This blog article will be the first of several over the next month documenting a research trip to the West Indies. On 30 March 2014, I flew from Glasgow International to London then onto Port of Spain, Trinidad for a stopover and eventually Kingston. Including stopover, this took over 24 hours. In the eighteenth century, this journey would have taken six weeks and landfall would have usually been made further up the Lesser Antilles such as Antigua or Barbados.
Robert Burns, for example, was on his way from Greenock to Jamaica via Antigua in October 1786 before the Kilmarnock edition of his poetry became commercially succesful and he fortunately went to Edinburgh instead. In the period that Burns didnt go, up to 20,000 young Scotsmen did. All went in search of fame and fortune in the plantation economy of the Caribbean before, they hoped, to return to Scotland to purchase a landed estate. There are several parallels with my sojourn, including departure and arrival points. I am here to uncover evidence of the activites of Scots in Jamaica and Grenada although I am inoculated against the tropical diseases from which so many of them perished (Yellow Fever vaccination is essential if travelling via Trinidad to Jamaica, which I discovered at the very last minute, ten days before travel). Hopefully I’ll be coming home from the Caribbean with treasure of my own although this will be archival material and the less tangible riches of social capital.
When I arrived in UWI Mona last night, I was told about another Scotsman, whom I am now trying to find. Scots abroad operating in networks has as much resonance today as it did in the eighteenth century although for vastly different purposes. As I arrived in Trinidad yesterday, I saw a large montage of former Prime Minsters. Dr Eric Williams, was, of course, the first P.M. after independence on 31 August 1962. Before this, he was an academic historian and published the influential Capitalism and Slavery, a wonderful text which continues to influence researchers today.
Despite Glasgow (and the McDowall’s in particular) featuring surprisingly prominent in the text, the Scottish-West India historiography remains in it’s infancy. I’d like to think Eric would be pleased about the new research underway on Scotland, including my own and Michael Hopcroft at Glasgow Caledonian (@michaelhopcroft).