Who was Henry Dundas? Why the Edinburgh statue of the Scottish advocate is being changed to reflect his links to slavery

Edinburgh council is to install a new plaque under the monument following the vandalism from the Black Lives Matter protests
Dundas delayed the abolition of slavery by 15 years (Photo: Jane Barlow)Dundas delayed the abolition of slavery by 15 years (Photo: Jane Barlow)
Dundas delayed the abolition of slavery by 15 years (Photo: Jane Barlow)

A descendant of Scottish politician Henry Dundas has urged Edinburgh council to make changes to his ancestor’s statue, arguing his links to prolonging slavery should be exposed.

The move comes after the statue, known as the Melville Monument, was vandalised on Sunday (7 June) amid the Black Lives Matter protests in the city.

Who are the Dundas family?

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Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, was a Scottish advocate and Tory politician, who entered the Cabinet in 1791 as Secretary of State.

He was the Member of Parliament for Midlothian in 1774, and was later appointed as the first ever Secretary of State for War - or War Secretary - in 1794.

Dundas used his influence as the Home Secretary to frustrate efforts to abolish the trade, setting the move back 15 years.

If not for his obstructions, the slave trade would have been abolished in Britain in 1792, rather than in 1807.

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The buying and selling of slaves was made illegal across the British Empire in 1807, while the slave trade was finally emancipated in 1833.

In 1806, Dundas became the last person to be impeached in the United Kingdom, for misappropriation of public money, and although he was acquitted, he never held public office again.

Before his political career, Dundas held a leading position in the Scottish legal system and was appointed Solicitor General for Scotland in 1766, rising to Lord Advocate in 1775, before he gradually relinquished his legal practice to turn to public affairs.

Dundas earned the nickname “the great tyrant” during his political career, and is known for his role in delaying the abolition of slavery in Britain, amending the anti-slavery bill to make outlawing the practice “gradual”.

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The move forced around 630,000 slaves to wait more than a decade for their freedom.

He is commemorated by one of the most prominent memorials in Edinburgh, with his statue added to the top of the 150 ft Melville Monument in St Andrew Square in 1828.

Why do the Dundas family want the statue to be changed?

Benjamin Carey, a direct descendant of Dundas, has demanded a narrative be written below his ancestor’s statue to reveal the truth about his controversial advocacy of slavery.

Mr Carey said: “Henry Dundas was a controversial figure, who demonstrably used his influence to prolong the slave trade.

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“As one of his descendants, it is important for me and my family to openly acknowledge his role; I believe it is also important for Edinburgh and Scotland to fully understand its history.

“Historians who have researched my ancestor are clear that, had it not been for his obstruction as Home Secretary, Britain would have ended slavery in 1792, rather than waiting until 1807 to abolish the slave trade with slaves finally being emancipated only in 1838.

“I do not believe any of my cousins would object to the truth being told.”

A plaque is now to be installed at the monument after the wording was agreed by the City of Edinburgh Council.

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Council leader Adam McVey said: "We have a lot to celebrate about the contribution black and ethnic minority Edinburghers have made and are making to our city's progress and success, and that should be clear.

"We also need to address and talk openly about those moments in Scottish history where people have been killed, enslaved or discriminated against simply because of their race.

"I'm pleased to say that we've come to a form of words on a plaque at the statue of Henry Dundas - and this will be published tomorrow [10 June]"

"It will be finalised and installed at the foot of the Melville Monument as soon as possible.

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"This is just one part of Edinburgh's history and one small change we can make. We should make many more."

This piece published on June 10, 2020, was updated on February 22, 2021, to correct a typographical error