‘The British Empire’ YouGov Poll: A Scottish Perspective

What does the British Empire mean to you?

The results of a YouGov poll on contemporary perceptions of the British Empire were released this week. And it got me thinking (Charlie Nicholas style). Let’s start with the British Empire Wiki definition (I know, I know):

“The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. It originated with the overseas possessions and trading posts established by England between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. At its height, it was the largest empire in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power. By 1922 the British Empire held sway over about 458 million people, one-fifth of the world’s population at the time. The empire covered more than 13,000,000 sq mi (33,670,000 km2), almost a quarter of the Earth’s total land area. As a result, its political, legal, linguistic and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, the phrase “the empire on which the sun never sets” was often used to describe the British Empire, because its expanse around the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories”.

In terms of policies, it is well known the largest Empire in the world was mainly populated by white settlers who expropriated land from indigenous peoples (Caribbean, America, Australia, Canada and other places). Many committed acts of genocide. The forced transportation of people from Africa in the ‘Slave Trade’ and the development of the racialised chattel slavery created a new labour force (regarded as ‘property’) in many new colonies. The British Government are paying reparations for contemporary atrocities (eg. the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya) and face reparative claims for Caribbean slavery from CARICOM. The question is, then, do the British people today think the British Empire was a good or bad thing?

This week, YouGov have provided an in-depth answer.

During fieldwork on 17-18 January 2016, over 1700 individuals were sampled across Great Britain (‘London’, ‘Rest of South’, ‘Midlands/Wales’, ‘North’ and ‘Scotland’). In addition to region, the sample was also properly weighted by age, gender and social grade. Political affiliations were usefully identified (‘Conservative’, ‘Labour’, ‘Liberal Democrat’, ‘UKIP’, ‘Green’ and ‘Other’).

Onto the results.

Firstly, the national picture. 1733 people were asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think the British Empire was – ‘a good thing’ (43%), ‘a bad thing’ (19%) or ‘don’t know’ (13%). These results are hardly surprising: a recent BBC poll showed even greater support for the view that the British Empire did more ‘benefit than damage’. It should be noted the BBC poll was not representative and that the historical narrative on the website leading up to the vote was appallingly one-sided. Nevertheless, historians such as Niall Ferguson have suggested similar views, particularly in his controversial work Empire. In terms of gender breakdown in this week’s YouGov poll; more men than women thought the British Empire was a good thing. As for age, the 60+ sector of the sample were the group with the highest support for the British Empire as a ‘good thing’. In general, elderly individuals (in the sample) were more likely to view Empire as a good thing. Nostalgia is nothing new in these type of polls. In 2011, over 1,000 Jamaicans were questioned in a survey and 60% of the sample ‘held the view the country would be better off under British rule’. In terms of political affiliation in this weeks YouGov poll (based on election vote in May 2015), the results were perhaps as expected. Unsurprisingly, UKIP voters topped the imperialist league table. 63% of UKIP supporters felt the British Empire was a ‘good thing’, compared to bad (5%). The Conservatives were next (Good, 55%, bad, 10%). 42% of Liberal Democrats, those champions of freedom and equality for all, thought the British Empire was a good thing, compared to 16% who felt it wasn’t. Labour supporters were the only group sampled who felt it was a bad thing, and even then the results were almost evenly matched: ‘good thing’ (28%), ‘bad thing’ (30%) and ‘neither a good or bad thing’ (28%). Frustratingly, although the SNP are the third largest party by membership in the UK, the views of their voters weren’t noted. So what does this tell us? As expected, the further right an individual is on the political spectrum, the more likely they are to view the British Empire in a positive manner (and you’re completely fucked if you’re an elderly, male UKIP voter living in the south of England).

There was an unsophisticated response by the tabloid press. The Independent published ‘5 of the worst atrocities carried out by the British Empire’ including Boer concentration camps, the Amritsar massacre, partitioning of India, the Mau Mau uprising and famines and India. In an associated, simplistic article in the same paper, @joncstone decided the ‘British people are proud of colonialism and the British Empire’. Whilst technically true based on the ‘good thing’ (43%) to ‘bad thing’ (19%) British national ratio, a more focused examination of the data provides a more nuanced picture. In fact, Jon Stone’s headline should have read ‘English and perhaps Welsh people are proud of colonialism and the British Empire, poll finds’. Indeed, Scotland was the only ‘region’ sampled where more people said the British Empire was a ‘bad thing’ compared to a ‘good thing’, generally speaking (although it should be noted that Wales was lumped in with the Midlands).

The regional sampling was the section that interested me the most. As an historian of Scots in the Caribbean in the colonial period, it’s been interesting over the last few years to see how we Scots are dealing with our long and often unpalatable involvement in the British Empire. Let’s examine the regional breakdown of views. All English ‘regions’ (and Wales) felt the British Empire was a ‘good thing’ with the Midland and Wales having the highest support (45% good, 14% bad). Individuals in Scotland were the only group sampled in Great Britain who felt the British Empire was a bad thing (34%) compared to good (30%). Although close, this represents a remarkable result given the importance of Scots to the British Empire and the importance of the British Empire to Scotland. Indeed, historians have argued that Scottish involvement across the British Empire was the mortar that has historically held the Union between Scotland and England in place. Moreover, it seems a paradox that Scots have often been accused of historical amnesia about their historical involvement in Caribbean slavery (as exemplified by the absence of acknowledgement in the city’s museums, as well as national tapestries). Devine has recently summarised thoughts on these issues in his chapter ‘Lost to History’ in Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past.

In the next YouGov question: ‘Do you think Britain’s history of colonialism is….’ – 1) ‘Part of our history that we should proud happened’, 2) ‘Part of our history that we should regret happening’. The national picture was 44% of the sample were proud, and 21% regretted British colonialism. However, once again, all ‘regions’ except Scotland felt we should be ‘proud’ of British colonialism with the Midland and Wales again having the highest ratings (46% proud, 16% regret). Individuals in Scotland were the only group sampled in Great Britain who regretted British colonialism (36%) compared to the 34 percent of Scots who were ‘proud’. Again, we see a clear regional difference.

The third question was a little more nuanced and asked opinions of how we, as a nation, should address our imperial past. ‘Thinking about how Britain talks and thinks about our past, do you think…’ with the answers 1) ‘Britain tends to view our history of colonisation too positively – there was much cruelty, killing, injustice and racism that we try not to talk about’ 2) ‘Britain tends to view our history of colonisation too negatively – we talk too much about the cruelty and racism of Empire, and ignore the good that it did’, 3) ‘Britain tends to get the balance between the good and bad sides of our colonial history about right’. Whilst this phrase ‘talks and thinks about our past’ is ambiguous, I would have interpreted that part of the question in relation to how the British Empire is represented in museums and the media as well as in academic history texts and general works. The national picture was as follows: 1) Too positive (29%); 2) too negative (28%); and 3) balanced (27%). For this question, Scots were the group with the highest response for ‘too positive’ (49% of Scots opted for question 1, compared to 19% for question 2). These findings suggest that, we, as a nation, tend to view our imperial past too positively. This may not come as a surprise. Scottish museums have been criticised in recent years for their lack of acknowledgement of the nation’s involvement in Empire, particularly with regards to Caribbean slavery. There is an almost complete absence of acknowledgement in prominent institutions yet there has been much academic research on Empire and slavery over the last 10-15 years (as well as recent publicity). Has a new consciousness developed? Are Scots sick of watered down exhibits and ‘historical’ texts like that produced by the Scottish Executive in 2007?

The fourth question must be viewed in the context of the #RhodesMustFall movement. Cecil Rhodes, a British colonialist, funded scholarships for students at Oxford University and there are several statues of him including at Oriel College, Oxford. Just today there has been a motion by Oxford Union to remove the Rhodes statue, although there is another argument that it should remain (like streets named after slave-owners in Glasgow) as a reminder of the horrors of the British Empire. Should these appaling edifices remain to remind us? Or shoukd they be removed? The question in the YouGov poll was: ‘Do you think the statue of Cecil Rhodes should or should not be taken down?’ This was uniform across Great Britain, with all regions stating the statue should remain. UKIP supporters were strongly in support of it remaining (75%), compared to 47% of Labour voters sampled. 63% of those sampled in the Midlands/Wales were in support of it remaining (the highest regional support) compared to 46% of Scots (the lowest). Scotland did have the highest percentage of people who wanted the statue removed (19%), although it must be noted they were far outweighed by those who wanted it to remain. It’s difficult to draw some conclusions here, and it would have been interesting if the question had focused on a well-known Scottish genocidal racist (of which there were many).

Lest I am accused of writing a Scottish-centric analysis, it should be underlined it was a small sample (albeit properly weighted). Much more comparative, qualitative research is required on this theme. My analysis is, of course, superficial and speculative. At the same time, the results suggests that Scots view the British Empire differently than the English and Welsh, a surprising result which throws up a number of fascinating possibilities.

Do these results reflect a new consciousness amongst Scots about the horrors of the British Empire? Does this poll mark the beginning of the end of accusations of Scots’ historical amnesia regarding Empire? Does this poll suggest there is a new found acceptance of the Scottish national past, warts and all, and a willingness to address it? Or do the results reflect the precariousness of the Union after the Scottish referendum of 2014, and the rejection of a jingoistic English/British national identity that revels in past imperial glories?

Perhaps a mixture of all?

Is much more education required to enlighten those who approve, nay revel, in British Imperialism?

For sure.

Comments welcome.

Reparative Histories

Yesterday morning I was asked to speak on Radio Scotland’s ‘Good Morning Scotland’ programme to comment on Professor Frank Furedi’s article that mainly focused on David Olusoga’s programme on BBC2, ‘Britain’s Forgotten Slaveowners’. My commentary on ‘Good Morning Scotland’ can be found on I-Player (49m 30s).

I agreed with Professor Furedi’s point about the tabloid press. They sometimes use and abuse the research of academics (not just historians, and sometimes without credit) in order to generate controversial headlines to sell their newspapers. I wasn’t going to defend the red-tops. However, I pointed out that academic historians very rarely do their talking through the tabloid press. As Professor Furedi seemed to lump T.V. programmes together with newspapers, we disagree on the benefits of using broadcast media to highlight the issues surrounding New World slavery.David It is my opinion – particularly given the national publicity over the last fortnight – there is clearly a need for serious, well produced and researched programmes like ‘Britain’s Forgotten Slaveowners’. It gave the academics involved on the ‘Legacies of British Slaveownership’ project at UCL the appropriate credit and their work reached a wider audience beyond the academy. And as far as I’m concerned, David Olusoga did not adopt an overly sensationalist approach unlike the tabloids.

I did agree with Professor Furedi’s main point that individuals today cannot and should not be held responsible for what other people did in the past. This seems a fairly simple point. Furedi criticised the T.V. programme as it connected the past with present. Yet, the present circumstances of millions of descendants of the enslaved peoples of the Americas – as well as citizens of the European nations involved – are defined by the historical legacy of New World slavery. So there are much wider issues at stake here than a front page splash on David Cameron’s slave-owning ancestors. Although ‘Britain’s Forgotten Slaveowners’ remarkably refrained from mentioning the phrase ‘the rise of capitalism’ that’s essentially what the programme traced; the plunder of Africa, the exploitation of slave-labour in the Americas and the industrial and commercial transformation of Great Britain. The legacy remains today.

  1. In the How Europe Underdeveloped Africa in 1973, Walter RodneyWalter Rodney argued that the long term economic exploitation of Africa – including the forced transportation of up to 20 million Africans to the Americas by European colonial powers – meant Africa was a fractured continent, both economically and politically, in the late twentieth century.
  2. As Eric Williams argued in the classic Capitalism and Slavery, the institution of chattel slavery – and the labour of millions of enslaved Africans – created wealth in Britain which transformed the society and economy, playing a role in creating modern Britain as we know it.Eric Many individuals and elite families profited. However, one of the striking conclusions of the ‘Legacies of British Slaveownership’ project is that many ‘average’ people in Great Britain owned enslaved peoples in the Caribbean and profited from the expropriation of their labour. Also, many less elite sojourners travelled to the West Indies and earned relative fortunes. As well as individual fortunes, institutions and the establishment engaged in systematic profiteering. Let’s not forget the English Parliament ratified the slave trade and subsequently the British state profited over successive centuries with taxes and sugar duties. In Scotland at least, legacy duty on the inventories of deceased slaveowners represented a constant – if yet unquantified – stream of income. So much so, the Crown sometimes pursued the estates of slaveowners for their slice. Joseph Inikori has pointed to a wider commercial revolution in which merchant houses in Britain as well as shipping companies, banking and insurance institutions and museums all profited from New World slavery. Although the extent to which is greatly contested, the industrial revolution in Great Britain was undoubtedly stimulated by the slave trade and plantation slavery.
  3. On the other hand, there is a continuing legacy for the descendants of the c.12 million people who were forcibly transported from Africa to the Americas – as well as the indigenous population – in ways that are still evident and real today. HilaryIn Britain’s Black Debt, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles demonstrates that in the early stages of colonialism in the Caribbean, the European powers subjected indigenous people to genocidal policies of extermination and expropriated the land. The Europeans created slave islands that were never intended as settler colonies – perhaps with the exception of Barbados – in the colonial period. Many estate owners were absentees – especially in Jamaica – whose only involvement was the receipt of annual payments from sugar sales. The young men who travelled to the plantation economies – described as sojourners – intended to earn as much wealth as possible in as short a time as possible before returning to Britain. The development of industries in the colonies was stunted under the mercantilist system in the assumption this would stimulate growth in Britain. There was no educational system put in place. In short, the process of colonisation created economies designed to extract wealth based on the trade of produce grown and harvested via unfree, slave-labour. The legacy today for the descendants of enslaved peoples is poverty, deprived conditions, poor health care and poor access to educational standards, which is further compounded by high external debts owed by some nations. Racism is perhaps the most invidious legacy of New World slavery. This is a perpetual cycle and many are trapped in their situation.

So, whilst Professor Furedi found it unpalatable that ‘Britain’s Forgotten Slaveowners’ connected the past with the present, his dismay is nothing compared the conditions of descendants of the enslaved in the Caribbean whose present is defined by a past created by European powers. After discussing what I felt were the real issues at stake – and the programme addressed at least point 2 – I mounted a defence of the discipline of historical studies. Historians strive to produce critical, unbiased research (however idealistic or unrealistic that may be). This is difficult to maintain when you are essentially writing about historical genocide and a nefarious system of exploitation in which your country-men were historically involved.RSSP I’m sure many historians have their own opinions of Thomas Thistlewood, an English overseer in Jamaica who ordered enslaved people to defecate in the mouth of other enslaved people as a punishment. I certainly have my own opinion on the views of Colin Macrae, a Scottish overseer in Demerara who opposed the manumission of slaves in 1827 as, according to him, the plantation economy was perpetuated only by the ‘succession of children’ (see my chapter in the upcoming volume Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past). However, historians do not – or at least should not – produce serious historical analysis that passes anachronistic judgment on individuals such as slaveowners lest they invite accusations of writing polemical work. Through source based historical analysis, historians have a duty – in Leopold Von Ranke’s words – merely to explain ‘how things actually were’ (wie es eigentlich gewesen). Which leads nicely into the final point.

Professor Furedi’s article and yesterday’s programme critiqued the motives of David Olusoga’s ‘Britain’s Forgotten Slaveowners’, perhaps the historians involved at UCL and also gauged opinions towards reparations for Caribbean slavery. Professor Furedi stated in the radio programme today (around 56mins) that the BBC2 programme was a prelude for individuals, organisations or the state to provide compensation (eg. reparations). However, the prelude for reparations was evidently the forced transportation and long term-exploitation of millions of Africans in the Caribbean, a status that was only altered by the British Government awarding £20million compensation to slave-owners for the loss of their property, that is, the lives of 800,000 men, women and children. Certainly, CARICOM now base their ten-point plan for reparations in rigorous academic research. We now know the individuals and institutions that benefitted from compensation in 1834, and were evidently involved with the business of slavery beforehand.

In yesterday’s interview on Radio Scotland, there were two questions whether an apology and reparations for Caribbean slavery should be made. I found it striking that I was asked both; should there be an apology and reparations? And in a different approach, I was asked if organisations that profited from Caribbean slavery (such as railways) should pay reparations? Whilst the question should have been asked of both members of the discussion, I set out my position clearly and I’ll elaborate here. The reparations issue is a growing and long overdue debate. However, the legal, financial and even moral questions will be asked and answered by statesmen, politicians, accountants and lawyers. This is essentially a Government to Government process. GrahamHowever, activists, such as Graham Campbell in Glasgow, the general public and the media have a role highlighting issues. Historians also have a crucially important part to play in this process by researching and writing rigorous reparative histories. I have adopted a transatlantic approach to my work on Glasgow-West India merchants, planters and sojourners in the period, 1776-1846. I have researched in Caribbean archives and visited plantations owned by Scots, both of which added a great deal of authority to the work I produce. There are many ways to incorporate this approach into the final product. On a basic level, terminology is all important. Men, women and children were enslaved peoples; they were not defined by this forced status and should not be defined as slaves in modern historiography. Also, slaveowners – such as James Smith of Jordanhill in Glasgow – have previously been described using glorious euphemisms such as ‘West India landowner’ or ‘sleeping partners in a merchant firm’ in modern texts such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB). These terms were originally used in nineteenth-century texts –sometimes written by family members – and were designed to obfuscate the true source of their fortune. The relevant individuals should be referred to in modern historiography how they actually were.

Owners of enslaved men, women and children in the Caribbean.

Profiteers from the expropriation of enslaved labour.

Claimants of slave compensation in 1834.

Through collaboration with Dr Nick Draper and others at a UCL group, I have been commissioned by the ODNB to write two articles about prominent Glasgow slaveowners and compensation claimants; James Ewing of Strathleven and Cecilia Dougas of Orbiston. I have the benefit of knowing exactly their connections with the slave plantations of the Caribbean and how much compensation they claimed. This involvement provided the source of wealth which allowed them to purchase landed estates in Scotland and facilitated their rise to elite status. Secondly, I – and some other Scottish historians – recognise the importance of the labour of enslaved peoples to the industrial and commercial development of Scotland. This is a critical issue for Scottish historiography as it has sometimes been sidestepped in the past. Reparations can take many forms. For historians of Scotland and the Caribbean, it is your duty to explain the past in the appropriate transatlantic context.  Whether commentators or the general public find it unpalatable or not is not our concern. We are attempting to explain the past as we see it.

The Scots Kirk of Colonial Kingston, Jamaica

In April 2014, I spent a month on research leave in the West Indies, the majority of which was spent in Kingston, Jamaica. What a wonderful, enchanting place. But I was there on business.SAM_1209 I learned lots about the long dead Scots who had been there two hundred years before me from archival sources but also from the surroundings. I visited several former plantations owned by Scots, such as Caymanas in St Catherine and Papine in St Andrew (now the University of the West Indies). However, in downtown Kingston, I also spent a really illuminating afternoon in St Andrews Scots Kirk. I have since undertaken extensive archival research on this establishment. I have recently delivered a paper on the Scots Kirk at the Scottish Religious Cultures Networks conference ‘Religion in Scotland: at home and abroad’ at Queens University Belfast in May 2015. It has since been accepted for publication and will most likely become my first post-Ph.D. publication. The Scots Kirk was built, of course, by Scots in the early nineteenth century which was comparatively late in the era of Caribbean slavery. In December 1813, a group of Scots petitioned local dignitaries in Kingston to establish a Presbyterian place of worship, evidently to follow the religion which they had been accustomed to as youths. Some of the most prominent Glasgow-West India merchant firms contributed finance, thus the connections between Glasgow and Kingston were both commercial and ecclesiastical.

'I can see the light'
‘I can see the light’

The Kirk itself was octagonal shaped and based on a grand design. Indeed, opening was delayed by six years to 1819 due to the size and a lack of funding. The Kirk was evidently for the Scots plantocracy and the relationship with the enslaved population of Kingston was a little more complex but you’ll need to wait for the publication for that. Although the original building was damaged by an earthquake, they re-built it in accordance with the plans of the original. As I walked around the Kirk in April 2014, I thought about the many Scots who had been in there in a very different time. I saw many reminders of home. Understandably, Scottish clergy had a prominent role in exporting Scottish Presbyterianism to Kingston.SAM_1231 Like the Reverend James Watson, 19 years a pastor of the Scots Kirk and missionary in Jamaica. Born in Johnstone in 1799, he was one of the few who managed to return home and died in Edinburgh in 1873. I wondered if Watson was an abolitionist, or if he was guilty of what one historian has described as ‘Presbyterian hypocrisy’. I also saw very tangible reminders of the connections with Glasgow and Kingston. Like the memorial to Andrew Scott, born in Penicuik in March 1804. A merchant in Kingston, he died in London and was buried in Glasgow Necropolis. The memorial also referred to his wife, Anna Maria Mayne, who died on the passage from Jamaica to Scotland in 1843. Their children, some of whom were born in Kingston, were also mentioned. SAM_1228No doubt they all worshipped and perhaps were married or christened in the Scots Kirk. Other memorials testified to the elevated status of Scots in Kingston in the post-slavery period. Another Andrew Scott, late merchant and magistrate of Kingston, died at Rothesay in January 1866, aged 42. The monument was erected by his widow and brother, suggesting they had remained in Kingston whilst he went home temporarily. The members of the Scots Kirk remembered him for his excellence as an office-bearer and his ‘unwearied efforts to promote its prosperity and & perpetuity’. SAM_1235And perpetuate it did. St Andrews Scots Kirk still remains an active place of worship today although as far as I am aware, there are no formal connections with the Church of Scotland as it was disestablished in the twentieth century to join with other Caribbean Churches. I still found it amazing that little historical dots of Scots, including their places of exploitation and worship, remained in Kingston over two hundred years later.

Glasgow and Caribbean Slavery: Acknowledging the Evidence

Ok. So I checked the University College London Legacies of British Slave-ownership website for Mullens who claimed compensation from the British Government on the abolition of plantation slavery in 1834. There are none. This is perhaps unsurprising. As my grandfather’s family were from Kilmarnock, I suspect my ancestors made the journey over from Ireland at some point. Although there were some Irish slaveowners, they were, in general, less involved than the Scots or English in the slave economies of the British West Indies (see Liam Hogan’s recent article for a good discussion of this). It is, of course, possible that if my ancestors were indeed Irish they may have been indentured servants who worked on the plantations of Barbados or Montserrat. I guess I’ll find out more if I ever get around to my family tree. Would I censor any unpalatable facts I did discover? Absolutely not but then I’m not a famous movie star in the public eye (yet). The recent allegation (although the facts are a little more complicated) that Ben Affleck requested the fact his ancestor, Benjamin Cole, owned twenty five slaves in Savannah, Georgia in 1850 should be left out from the PBS documentary series ‘Finding Your Roots’ raises a number of interesting questions. What was the biggest issue in this episode? That Affleck’s ancestor owned slaves, or that he requested the T.V. programme left out the unpalatable aspect? Probably the latter. Indeed in Great Britain, the ancestors of several prominent individuals, including David Cameron, have been identified as compensation claimants and it didn’t generate that much adverse publicity for them. Is there an assumed degree of guilt or culpability across the centuries? This question is pertinent to Scots today, given the ongoing debate about the nation’s connections with New World Slavery. Quite simply; how should nations, cities, institutions and individuals whose antecedents and ancestors were involved with New World Slavery deal with this past? What is clear is that censorship of connections with slavery is not an uncommon occurrence – even at executive level. I have argued elsewhere that in Scotland in the late 2000s there was a clear lack of will in government circles to accept the more unpalatable aspects of the nation’s past. I’ll revisit this argument in this blog and comment on developments since. In 2006-7, the then Labour led Scottish Executive (remember them?) produced a booklet that commemorated the bicentennial of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807. The booklet was intended to illustrate a history of the Scottish role in Caribbean slavery. However this had a narrow focus. The two historians commissioned to undertake the project, amongst the leading authorities in Scotland, were dismissed after undertaking the research and disagreeing about the booklet’s final content and style. Iain WhyteThe Scots abolitionist historian Rev. Dr. Iain Whyte, stated to the media at the time: ‘In my view, they wanted a particular slant that was not historical. I felt that they wanted certain stories that weren’t possible to produce, to change the text in certain ways. I wasn’t prepared to do that. The government always has a certain agenda and they felt that what we were producing wasn’t what they wanted’. Significantly, the two historians suggested that the booklet should illustrate the deep level of Scots complicity in the slave plantations. Both recommended that there should also be a follow up study to examine the unique Scottish role. However, the booklet’s government editors were resistant to the notion as, they affirmed unironically, the general population in Scotland was unaware of this involvement.SESL Subsequently, the editors of the booklet made 188 changes to the research, which minimised and softened the role of Scots perpetrators. These revisions were not, of course, consistent with the professional integrity of the two academics. After some debate the research was shelved but also embargoed to prevent wider dissemination. The Scottish Executive eventually produced an official booklet that contained a more palatable, watered down version of the role of Scots in the Caribbean slavery. This amnesia and ‘whitewashing’ was directly played out in the event, Homecoming Scotland in 2009, a ‘year-long celebration of Scotland’s culture and heritage’ managed by Event Scotland in partnership with Visit Scotland, funded by the Scottish Government and part financed by the European Union.HC This new initiative to develop the Diaspora Market, via a £3 million programme and £2 million of marketing, encouraged ‘Scotland’s global family to come home’ to participate in festivities, celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, and to revel in the achievements of Scots emigrants. The marketing of the Homecoming, however, was firmly directed towards the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. There was no mention of the Caribbean islands at all, in spite of successive waves of young Scotsmen sojourning to the region in the colonial period. So, what has changed since 2009? Firstly, it seems the criticism was taken onboard in the planning of last year’s Homecoming 2014. The Scottish Government funded the conference ‘The Global Migrations of the Scottish People: Issues, Debates and Controversies’ at the Scottish Diaspora Centre at University of Edinburgh, some panels of which directly addressed the Scottish connections with the West Indies. It was therefore recognised that academic debate could, and should, complement popular heritage events. Professor Tom Devine, former Director of the Scottish Diaspora Centre, has been the most prominent historian to challenge the limited recognition of Scotland’s long connection with New World slavery. Due to his strong criticism of the ‘Burns Supper’ school of Scottish history, he was lumped in with ‘British unionists’ by some in the SNP. Although this claim seems a bit foolish now since Devine was a strong supporter of Scottish Independence in 2014, it underlines that commentary and research on this aspect of the national past has the capacity to stir emotions and to generate newspaper headlines. Devine has complemented the criticism with academic output.RSSP He has edited (and I contributed a chapter to) a new book titled Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past: The Caribbean Connection which will be published later this year. The volume promises to ‘systematically peel away the mythology and radically revise the traditional picture’ of Scottish involvement with Caribbean slavery. The text adds to a growing body of research on this theme which has broadened from studies of merchants in Glasgow to other regions of Scotland. For example, scholars such as David Alston and Michael Hopcroft of GCU are uncovering more detail about Highland connections with the Caribbean. Academic research and expertise is percolating into popular culture. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the Cultural Programme of the Commonwealth Games 2014. Empire, 2For me (although I’m biased), the Empire Café and Emancipation Acts were the highlights of this programme. In their own inimitable way, both events demonstrated the profound involvement with Scots in New World slavery but also powerfully challenged the lack of modern recognition in Scotland in general and Glasgow in particular. One of the most powerful messages was the continuing absence of representation of Caribbean slavery in the city’s museums. Indeed, the city of Glasgow remains the only Atlantic port in Great Britain that was involved with the slave trade and slavery (London, Liverpool and Bristol being the others) that does not have a permanent exhibition or memorial.EA, GOMA Nonetheless, these large scale public discussions of Caribbean slavery in ‘The Merchant City’ were landmarks events and 2014 will surely be viewed as watershed moment in years to come. But credit where it’s due. Glasgow Museums have shown themselves to be willing to engage with politically charged discussions about how the city’s institutions represent this aspect of the past. KG2The city’s leading institution, the Kelvingrove Museum, is how Glasgow, as a city, struts it stuff. However, the ten million visitors to the museum between 2006 and 2012 would have learned much about the inglorious aspects of the city’s past such as sectarianism and domestic violence, although the involvement with Caribbean slavery was conspicuous by its absence. Thus, the How Glasgow Flourished exhibition that complemented the Commonwealth Games was an important project that heralded an important development. One small section recognised the city’s involvement with New World slavery and the impact of exploitation on the development of the city. HGFThis side-lining was perhaps symbolic of the partial modern acknowledgement of Glasgow’s role in Caribbean slavery. However, I did note several comments from visitors in the book stating they were pleased to see that slavery was acknowledged. So, although very small, the inclusion of the information was an important first step: the city’s top institution publicly acknowledged the long connections with chattel slavery. This is a conversation that won’t go away either and the Museums have recognised this. A new collaborative Ph.D. studentship at Glasgow Museums and the University of Glasgow is now offered to investigate ‘the histories of objects created or acquired during the age of slavery, their provenance and uses, and the ways in which some were connected to slavery or reflective of the consumer culture enriched by slavery’. This body of research will surely be widely influential for years to come. To answer the question; how should nations, cities, institutions and individuals whose antecedents and ancestors were involved with New World Slavery deal with this past? It is obvious that censorship breeds derision, anger and even resentment. Similarly, an absence of acknowledgement in large institutions invites criticism about what aspects of the shared past are promoted and prioritised in front of others. The answer then is clear; education, acknowledgement and recognition of this unpalatable history can promote acceptance and eventual reconciliation.

Runaway Slaves

It has been a while since I blogged anything related to Scotland and the Caribbean. A lot has changed in the last year. 2014 was a momentous year for all; the Commonwealth Games reminded everyone why Glasgow is the best city in the world, the referendum woke many Scots up to reality, and on a personal level I submitted a Ph.D. thesis at the University of Glasgow. I spent a great three years (and one month) immersed in the lives of Glasgow-West India merchants, planters and sojourners, 1776-1846. I enjoyed the process immensely and I’ll be disseminating the findings very soon. I’ve since moved into a new but related area and I’ll take this chance to plug the new project I’m working on for the next few years.

I’m now part of a research project examining the social history of self-liberated, formerly enslaved black people in Great Britain. The formal title is ‘Runaway Slaves in Britain: bondage, freedom and race in the eighteenth century’. Twitter:  @runawayslavesgb The project is based in History, School of Humanities at the University of Glasgow. This is the perfect project for us all at this stage. On a personal level, I have been criticised to my face (most recently at an N.U.J. conference in the Mitchell Library in October 2013) that my research focused on slave-owners but did not examine the lives of the enslaved themselves. This period of research allows me to rectify that.

There were many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ‘black’ runaways in Great Britain in the Eighteenth Century. Many were of African descent, some were Native Americans and others were from India. There is some debate whether this group were actually enslaved in Britain at all (there were white runaways escaping from servitude too) although it is clear the group under consideration in our project occupied an ambiguous position. In many cases, they were described as ‘slaves’ and were most certainly in bondage. Many had been trafficked from the New World to Great Britain where they were bought and sold as labourers to work without remuneration. Some were kidnapped and sent back to colonies such as Jamaica without their consent. In any case, this ambiguous status was addressed in two landmark British legal cases: Somerset v Stewart in England in 1772 and Knight v Wedderburn in Scotland in 1778. The Mansfield Decision, although hardly equivocal, certainly had an impact at home and abroad. Joseph Knight, an African, was held in servitude in Scotland after he made the journey from Jamaica with his owner, a Scottish plantation owner. After reading of the Mansfield decision in an Edinburgh newspaper, Joseph subsequently challenged his own unfree status in 1774. The resulting legal case laid out a very famous ruling in Scotland four years later:

That the State of Slavery is not recognised by the Laws of this Kingdom, and is inconsistent with the principles thereof and Found that the Regulations in Jamaica concerning slaves do not extend to this Kingdom and repelled the Defender’s Claim to perpetual Service. (National Records of Scotland, CS 235/K/2/2, p.32)

However, these two famous legal cases were in the last third of the Eighteenth Century – runaway advertisements were a common theme in newspapers over the previous hundred years. So, what of the lives of the unknown numbers of men, women and children who became runaways?

Newspaper advertisement reveals lots of details to the historian; age, gender, origins, diseases, bodily markings. One example – albeit in an American context, where there is a mature historiography – provides much detail.

Virginia Gazette, 7 October 1773.
Virginia Gazette, 7 October 1773.

The image itself (thanks to @Limerick1914  for this image) is an advertisement intended to facilitate the recapture of two runaway slaves in Surry County, Virginia in October 1773 – a year after the Somerset Case. The process began with a very public proclamation that the individuals had escaped from bondage. The master evidently valued his enslaved property so much that he advertised detailed descriptions in the Virginia Gazette and offered rewards for their recapture. The reward system ensured there was much work for nefarious hunter-capturers. Although runaways in Great Britain ran away from a very different type of bondage and to a very different type of freedom, the recapturing process would have been similar.

In terms of the runaways themselves, we learn from the advertisement that one of the runaways was female, a twenty seven year old woman named Amy, and another was male, a nineteen year old named Bachus who was born in Africa. Bacchus had evidently been subjected to the infamous ‘Middle Passage’ and had been branded on the hand, most likely on a Virginian plantation. We also learn much about the determination of the owner: he offers an incremental reward and rising expenses dependant on how far the runaways escaped.

Interestingly, we also learn about the mentalité of both slave-owner and the enslaved. According to this advertisement, there was a ‘prevalent…notion’ amongst enslaved people in Virginia that if they escaped and reached Britain ‘they will be free’, a mindset surely influenced by the Mansfield Decision of June 1772. Running away was the greatest act of self-determination, and this vexed the slave-owners as would it deprive them of their chattel property and the profits from the expropriation of labour. The advertisement ended with a typical warning: do not offer runaways passage from Virginia or offer them work within the colony. These advertisements represent both an attempt to regain immediate ownership of the enslaved property and also an attempt to limit the collaboration with the local population which could have prolonged freedom. Their fate – and whether they reached Great Britain at all – is unknown. Watch this space.


Further Reading

Cairns, John W., ‘After Somerset: The Scottish Experience’ (2012) Journal of Legal History, vol. 33, pp.291-312

Chater, Kathy, Untold Histories: Black People in England and Wales During the Period of the Slave Trade, c.1660-1807 (Manchester, 2009)

Myers, Norma, Reconstructing the Black Past: Blacks in Britain c.1780-1830 (London, 1996)

Shyllon, F., Black People in Britain 1555-1833, (London, 1977)

Shyllon, F., Black Slaves in Britain, (London, 1974)

Walvin, J., Black and White: The Negro and English Society 1555-1945, (London, 1973)

Walvin, J., England, Slaves and Freedom, 1776-1838 (London, 1986)

Emancipation Acts

Not even in my wildest dreams did I ever consider I would be writing a review of a play based on sections of my own book, It Wisnae Us (2009). WisnaeBut here goes. I’m no Arts correspondent so I’ll instead describe how the work evolved, my input as an adviser and how the historical reality shaped the scenes. I’m a huge supporter of the use of public history – underpinned by academic research – as it allows dissemination in a new medium to a wider audience. Tours are the natural way to do this but a multi-scene roving play was a far more ambitious project that required a skilled, multi-disciplinary team.

Emancipation Acts was a series of site specific performances that took place in Glasgow’s Merchant City during the Commonwealth Games, 31 July – 1 August 2014. Graham, 1The origins of the play can be traced to meetings last year for those interested in the Caribbean Commonwealth. Graham Campbell and Anne McLaughlin, co-directors of African Caribbean Cultures Glasgow, had the original idea for an inaugural event with a community cast on Emancipation Day, 1 August, the 180th anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies. I agreed to provide specialist advice on Glasgow. This happened in tandem with another discussion. Last year, Jean Cameron, the producer of Glasgow 2014 international programme, attended one of the Glasgow- Slavery tours I run for the Merchant City Festival and afterwards suggested some dramatic performances around the locations based on the characters I described.

Collaboration was natural and Emancipation Acts was born.

Written and directed by the acclaimed Alan McKendrick and produced by Emilia Weber for Glasgow Life, the play explored Glasgow’s involvement with Caribbean slavery, abolition and reparations. It was nice that three University of Glasgow alumni collaborated on this production. AlanIt was a masterstroke identifying McKendrick for this role. I’ve since discovered he deploys a number of contemporary allusions in his work which was evident throughout the play and dramatic finale. Alan and I met for the first time at the University of Glasgow just before the summer with an agreement that although we were up against time we would make this project happen. I provided historical expertise and Alan brought to life my world of dead, white men who lived in Glasgow in luxury based on the proceeds of Caribbean slavery.

The locations almost picked themselves based on locations in It Wisnae Us and the tour; Merchants Steeple at the Briggait, Ramshorn Kirk, City Halls, Virginia Court and the Cunninghame Mansion (GOMA). To tell such a story we also needed a diversity of historical characters; an abolitionist, a pro-slavery voice (merchant or planter) and of course, the enslaved peoples themselves. EA, 2Some of the characters and locations were naturally connected- the City Halls and the abolition movement, Virginia Court and the merchants. Alan was ingeniously creative with other locations, transforming the graveyard of the Ramshorn Kirk into Bance Island, a slave trading fort off the coast of Sierra Leone, and the plantations of the Caribbean. Alan also perfectly recruited a cast of highly rated professional actors – Ncuti Gatwa, Ross Mann, Martin McBride, Lou Prendergast and Paksie Vernon – and it was a real privilege watching these guys in action. Professional dancers Ashanti Harris and Joy Maria Onotu worked their magic as well.

Now it started to get more difficult. In many ways, Alan faced the same issue as any historian starting to write a chapter or book. How do you introduce big concepts that set the scene and can be explored further in later stages? Alan managed this in a variety of innovative ways in the first scene at the Briggait. The play naturally complemented the activities at the Empire Café last week (thanks again to Louise Welsh and Jude Barber) and we made use of their outstanding set up. Almost at the outset of the performance, the title of the book It Wisnae Us – which always seems to go down well with a Glasgow audience – was introduced to explore the popular misconception that Scots had limited involvement with the Caribbean. Briggait sceneThe dialogue made it clear although there was minimal Scottish involvement with the ‘triangular trade’, there were long term trading connections with the plantations. A stanza from John Mayne’s poem Glasgow was read to remind us that goods from the West Indies and America that made a ‘penny or twa’ came to bonnie Clyde. Advertisements for indentured servants and for runaway slaves implicitly established the transition from white, indentured labour to enslaved Africans in the Caribbean. Having attended the conference for the ‘How Glasgow Flourished’ exhibition in the Kelvingrove Museum in May 2014, Alan was well aware of the issues. Songs and first-hand accounts relating to the Middle Passage described the triangular trade as well as the Scots involved in slave trading in Africa, particularly Richard Oswald of Auchincruive. Oswald owned Bance Island from whence 13,000 captured Africans were shipped to the New World between 1748 and 1784.Bunce_Island_north-west I especially liked Alan’s use of Oswald’s gushing obituary of 1784 (which I found in the Glasgow Herald) to illustrate the hypocrisy that such merchants had an esteemed place in the Georgian period which, in some cases, has continued into modern times yet their fortunes were based exclusively on exploitation and death. From the Briggait, we commenced our voyages through the slave Merchant City.

There were three separate routes around the locations allowed concurrent performances; Cotton Masters, Sugar Princes or Abolitionists. Naturally, as a researcher of the city’s West India Interest, I was a Sugar Prince and I shall describe the scenes in that order. David Hanock’s magisterial study, Citizens of the World, described Richard Oswald’s activities in Glasgow, London, the Caribbean and in Africa in some detail. This knowledge allowed us to transform the Ramshorn Kirk for three days into Bance Island by clever use of a flag and tartan. The wonderful costumes were designed and made by Melissa Zofia Devine. Richard Oswald had horrifically embraced his Scottish heritage on the slave fort by constructing a golf course for slaving captains and using his slaves as caddies who were dressed in tartan imported from Scotland. Paksie Vernon and Ncuti Gatwa did a remarkable job at this scene which was at once comedic, informative and ultimately emotional. The actors nodded to the authenticity of accents by putting on pronounced Scottish twang in places. McKendrick also toyed with the idea of historical accuracy and artistic licence in theatre. This production was never intended as a historical enactment and in fact, it would have been much the lesser had it been so. EA, 3In any case, the audience weren’t historically accurate; they were pleasantly interacting with enslaved caddies which wouldn’t have been the case on Bance Island! At the same time, he told us what we should have been seeing which allowed an exploration of conditions on a global entrepot; surrounded by mangroves and rum and tobacco from the Caribbean and America, slaves in tartan from Scotland. The scenes were also very powerful. Ncuti stood on an old tomb and referred to the rusty cages whilst alluding to the instruments of incarceration, torture and punishment designed for enslaved peoples. Paksie perfectly encapsulated the brutal absurdity of Bance Island with the memorable line ‘Disneyland with slave trading’ whilst Ncuti described how their job wasn’t that bad – ‘caddying, it’s the best’ – compared to the labour intensive agricultural work on sugar plantation. We were then transported to the Caribbean.

In the most poignant scene of all, the audience were slowly walked through the Ramshorn Graveyard to the sound of slave narratives describing various aspects of plantation life, emancipation and rebelliousness (including Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince and Harriet Ann Jacobs).EA, 1 At first, I interpreted this as a journey into the plantations of the New World but also interpreted the long walk as the Middle Passage. In any case, we eventually arrived and Ncuti warned us that whilst Glasgow should take some credit for abolition, the enslaved peoples also emancipated themselves. I was impressed many times by McKendrick’s capacity to quickly absorb and explore important issues in a new research area but particularly with this scene. He contrasted the assumption of subservience of enslaved peoples on plantations with the much wider narrative of slave rebellion and resistance. At that point, we were treated to a moving song by the community choir and I’m told that some people were in tears. The local African-Caribbean community were involved with Emancipation Acts from the start and all Graham and Anne’s hard work paid off.

The direct reference to Glasgow’s commitment to abolition laid the basis for the next location. Lou Prendergast has had a dramatic rise in her new career and this monologue allowed her to deliver powerful oratory.Lou, 1 Frederick Douglass and female abolitionists spoke at the City Halls during the Campaign for Universal Emancipation, 1834-1865 and Alan used this as context for Lou’s scene. As a female abolitionist, she pointed out the hypocrisy that whilst William Wilberforce wanted to emancipate the slaves, he accepted the subjugation of women and hoped to confine them to a supporting role in the abolition movement. However, the  movement provided women with their first civic role and McKendrick connected this with the later move for female suffrage. This scene allowed exploration of further hypocrisy that the refined, pious class of Glasgow tacitly accepted chattel slavery. Lou advised an education to overcome ignorance. Firstly, she pointed out that enslavement occurred due random accident of birth. There was nothing pre-ordained about chattel slavery- it was social construction entrenched in colonial law by the Barbados Slave Act of 1661 which ultimately facilitated economic exploitation of enslaved peoples. This provided the basis to explore the argument made by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations that Empire and slavery were unprofitable as well as Eric Williams’ thesis in Capitalism and Slavery that the Caribbean provided the primitive accumulation of capital that fuelled the rise of Great Britain to industrial powerhouse. In one of his contemporary allusions, McKendrick used the female abolitionist of the 1840s to look into the future towards a dystopian post-slavery future where there were ‘no slaves, but workers on wages’ with more workers than work.  Louise Welsh noted something similar today when she suggested any ‘discussion about our country’s connections with transatlantic slaving inevitably leads to discussions about class, capitalism and modern day exploitation’.

From the City Halls, we journeyed into one of Glasgow’s most bustling commercial streets in the colonial period: Virginia Street leading to the court of the same name. This was the scene I was anticipating the most; I’ve spent years of my life researching the city’s West India merchants and planters and now I was about to meet them (or at least the actors Ross Mann and Martin McBride). This was perfectly cast; both of these young gentlemen looked the part in a location that once housed the galleries where merchants sold sugar and tobacco.Merchants I thought this was Alan McKendrick’s best section but I appreciate I am biased given my own research interests. The two Sugar Princes were based on James MacQueen, the chief propagandist of the Glasgow West India Association, a key focus of my own research. In the 1820s, MacQueen made a series of pro-slavery justifications in the Glasgow Courier as well as in private and public correspondence. But how do you put forward this position in a theatrical production? The Sugar Princes were comedic yet convincing and streetwise; we had arrived at the ‘actually inarguably good bit’ of the show. As expected, they proceeded to play down the brutality of chattel slavery to the audience using a familiar argument of the West India propagandists: the enslaved had it better than the Scottish working class of the same period. But they weren’t there to tell us slavery wasn’t a ‘CRUEEEELLLLL!’ condition. Oh no. Instead they pointed out that ‘life was full of cruelties’ and contrasted the sun kissed plantations of the Caribbean with the coal mines in Scotland where many miners were thirled for life. They posed the question to the audience: where would you rather be? I’m told a young boy shouted out he would rather be in the Caribbean, so for the two MacQueen’s, it was job done! The Sugar Princes then pointed to an unavoidable and perhaps unpalatable fact about the role the colonial class and chattel slavery played in the economic development of the city. It wasn’t the Police nor the miners that allowed Glasgow to flourish. No, it was the merchants who kept the Clyde ‘flowing with commerce’. Further, they outlined a theme direct from the writings of James MacQueen. Slavery was a national sin and the concept of slaves as chattel property was established by British Government legislation over several centuries. They were therefore only property developers operating for the benefit of Glasgow within a nationally approved system. They subsequently pleaded:

Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

McKendrick expertly used a paragraph written by MacQueen in the Colonial Controversy of 1825 in which he compared the economic system of slavery to a building. The merchants used the built heritage of Virginia Court as a theatrical prop to point out they were happy with the system. If the Government decided to take away the first floor on which it rested (Caribbean slavery) they required compensation.Ashanti This was the crux of the Glasgow West India Association argument leading up to emancipation; slaves were legal property protected by British laws. McKendrick also made a comparison that was at once both historical and contemporary; were these suppliers really the bad guys? They were only providing a service to the public based on basic economics. And a good service it was too. The tobacco and sugar was imported because it was in great demand. Further, it meant the public didn’t have to deal with the brutalities of the supply chain. They were, according to them, doing the public a favour. Think of the modern large conglomerates that depend on sweatshop labour. These places only exist because we, the consumer, continually purchase the goods.

The dramatic and highly provocative finale at the Gallery of Modern Art (formerly the mansion of Tobacco Lord, William Cunninghame) had a carnival atmosphere with the community cast of singers and dancers although it posed two key questions. How long will Glasgow continue as the only Atlantic port that doesn’t have a permanent exhibition in a museum or memorial recognising the role of Caribbean slavery (in direct contrast to London, Liverpool and Bristol)? I noted this after research trips to all cities and after making this  point last year at an NUJ conference in October it has taken off, particularly with a discussion at the Empire Café. This was a new way of delivering the message.Panel discussionIn the discussion connected to Emancipation Acts on Glasgow Green, Professor Sir Tom Devine alluded to this in the discussion with myself and Dr Karen Salt as he called for a ‘Museum of Empire’ in Glasgow that addressed Caribbean slavery. Another question centred on reparations. Much of my thinking here was shaped by Professor Hilary Beckles’ landmark text ‘Britain’s Black Debt’, although I noted that Scotland remains largely absent from the text. Yet Scotland is beginning to face up to her slavery past in recent times. Will this be accelerated in the next month? If the nation becomes independent, will CARICOM name Scotland as a beneficiary of Caribbean slavery and subsequently to be pursued for reparations? The legal and political questions surrounding reparations will be answered by others, but historians clearly have an important role. In spite of disapproval and even outright animosity towards historical research on the Scottish involvement (not least in the publicity article associated with this project in which I was accused of ‘profiting from the slave trade’!), such research is not invidious retribution or anachronistic judgement to expose slave owners and their gains, nor is it a quest to exonerate the nation. Historians have a duty to explain and several issues are becoming clear: how was this wealth acquired, where did it go, what was the impact and how should we, as a nation, commemorate it today?

The aim of many historians is to explain ‘how things actually were’ which is based on the famous mantra of Leopold Van Ranke: wie es eigentlich gewesen. I am very confident that we managed to achieve this with this piece of work which was also situated in modern context. And when I say ‘we’ I mean Alan McKendrick. I provided historical expertise whilst he shaped the sometimes short essays into a very clever, provocative play that addressed key historical and contemporary  themes. This was effective in tackling a difficult subject. Public history – although it cannot be used for all research areas – should be promoted by historians to take the archives to the streets. At the same time, there was the perfect mesh with African-Caribbean Cultures to produce a very moving couple of hours. Sad it had to end so soon.


Photographer credits: official Emancipation Acts – Tommy Ga-Ken Wan; Lou Prendergast – Jean Cameron; Briggait scene- Juliette Carty.

On the trail of James MacQueen at Westerhall Estate

WesterhallHaving made the acquaintance of another fellow Scot on Grenada, we decided on a visit to Westerhall Estate (formerly Baccaye) in the parish of St David. This was the fitting finale to an enlightening trip. The map shown here demonstrates the location on the south coast. According to one survey in 1824, the estate was a sugar plantation of 951 acres – one of the largest on the island – although today only rum is produced. I wasn’t here to sample the wares but instead to retrace the footsteps of James MacQueen (1778-1870) who worked on the estate when it was owned by the Johnstone family of Dumfries, Scotland [1]. It seems that William Johnstone Pulteney was involved with a disputed compensation claim for over £4800 for 176 slaves on Westerhall in 1837. MacQueen himself was a large scale claimant of compensation for enslaved peoples on St Kitts. SAM_3073However, today, I’m more interested in the earlier period which has been illuminated by David Lambert’s work on MacQueen’s imperial career, especially when he was the resident overseer on Westerhall, 1797-1810 [2]. MacQueen was part of a wider migration from Scotland during the period 1750-1800 in which up to 17,000 young men temporarily relocated to the West Indies in search of fame and fortune. SAM_3012He arrived on Grenada in the immediate aftermath of the failed Fedon’s rebellion of 1795 and Lambert cites correspondence outlining the damage done during the revolt: ‘most of the canes at Westerhall that were uncut had been burnt, together with the Dwelling House and Out Houses at the Point, and I have since learnt that the Works on the Estate, as well as on almost every other Estate in the Island, were also burnt’ [3]. The rebuilding of Westerhall thus represented a formative period in the Scottish sojourner’s life.  Originally from Crawford in Lanarkshire in Scotland, MacQueen entered into a decimated plantation economy and a colonial society divided by religion and nationality which, according to Lambert, shaped his conservative, anti-Catholic and anti-French outlook. SAM_3087According to Lambert, MacQueen oversaw the rebuilding of Westerhall in the aftermath of the rebellion for which he was paid £40 sterling per annum. His role in subsequent years as overseer would have included managing the estate’s enslaved peoples and promoting labour through the whip. His work complete by 1810, MacQueen travelled home and later became the editor of the pro-slavery Glasgow Courier and was employed by the Glasgow West India Association to disseminate similar propaganda in the 1820s. Today, Westerhall holds no record of MacQueen’s employment but there are lots of clues to the estates past. SAM_3005I could envision MacQueen walking through this boiling house (which would have been covered by a roof) up to the upper reaches of the estate where the ‘big house’ was situated and then down to the sugar fields nearby the sea. The date at the top left of this adjoining building (probably sugar works) outline it was built in 1800 just after the rebellion. SAM_3111I could almost hear MacQueen barking orders in a thick Lanarkshire accent to masons over from Scotland and to the enslaved persons employed in the works. The stills here are said to be a remnant when the estate was under French control sometime before 1763. The surviving mill and aqueduct illustrates the transition to heavy industry from slave labour after emancipation in 1834. SAM_3112The mills were made in Glasgow in 1860-1861 and this example underlines how Scotland profiteered in successive stages of the colonial economy. The primitive accumulation of capital was made in the New World which fuelled Scotland’s rise to industrial nation. By the 1860s, Scottish manufactories were exporting engineered goods across the British Empire. MacQueen lived a long life (dying aged 92) and would have seen many changes. I wonder how often his thoughts turned to Westerhall and the thirteen year period that shaped his life? SAM_3058Like MacQueen, my own sojourn to Grenada has unfortunately come to an end. By contrast, MacQueen returned with wealth based on the expropriation of labour from enslaved peoples which must have funded his activities in Glasgow. I return with a new understanding of Scots in the Caribbean and the legacy today.

[1] For a thorough account of the Johnstone family, see Emma Rothschild’s magisterial The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth Century History, (U.K.: Princeton University Press, 2011),

[2] See David Lambert, ‘The “Glasgow King of Billingsgate”: James MacQueen and an Atlantic proslavery network’ Slavery and Abolition 29 (2008), pp. 389-413 and his more recent account, Mastering the Niger: James MacQueen’s African Geography and the Struggle over Atlantic Slavery, (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[3] David Lambert, Mastering the Niger: James MacQueen’s African Geography and the Struggle over Atlantic Slavery, (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), p.247.

Another Scot travelling from Carenage to Carriacou

A stroll around the Carenage area of St George’s, Grenada allows one to get an understanding of the hustle and bustle of a working port in the early nineteenth century. SAM_1705We know that Leitch & Smith – one of the premier Glasgow merchant firms on the island in this period – purchased one acre of land here around 1810, no doubt to facilitate the transfer of cargo and produce from their warehouses to the waiting ships destined for Glasgow [1]. Representatives of the firm on the island transported the sugar and the cotton from estates across the island and the broad Scots accent would have been a familar sound. Carenage was also the main departure point for many Scots adventurers who made the short journey up to Carriacou, an island of the north coast off Grenada. As I knew about the strong Scottish connection, I decided to recreate this journey – and I wasn’t disappointed. SAM_2919The map here shows my rough route.Carriacou map Carriacou (population approx. 7,000) is an enchanting little island of 13 square miles and mainly untouched by the commercialism of the larger resorts. I travelled from the capital, Hillsborough, looking for Scottish owned cotton plantations Craigston and Meldrum which were owned by the Urquhart family of northeast Scotland. They followed the pattern of naming their estates after places at home [2]. Much of Craigston has been broken up today for housing although Meldrum seems to be intact and the map here illustrates the location of both. CCOU2The Legacies of British Slaveownership project reveals that William Urquart claimed over £8,000 compensation for enslaved peoples on the emancipation of slavery in 1834.

Meldrum Estate, 2014
Meldrum Estate, 2014

I also made the trip up to Windward in the north of the island, where I was told there is a small, white community – much like the ‘redlegs’ of Barbados –  who are said to be descended from Scots and who retained traditional shipbuilding skills from the eighteenth century. It was marvellous to see a half built ship near the beach. SAM_2966Speaking to many locals there is an understanding that Scots were involved in Carriacou and I received a great welcome. But it was quite surreal sitting in the Sportsman Bar on the beach discussing the impact of Sir Alex Ferguson on English football! Wonderful amazing place with warm, friendly people and I’ll be back.

1. Stephen Mullen, ‘A Glasgow-West India Merchant House and the Imperial Dividend, 1779-1867’, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, (2013), pp.196-233.

2. See H. Gordon Slade ‘Craigston and Meldrum estates, Carriacou 1769-1841’ Proceedings of Society of Antiquarians of Scotland 114 (1984), pp. 481-537.

Scots in the parish of St Patrick, Grenada

My introduction to Grenada has been made a lot easier by a chance meeting in Maurice Bishop airport with another Scot; this time a lady from Cambuslang.

Two Scots in Dunfermline, Grenada

With her two friends – a Catalonian and a South African – we explored the island of Grenada in a 4×4 jeep. Along the way, the two Scots managed to stop for a photograph at Dunfermline, Grenada. The Scots eighteenth century  habit of naming their estates after places back home has left an indelible legacy across the Caribbean.

Map of Grenada, 1826
Map of Grenada, 1826

In this enclosed map, the yellow line roughly represents our journey. The estate marked in green was owned in 1826 by the Glasgow firm John Campbell Senr. & Co. of Glasgow (which we didn’t visit) and the estate marked in red was owned by the ‘heirs of the Houstons’ (which we did visit). This estate, known as Belmont, had been the property of a Scot, Mr Aitcheson, before being purchased c.1780 by Robert Alexander Houston, the son of Alexander Houston of Jordanhill. Alexander Houston & Co. were the the premier sugar merchants in Glasgow, before their spectacular bankruptcy in 1801 [1]. Despite the failure of the merchant firm – essentially due to a lack of liquid capital – the Houston’s retained Belmont beyond this period.

Belmont Estate, 19 April 2014
Belmont Estate, 19 April 2014

Indeed, the Legacies of British Slaveownership project reveals that after the emancipation of slavery in 1834, Robert Houston was a large scale-claimant of compensation and was awarded £5024 for 194 slaves on Belmont Estate on 16 November 1835. Belmont estate is still in use today. However, before emancipation, sugar was the main crop and chattel slaves provided the labour.

Why I'm here I guess- sugar cane growing in Grand Etang park, Grenada
Why I’m here I guess- sugar cane growing in Grand Etang park, Grenada

Today cocoa is grown by wage labourers. We spent an interesting few hours finding out how cocoa is grown and harvested and the guide explained how some traditional methods have been retained. She also said she thought the Houston’s were English but I pointed out in broad Glaswegian they were Scottish! I noticed some pointers to the estates past as a sugar plantation.

Belmont Estate, 2014
Belmont Estate, 2014

The big bell might have been rung by Scots to wake up the enslaved peoples for work at 5am whilst the large bowls (imported from Europe) would have been used to boil the juice from the sugar cane into the semi-refined muscovado – perhaps destined for the Clyde. However, there is no source detailing the lives of the enslaved people who resident on the estate. A quick search of the Ancestry website which holds digitised images of the Slave Registers, which are held the National Archives at Kew, London, illustrates this side of the story. This record shows a female baby named Adelaide was born in 1831, and was thus registered by William Houston as an ‘increase’ in the resident slave population on Belmont in 1832. As a child under six, Adelaide would have been freed automatically (as long as her mother wasn’t destitute) under the terms of the Emancipation Act 1833. However, many others like her between 1807 and 1834 would have lived, worked and died on the plantation

Belmont, 1832
Source: Slave Registers of former British Colonial Dependencies, 1812-1834 [database on-line]. Ancestry.com. Original data: Office of Registry of Colonial Slaves and Slave Compensation Commission: (The National Archives, T71, 317)
This adds a poignant snippet of social history and illustrates the human dimension to what has recently been described by Prof. Hilary Beckles as ‘a crime against humanity’ in his powerful work, ‘Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide‘. Having written about these islands and plantations, this trip has really helped to shape my thoughts on the activities and location of Scots in Grenada and Jamaica as well as the legacy today.

[1] For a good account of this see Douglas Hamilton’s ‘Scottish Trading in the Caribbean: The Rise and Fall of Houstoun & Co.’, in Ned C. Landsman (ed),Nation and Province in the First British Empire: Scotland and the Americas, 1600-1800 (Bucknell University Press, 2001), 94-126.

Another Scotsman in Kingston, Jamaica

Map_of_Jamaica_-_en_svgGreetings from Kingston. I’ve been spending some time at the University of the West Indies, Mona in Kingston. The campus must have a claim to be in the most picturesque setting in the world (except the University of Glasgow in the west end, of course). The University of the West Indies was built on the site of three former sugar plantations, Mona, Papine and Hope. The Legacies of British Slave-ownership website reveals that on the emancipation of slavery in 1834, the compensation for the enslaved people on Mona was claimed by Abraham Watson Rutherford and Sarah Wilkinson; on Papine by James Beckford Wildman and on Hope, the compensation was claimed by Hon. George Neville Grenville and by a Scotsman, Sir John Campbell, 2nd Marquess of Bredalbane, as a trustee on a marriage settlement. And I’ve just today discovered that Papine was owned by Colonel Alexander Grant of Scotland from 1756, and that he named the plantation in Jamaica after a village in Banffshire. Were some of the buildings constructed by Scots?

1750s acqueduct used to transport water around Papine estate

There are some remains of the built heritage which attest to the locations past. There is a large acqueduct running through the campus, built in the 1750s, which would have transported water around and powered the mill on the sugar works, some of which is still standing. The chapel was a former rum distillery – thus full of regional symbolism – that was transported from Trelawney Parish in the 1950s and recreated as a non-denominational church.

Former rum distillery at Hampden, now Mona Chapel

I’ve since discovered the rum distillery was formerly on the Hampden plantation, owned by the Stirlings of Keir and Cawder who were involved with the Glasgow-West India firm, Stirling, Gordon & Co. Thus, Mona, a location that was ‘formerly a place of cruelty and suffering’ has been reclaimed and now ‘symbolises West India nationhood’. The message here is clear: education is the way forward. It’s certainly a wonderful setting to be undertaking research and writing on Scots in Jamaica. And I’ve been learning  lot. Since I’ve been here I’ve attended lectures in honour of Mr Kenneth Ingram, the archivist at UWI Mona for a long number of years, given by Professor Barry Higman. I was first attracted to Caribbean archives by Mr Ingram’s manucript collections and I’ve read lots of B.W. Higman’s work over the years. SAM_1194And I’ve exchanged some knowledge in return. I gave a talk today on ‘Scots in the Caribbean: Jamaica, c.1630s-1838’ in the National Institute of Jamaica, which seemed to be quite well received. Very interesting debate followed on Scots who claimed compensation on the emancipation of slavery as well as the implications of the reparations debate for Scotland.


Ponderings of a Glasgow historian of the Caribbean