Remaking our histories | Scotland, Slavery and Empire

Currently showing at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, The Remaking of Scotland takes as one of its major themes industrial and imperial expansion in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In this extended feature, Lisa Williams (Edinburgh Caribbean Association) takes as a starting point a selection of portraits of famous Scots, and considers in detail how integral the Transatlantic slave trade system was to Scotland’s development during this period.

Scotland and Slavery

Although Scots had already made tentative forays into pursuing profits from slavery in places like the Dutch colony of Suriname and the disastrous Darien Scheme, the Acts of Union with England in 1707 opened up a world of opportunity. The capital from the Transatlantic slave system significantly catalysed a depressed Scottish economy and advanced the development of industries, arts and sciences throughout the eighteenth century. Wealth from the free labour of African people, now categorised as property rather than human beings, continued to flow into Scotland even after chattel slavery came to an end in the majority of British colonies in 1834. Slave ownership and trade in slave-produced goods from places like the USA, Cuba and Brazil involved Scots right up until the 1880s.

Sir Francis Legatt Chantrey James Watt, 1736 - 1819. Engineer and inventor 1818
John Partridge & Sir William Beechey James Watt, 1736 - 1819. Engineer and inventor 1806

James Watt (1736 – 1819) invented the paradigm-shifting concept of the separate condenser which facilitated rotary motion in steam engines, widely credited with powering the Industrial Revolution. James Watt’s father (James Watt Snr.), treasurer and magistrate of Greenock, had traded in not just slave-produced goods but enslaved people, helping to finance his son’s expensive education. In the eighteenth century, Greenock was mainly a trading port for goods such as sugar and cotton, but also dispatched ships to West Africa to take people to be enslaved in the colonies. When Watt established a successful business with Matthew Boulton in 1775, they sold several of their highly sought-after engines to planters in the West Indies.

Watt’s views on chattel slavery itself are not well documented. However, he described the initial signs of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) as ‘unpropitious’ when cancelling an order from a French planter in 1791, praying that the ‘disgraceful’ system be stopped in a ‘prudent’ rather than violent manner. Orders from the Caribbean escalated rapidly after their namesake sons took over the business, creating their biggest export market and boosting planters’ profits in the final two decades of slavery.

Immediate or gradual abolition?

Opinions on abolition of the trade and slavery itself must always be distinguished. William Wilberforce (1759 – 1833), the ‘great champion’ of abolition, made it clear that both he and Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (1759 – 1806) were against immediate emancipation of the enslaved at the time he brought his petitions to Parliament.

David Martin Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, 1742 - 1811. Statesman 1770
Augustin Edouart Henry Thomas, Lord Cockburn, 1779 - 1854. Judge and author 1831

Debates around immediate or gradual abolition of the Transatlantic slave trade and slavery itself were common among Edinburgh intellectuals and politicians. Henry Dundas (1742 – 1811), whose Tassie medallion sits in Room 7, held a variety of important posts in the government and wielded huge influence over Scottish MPs. As Home Secretary in 1792, he introduced the idea of ‘gradual’ to William Wilberforce’s immediate abolition bill. Anxious to placate the signatories of numerous abolition petitions, MPs passed the amended motion by 230 to 85, a result that was met with great relief from West Indian planters and merchants. Dundas worked hard to defeat each subsequent bill during the period of war with France that spilled into the West Indies, and the West India interest thanked him once more in 1796 for aiding the defeat of immediate abolition.

Dundas suggested using the delay to concentrate on transporting young men and girls to the Caribbean plantations in order to increase the numbers of the enslaved work force. Young women and girls, sometimes as young as eight, were particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse, and often forced into unwanted partnerships and reproductive regimes on their arrival.

Prime Minister Pitt, who relied heavily on Dundas as a confidante and power broker, held contradictory and ambiguous views which conveniently allowed him to shift strategy when necessary. In 1793, when France declared war on Britain, the fighters of the Haitian Revolution had already made huge strides towards self-emancipation over the previous two years. Dundas and Pitt turned their attention to the West Indies, and began to send Britain’s largest, most expensive military operation to invade Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic today), other French islands and secure Jamaica. Approximately 40,000 British military men were decimated by fighting and disease in a five-year campaign led by Scots such as Sir Ralph Abercromby (1734 – 1801), General John Hope, the 4th Earl of Hopetoun (1765 –1823) and Sir George Murray (1772 –1846), that was heavily criticised at home for weakening Britain in the pursuit of greed. One of their aims was to seize Hispaniola from France, share it with Spain and reinstate the system of chattel slavery. Fiercely fought resistance movements by enslaved and indigenous people were eventually crushed using deliberate starvation, exile and extreme violence in islands like Grenada and St. Vincent, but the British were thwarted by the strategic brilliance of the Haitian Revolution, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture   (1743 – 1803). Slavery was declared abolished in the ‘Pearl of the Antilles’ later that year and the British forced to evacuate in 1798.

Lord Cockburn (1779 – 1854), judge and one of the major figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, was privy to the explosive speech made by Reverend Andrew Thomson (1779–1831) in the Assembly Rooms in 1830. Days previously, he had made a speech described as a 'bursting of a bomb’; one which had railed against the continued lack of a firm date for full emancipation. Cockburn considered the distinction between immediate and gradual to be a trivial one; believing that either word could be understood to mean ‘with all practical speed’, even though in practice ‘gradual’ abolition provided much opportunity for delay and prevarication. The Lord Provost had left in alarm at Thomson’s legitimisation of violent struggle, yet the Edinburgh minister’s vehement condemnation of gradual abolition in his subsequent speech in the Assembly Rooms attracted over 2 thousand people, led to the formation of a Ladies Association and 25,000 Edinburgh residents signing a petition for immediate abolition.

The question of slavery in Scotland

Other major figures of the Enlightenment had been debating the moral and economic issues of slavery for years, some of whom, like Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696 – 1782), were involved in judging the landmark Knight vs. Wedderburn case of 1778. Due to the precedent of the ruling in the ‘Tumbling Lassies’ case of 1687, there was no legal basis for allowing slavery in Scotland at this time. However, due to their powerful status, Scottish enslavers were able to keep those whom they had enslaved in the colonies in ‘perpetual bondage’ in Scotland, a situation reflected in the newspaper adverts to recapture runaway ‘slaves’ at the time.

John Wedderburn (1729 – 1803) had brought a young African man from Jamaica, Joseph Knight, with him on his return to Scotland, but Knight insisted he had the right to leave ‘perpetual service’ now that he was no longer living in the colonies. Knight, being literate, had potentially been influenced by reading about the Somerset v. Stewart case in England in 1772 presided over by Scotsman William Murray, Lord Mansfield (1705 – 1793). Now married to Scottish servant Annie Thompson, whom Wedderburn dismissed on learning of her pregnancy, Knight wanted to be able to leave service and provide for a family. Although in a previous case in 1770, he had declared an African man held as a ‘perpetual servant’ to be a slave in Scotland, Henry Dundas became Knight’s counsel. The final decision in the Court of Session clarified that perpetual servitude without pay amounted to de facto slavery and was therefore illegal. The act of 1701 c.6 protected the couple from being deported to Jamaica where inter-racial marriage was illegal in a slave system that remained vicious and highly codified. After the case, those formerly considered enslaved were protected, but Knight and Thompson mysteriously disappear from the records.

Men and women in the abolition movement

Many of the well-known Scottish abolitionists were men, such as MP Henry Brougham (1778 – 1868), born just around the corner from the Portrait Gallery in St Andrew Square. Brougham founded the influential Edinburgh Review, and despite severe criticism, was both prominent in pushing through the 1833 Abolition Act and a fierce advocate for the rights of apprentices in 1838. The celebrated scientist Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872), who was close to Brougham, was also dedicated to the anti-slavery cause from childhood, when she refused to put slave-produced sugar in her tea. Zachary Macaulay (1768 – 1838), who returned to Britain in a state of torment after witnessing the brutality of the slave system in his job on a Jamaican plantation, was heavily influenced by his Quaker teacher wife, Selina Mills (1767 – May 1831) and became a prominent abolitionist.

Andrew Morton Henry Peter Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux, 1778 - 1868. Statesman About 1835
Thomas Phillips Mary Fairfax, Mrs William Somerville, 1780 - 1872. Writer on science 1834

However, this didn’t prevent Macaulay from going on to make a fortune from selling seized slaving vessels after 1807, and continuing to be convinced of British cultural superiority, an idea that was taken up by his son Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800 –1859). After a brief stint as an MP for Edinburgh, Thomas returned to India where he created the Penal Code enacted after the First War of Indian Independence (also known as the Sepoy Mutiny) in 1857. Thomas was one of the founding trustees of the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Sir John Watson Gordon Thomas Babington, 1st Baron Macaulay, 1800 - 1859. Historian and statesman 1850
James Tassie David Dale, 1739 - 1806. Manufacturer and philanthropist Dated 1791

In the Portrait Gallery Print Room you can find a print of David Dale (1739 – 1806), the founder of New Lanark mills, who was importing slave-produced cotton while chairing Glasgow’s Abolition Society; promoting the abolition of the slave trade and for the gradual improvement of conditions on the plantations once enslaved people had been ‘civilized’ enough.

Frances ‘Fanny’ Wright (1795 – 1852) from Dundee, an early female abolitionist, and one of the most radical of all, emigrated to America in 1825. A writer and lecturer, she was a feminist and social reformer, and founded a multi-racial utopian commune in Tennessee to prepare African Americans who had been enslaved for a life of freedom.

Black abolitionists of Scottish descent were also more uncompromising in their stance. Robert Wedderburn was born in Jamaica in 1762 of an African woman, Rosanna, whom his Scottish father James Wedderburn sold when she was five months’ pregnant. He became an impassioned speaker, minister and author in Britain, particularly after being shunned by his father during a visit to Inveresk Lodge near Edinburgh. He became prominent in the revolutionary Spencean Society and published The Horrors of Slavery in 1824. William Davidson (1781 – 1820), whose Scottish father was Jamaica’s Attorney General, studied Law at Glasgow University and was a fellow member of the Spencean Society. He was executed in 1820 for his role in the Cato Street Conspiracy against Lord Liverpool’s government.

Unlike Wilberforce, minister Andrew Thomson encouraged women to take up the abolitionist cause in Edinburgh. The leading lights of the Edinburgh Ladies Emancipation Society, founded in 1833, were Quakers Jane (1801 – 1888) and Eliza Wigham (1820 – 1899), joined by Priscilla Bright McLaren (1815 – 1906) and Elizabeth Pease Nichol (1807 – 1897).

Charles Holl & George Watson Rev. Andrew Thomson, 1779 - 1831. Minister of St George's, Edinburgh Unknown
David Octavius Hill & Robert Adamson Rev. Thomas Chalmers, 1780 - 1847. Preacher and social reformer 1843

They actively assisted African American abolitionists in their struggle, raising money to support Harriet Tubman’s (1822-1913) Underground Railroad movement and to bring formerly enslaved orator and future statesman, Frederick Douglass (1818 – 1895), to Edinburgh, where he lived in 1846-7 while on a speaking tour of Britain. His rallying cry against slavery in America focused on demanding that men like Thomas Chalmers (1780 – 1847), a professor of Divinity and then Theology and the leader of the breakaway Free Church, send back the ‘blood stained money’, a sum of 3,000 pounds that the new Church had received from slave owners in the Southern states. The group went on to be the forerunners of the women’s suffrage movement.

After slavery was abolished in the majority of British colonies in 1833, Scottish merchants continued to trade in slave-produced goods from America among other countries. Many Scots fought for the Union and for abolition of American slavery, but the significant role played by the Clyde runners in breaking the Union blockade on the Confederates, may have dragged on the American Civil War by a couple of years. 25,000 Scots were employed in the shipyards and 3,000 Scots were employed on the ships themselves, in direct violation of official policy. To keep a close eye on the shipyards, a house in the unassuming town of the Bridge of Allan became the national headquarters for Confederate agents.

Robert Burns

Perhaps Robert Burns (1759 – 1796) would have returned to Scotland as ardent an abolitionist as Macaulay if he had taken up the job he had secured as a bookkeeper on a Jamaican slave plantation. Burns attempted several times in 1786 to start his new life in the ‘Indies’ with Highland Mary (Mary Campbell, 1763 – 1786), who died of fever while waiting for him at Greenock. Or perhaps he would have adapted to his imagined ‘cozie biel’, meting out violence to the workers on the slave plantation as a self-described ‘Negro driver’. Burns’ name is absent from any abolition petition, was unlikely to have written ‘The Slave’s Lament’ (1792) and is strangely silent on the question of chattel slavery compared to other contemporary poets. Perhaps this was due to his government position, severe limitations on free speech at the time or his association with beneficiaries of the slave trade system.

Alexander Nasmyth Robert Burns, 1759 - 1796. Poet 1787
Sir Henry Raeburn Robert Cunninghame Graham of Gartmore, 1735 - 1797. Poet and politician About 1794

When writing to his bookseller and friend, Peter Hill (1754 – 1837), Burns described enslaver Robert Cunningham Graham of Gartmore (1735 – 1797) as ‘the noblest instance of great talents, great fortune and great worth that I ever saw in conjunction’. Cunningham Graham’s workers on his Jamaican plantations had a life expectancy of less than five years, and he sexually exploited numerous enslaved women, resulting in an abundance of children, some of whom he may have sold. This description of a particularly cruel enslaver is an interesting juxtaposition to Burns’ cries for liberty for those of European origin.  

Peter Hill’s wife was Elizabeth Palmer Lindsay (1766 – 1842), the daughter of Sir John Lindsay and the half-sister of the more famous Dido Belle. She came to live in Edinburgh from Jamaica at the age of seventeen, so it’s likely Burns would have heard about plantation life through Elizabeth and many others. Perhaps Cunningham Graham was particularly good at hiding his past, or maybe the fact that his cousin James was Burns’ patron influenced his lavish praise.

 ‘Emancipation’ and compensation

Following on from centuries of guerrilla war from iconic figures such as Nanny of the Maroons (about 1686–about 1755), resistance escalated across the Caribbean region, led/fronted by leaders such as Quashie in Dominica, Bussa in Barbados and Sam Sharpe in Jamaica. The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823, which began on one of John Gladstone’s (1764-1851) estates, is a case in point. 13,000 enslaved people on 37 estates fought for their freedom, but leader Quamina Gladstone was executed along with more than a hundred others, and some whipped to death with up to a thousand lashes months after the revolt. Sir John Gladstone was honoured in 1824 in Liverpool with the presentation of £1400 and a ‘service plate’ as a token of goodwill after his cruelty had been the subject of intense debate.

David Octavius Hill & Robert Adamson Sir John Gladstone, 1764 - 1851. East and West India Merchant; Member of Parliament; philanthropist; father of William Ewart Gladstone 31 July 1844
J. Brown & William Marshall Craig John Hope, 4th Earl of Hopetoun, 1765 - 1823. General Published 1856

The gallery text next to the photograph of Sir John Gladstone used to only mention his huge wealth amassed from slavery and his role in ensuring the £20 million compensation went to 46,000 ‘slave owners’ for their ‘property’ of 800,000 human beings on emancipation in 1834. Gladstone owned nine plantations across the Caribbean and received the biggest single pay-out in the whole of Britain in return for the freedom of the 2,508 people he had enslaved. The £106,769 he received translates to £83 million pounds in today’s money. His son, Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (1809 – 1898), whose maiden speech was a defence of the slave owners, and who had opposed immediate abolition, helped to engineer the compensation.

As part of the deal brokered to secure emancipation, the formerly enslaved now had to serve an unpaid apprenticeship equivalent to a further £27 million for six more years in order to ‘buy’ their own freedom, without any financial compensation for years of unpaid labour. The apprenticeship period ended two years earlier due to massive resistance in the Caribbean and continued denunciation in Britain from abolitionists like Brougham. John Gladstone and others organised indentured labour from India, which continued under harsh conditions until 1917. Protests encouraged him to sell his plantations with the promise of Indian labour attached, creating a massive trust fund for W.E. Gladstone with the proceeds. His son inherited his racial views; opining that even after slavery, Africans must be kept in subjugation on the plantations due to being a ‘race of lower capacities’.

Much of the compensation claimed by Edinburgh residents was invested in infrastructure that we use today, such as railways, banks and educational institutions. Scottish enslavers were able to claim compensation once more on emancipation in the Dutch colonies in 1863. Scots also moved their trade to territories such as Cuba or Brazil; places from which Britain continued to import and export slave-produced goods until the end of the 1880s. Some former slave owning families were able to use their wealth and experience to set up plantations using coerced labour in other areas of the globe and many become administrators of Britain’s expanding empire.

From the 1960s onwards, Caribbean countries received political but not economic independence from Britain, and have been subject to military, economic and political interference ever since. Increasingly urgent calls for reparative justice to Caribbean countries to repair the devastating effects of centuries of slavery have not yet been honoured. Ongoing structural underdevelopment could be rectified by debt cancellation, fair trade and investment in the areas of food security, health, education and climate change. This period of racialized enslavement was justified by the development of quasi-scientific racist ideas that has left a destructive legacy across the globe. As Scotland continues to strive for a more sophisticated understanding of the country’s significant role in imperial history, we have an opportunity to facilitate a process of healing from the collective trauma of past atrocities and create more positive relationships both at home and abroad.

About the author

Lisa Williams is the Director of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association and an Honorary Fellow at Edinburgh University. She runs Black History Walking Tours of Edinburgh and educational workshops in Scottish schools.

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By Lisa Williams, 9 October 2020