one leading campaigner saying “the Scottish people are big enough to take on their whole history.”

The Category A-listed monument pays tribute to Henry Dundas, the 1st Viscount Melville, the trusted right hand man of Prime Minister William Pitt and at one time the most powerful politician in Scotland.

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He was instrumental in the Scottish Enlightenment, the prosecution of the French Revolutionary Wars and British colonial expansion in India.

However, Dundas is a controversial figure in Scottish history, due to his role in subjugating indigenous populations in the British Empire and for his part in delaying the abolition of the slave trade.

He was the Scottish Lord Advocate, an MP for Edinburgh and Midlothian, and the First Lord of the Admiralty.

As first lord of the admiralty, Dundas deliberately prolonged slavery to protect the elite in the 1800s – forcing about 630,000 slaves to wait more than a decade for their freedom.

The new plaque has been hailed as "an enormous victory" for the people of Edinburgh.

In June 2020, during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in the city, the monument was vandalised.

Now, Edinburgh City Council’s development management committee has approved an application by Edinburgh World Heritage and Essential Edinburgh for the installation of a plaque on the Melville Monument that will outline his misdeeds.

The planning application for the plaque attracted over 2,200 comments from members of the public.

The plaque reads: “While Home Secretary in 1792, and first Secretary of State for War in 1796 he was instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade.

The wording of the plaque was deliberated over by a special committee.

“Slave trading by British ships was not abolished until 1807. As a result of this delay, more than half a million enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic.

“Dundas also curbed democratic dissent in Scotland, and both defended and expanded the British empire, imposing colonial rule on indigenous peoples.”

The plaque concludes: “In 2020 this plaque was dedicated to the memory of the more than half-a-million Africans whose enslavement was a consequence of Henry Dundas’s actions.”

The idea of a plaque on the statue first raised its head in 2016, when Adam Ramsay, the editor of OpenDemocracy started a petition which was handed into the council.

Commenting on the approval, he said: “Scotland needs to come to terms with our historic role in the violence and plunder of the British Empire.

“This is one very small step in the right direction.”

Chas Booth, Green councillor for Leith, who was convener of the council's petitions committee in 2016 when the petition for a plaque on the monument was first raised, said: “I’m delighted this plaque has finally got the planning green light.

“It’s vital that Edinburgh addresses the impact of its past links to slavery and colonialism, and this plaque is an important step towards that.

“We must listen to the black and minority-ethnic community in the city and the Black Lives Matter movement, who have asked us to address all memorials to those with links to colonialism and slavery.

“It’s just a shame that this plaque has taken nearly five years since the petition was first brought to the council, and I hope the work of the Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group won't take so long."

Sir Geoff Palmer, chair of the Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialsm Legacy Review Group, has previously called for statues to remain where they are and for educational information to be made available at the sites, as he believes that “if you remove the statue you remove the deed, and our statues are in the context of our history”.

Commenting on the approval of the slavery plaque, Sir Geoff said: “Henry Dundas’ statue, with his old plaque, has been there for about 200 years, and the word slavery wasn’t on it - it didn’t teach us anything about slavery.

“What is important about this plaque, is that for the first time in 200 years slavery will be mentioned here.

“This is the public’s victory, that the governing body of Edinburgh has looked at the evidence, looked at the evidence very carefully, and decided that slavery should be on this plaque, and that some recognition should be given to the suffering of the people, who not only endured slavery as whole, but of the 630,000 people he was responsible for transporting into slavery.

“This is an enormous victory, not just for the people of Edinburgh, but for the people of Scotland, because they’ve acknowledged that they were involved in slavery and have now decided to do something about.

“I can assure you that some of the people who don’t want this plaque, with slavery on it, they would rather the statue would come down, because that’s the power of the plaque and the truth of the plaque.

“Those activists and self-serving people who think they’re doing the Scottish people a favour by telling lies, those people would rather the statue down because they think they’re moderating Scotland’s role in slavery by not telling the truth.

“The Scottish people are big enough to take on their whole history.”

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