Edinburgh's links with slavery: city-centre church 'part funded by slave trade' says researcher

A landmark city-centre church was partly built with the proceeds of slavery, new research has claimed.

By Ian Swanson
Tuesday, 5th April 2022, 4:55 am

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St John's Episcopal Church on Princes Street has been linked to the slave trade because some of the money for its construction came from two naval captains and an army officer who all served with the British East India Company (EIC), which was heavily involved in slavery.

Researcher the Rev Yousouf Gooljary, a licensed minister in the Scottish Epsicopal Church, said captains Alexander Tod and Thomas Robertson and Lt Colonel Alexander Dyce earned their wealth in part from the company’s slave trading.

"The wealth gained from EIC profits contributed to the building of St John’s Church in 1818," he said.

"The ‘business model’ of the EIC relied on the purchase of slaves from Africa and Madagascar to run its forts and settlements and work in its warehouses and factories, over 200 years, to turn a profit. Many born into slavery were then transported throughout its vast enterprise from the Atlantic Ocean to Sumatra as specialist labour was required to trade spices, salt, cotton, opium, tea, pepper, silk and so on. The total numbers of slaves purchased or so moved is probably over a million.

"I think it's inconceivable, if you look at the ships they were on and the ports they sailed to, that these two captains, Tod and Robertson, weren't involved in moving the slaves around."

And he said Lt Col Dyce was based in Madras, where the EIC had a fort and where slaves would be brought. "The army was there to protect the commercial interests of the company.”

St John's Episcopal Church on Princes Street. Photo: Andrew Stuart/NW.

Mr Gooljary said he had given a talk about his research at St John's and suggested it could commemorate the suffering caused by slavery with a service, with a plaque or installation. And he hopes the church will educate the public and retell the story.

He has done similar research on other churches and says people are often shocked at their links with slavery but grateful for being told about it. "Scotland is very proud of its heritage, but we want to get the story right," he said.

St John’s rector the Rev Markus Dunzkofer said the church had been aware of some of what Mr Gooljary discovered and it was doing further research to get more information. “It’s a complex story. I invited Yousouf to come to St John’s to put another light on our rather diverse background. We also have the only freed slave who died in Edinburgh, Malvina Wells, buried in our grounds. She’s the only person buried in Edinburgh who when she was born was a slave.

"Yousouf’s research is a piece of the puzzle and we’re trying to put all the pieces together and hopefully by the end of it there will be a learning experience not just for us but also we’re trying to do something that connects younger folk into the story. We’re trying to figure out how we tell both the dark side of the story but tie it in with stories of people who can be held up as models so that we learn from our history.”

The Rev Yousouf Gooljary is a licensed minister in the Scottish Episcopal Church

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Building of the church was allegedly financed from profits of the slave trade. Photo: Andrew Stuart/NW.