This is an overdue account of a day last summer (31 July 2013) spent in the company of Selwyn R. Cudjoe, Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, U.S.
Selwyn was born and grew up in Tacarigua is a town in the East-West Corridor of Trinidad and Tobago. Many Scots were known to be large plantation owners in Trinidad during the colonial period; the Eccles and Lamonts for example had strong commercial connections with Glasgow. Professor Cudjoe sought to learn more about their legacy when on research leave in Great Britain in the summer of 2013.
Selwyn and I set off from Glasgow Central Train station early in the morning. With little preparation or equipment except the trusty IPhone, we set off for Gourock on the way to Dunoon and Argyll, where many Scots who owned plantations in the West Indies are known to have built sprawling landed estates. As we crossed the upper firth of Clyde by ferry, we discussed how the majority of the thirty two known Scottish transatlantic slave trade voyages left from Port Glasgow and Greenock and would have navigated the same stretch of water on their way to the west coast of Africa.
In Dunoon, we went into the Castle House Museum, which we were amazed to discover had been built as a holiday home by Glasgow merchant James Ewing in 1824. Ewing has been described as the ‘father of Dunoon’, although his chosen occupation as a Glasgow-West India merchant and plantation owner in Jamaica has remained almost unknown until fairly recently. Indeed, according to the ongoing ‘Legacies of British Slave-ownership’ project at UCL, James Ewing was a large scale claimant of slave compensation from the British Government on emancipation in 1834 and claimed over £9300 (c.£700,000 today) for 586 slaves on plantations in Jamaica.
From Dunoon, we took the coach up the Cowal peninsula in a quest to find the home of John Lamont of Knockdow, the illegitimate son of a gentry family in Argyll who became one of the most prominent plantation owners in Trinidad in the 1800s. We were armed with little information except that he built Benmore House in 1849 and we assumed – correctly as it turned out – there had to be some connection with the internationally famous Benmore Botanic Garden. In the heart of the garden lies Benmore House and although closed to the public, the grandeur of the building was evident. John Lamont was another large scale holder of compensation on emancipation in 1834 and claimed over £15,900 (c.£1.2million today) for 322 slaves, including those resident on Cedar Grove, Palmiste. Did the compensation money filter back to Scotland to be used in the 1849 construction of Benmore? Impossible to tell.
Professor Cudjoe was able to see first hand the legacy of the expropriation of labour from Trinidad in the colonial period and how the profits of sugar and slavery transformed parts of Scotland. In his words, ‘he completed the circle’.