Slave-trade Scots must be condemned but don't forget the abolitionists – Steve Cardownie
The issue of Scotland’s former slave owners and how they accumulated their wealth is very much a hot topic just now and this paper carried an article yesterday about Henry Dundas (whose monument as Lord Melville dominates St Andrew Square) and the plan to attach a plaque to it referring to his past involvement in the slave trade.
Scottish plantation owners were not exactly thin on the ground and their role in this inhuman trade is well documented and can be witnessed by the number of African Americans who have Scottish surnames. The practice of giving slaves the surname of the plantation owner was widespread and prompted the activist Malcolm X to denounce his slave surname of Little and adopt the letter X in protest.
On this day in 1910, Chester Arthur Burnett was born, later to become known as “Howlin’ Wolf”, the celebrated blues musician and songwriter. He was born in White Station near Aberdeen, Mississippi, and was one of six children brought up on a plantation where his parents worked.
Throughout his formative years, he was influenced by his mentors who also had “English” surnames such as Charlie Patton who lived on a nearby plantation, Sonny Boy Williamson, who was born Alex Ford and who taught him how to play the harmonica, and the renowned Delta blues singer Robert Leroy Johnson. All their surnames bear testimony to British involvement in the slave trade, particularly as plantation owners and many of these names have been carried through to the present day.
Howlin’ Wolf never changed his Scottish surname of Burnett but his nickname became widely known and was the name he recorded under with many successful Blues albums influencing today’s soul and rock music. Such was his influence, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 so his contribution to music was immense and recognised.
Scots also made a significant contribution to the abolition of slavery such as Zachary Macaulay (1768-1838) from Inveraray who witnessed the treatment of slaves in Jamaica when he worked there as a bookkeeper on a sugar plantation. He was active and played a key role in the trade’s abolition, was a founder member of the Anti Slavery Society and became editor of the “Anti-Slavery Reporter”.
There was also William Dickson (1751-1823), who hailed from Moffat and was a former secretary to the Governor of Barbados, a position he held for 13 years. There he witnessed the brutal treatment of slaves and in the first three months of 1792 he travelled throughout the length and breadth of Scotland exposing the evil nature of the slave trade and his evidence was delivered before a select committee of the House of Commons which was debating the issue.
Although the British Parliament abolished the slave trade in 1807, enslaved people working on plantations in British colonies were not emancipated until 1833 and it wasn’t until the end of the American Civil War in 1865 that slavery was abolished in The United States.
Many Scots campaigned against slavery in the USA including Eliza Wigham (1820-1899) from Edinburgh who has been described as the “leading light” in the Edinburgh Ladies Emancipation Society. Jane Smeal was the stepmother of Wigham and was secretary of the Glasgow Ladies Auxiliary Emancipation Society whose father, William, founded the Glasgow Anti-Slavery Society.
So from Scots plantation owners to Scots abolitionists, the history of this nation’s involvement in the slave trade and its eventual demise is chequered, to say the least.
And while it is absolutely justified to condemn the activities of the Scots who made their fortunes on the back of this insidious trade, we should also acknowledge the role of the Scots who campaigned for its abolition.
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