Category Archives: Barbados

Scots & Caribbean Slavery – victims and profiteers.

In October 2008, author and journalist Joanna Blythman (@JoannaBlythman) attended a tour of Glasgow and the Merchant City that I was running as part of Black History Month.  The tours are a good way to enter into public discussion about Glasgow’s historic role in Caribbean slavery as well as the wider issues such as the lack of acknowledgement in the city today or the economic impact on Scotland. Joanna subsequently authored an opinion piece in The Herald on 1 November 2008 (‘We can’t ignore Scotland’s link to slavery’) in which she very graciously described me as ‘Stephen Mullen, a talented young historian from Strathclyde University’, the institution where I spent four enjoyable years as an undergraduate. WisnaeJoanna also referred to the book I was working on , ‘It Wisnae Us’, a social history of Glasgow’s connections with slavery told through the urban environment,  which was published in 2009.

Joanna’s article in the Herald opened up my research on the Glasgow-West India merchants and planters and  Scots in the West Indies (then in an embryonic phase) to wider audience. This led to a most interesting letter being sent to me with an Aberdeen postmark (simply addressed to ‘Stephen Mullen, Historian, Strathclyde University!), which I have included here:

Jacobite letter
Jacobite letter

[Start of Transcription]:

Jacobites – Slaves exported to the West Indies.

Note that many are from East & N.E. Scotland and England. Most of the Highlanders appear to be Roman Catholics from Invernes.shire. Most of them would be Catholics and Episcopalians.

[List of Jacobites transported to the West Indies in 1747].

Dear Mr Mullen,

I read that you are publishing a book on Slavery and wonder if you will be mentioning the Jacobites transported as slaves to the West Indies. They inter-married with the Africans. However, I doubt if you have any knowledge of these facts as Scottish History is not taught in Scottish schools and Scotch Historians only copy Anglo-Centric [expletive removed] from Unionist Historians. I do not think any of the above would own plantations in the West Indies but no doubt many of them would have [expletive removed] the African women working with them. Yours sincerely, [illegible signature].

[End of Transcription].

Although some of the the language and nature of the contents of the letter was highly inappropriate, I soon started to think more critically about the issues raised. As the author left no contact details to allow me a right to reply, I shall take the liberty of doing so here.

It occurred to me that the author of the letter must have had some knowledge of Scottish history and access to sources, perhaps through a genealogical publication. The letter itself was actually a list of Jacobite prisoners deported after the Hanoverian victory over Charles Edward Stuart’s army at the Battle of Culloden (Blàr Chùil Lodair) on 16 April 1746. The transportations were part of a vicious campaign of retribution by the British Government intended to quell the Highlands in the aftermath of the failed rebellion. One account suggests that of the 3,500 rebel prisoners taken after Culloden, 557 were deported to the New World.

Firstly – and perhaps the only point that myself and the anonymous author agreed upon – is that not enough Scottish history is taught in schools, especially the role of Scots in Empire. However, he (I assume the author was a he) further suggested this led to a historical amnesia amongst the population in general and myself in particular. Although I agreed the Scottish role in the West Indies is not well known, I was then one year into a period of sustained research on Scotland and slavery and was fully aware of the issues raised.

I started to look further into the circumstances of the ship (named in the letter as The Veteran) which sailed on 8 May 1747. I soon discovered (with little effort) that the ship had left Liverpool bound for the Leeward Islands with 150 Jacobites, no doubt to be sold as indentured servants to Scottish and English plantation owners on Antigua, Barbados, St Kitts or Nevis. According to David Dobson, the list of prisoners represents the ‘best description of individual immigrants of the colonial period’. However, The Veteran didn’t actually reach the British West Indies as it was captured by a French privateer, Diamond, off the coast off the Antigua before the prisoners were delivered. French CaribbeanThe French, of course, supported the Stuarts and were sympathetic to the Jacobite cause. The prisoners of The Veteran were taken to the nearby French colony of Martinique where they were freed by the colonial authorities. At least five of the freed prisoners were enlisted as soldiers in French regiments. Thus, the voyage not only assisted the Jacobite cause but also modern historians striving to identify social characteristics of emigrants to the New World. It was therefore ironic that after being accused of having no ‘knowledge of the facts’, the reality was the author was wholly inaccurate in his assertions.

The author was also conceptually as well as factually wrong in the assumed fate of the Jacobite prisoners. The letter was titled ‘Jacobites – slaves transported to West Indies’, which suggested they were destined for life as chattel slaves, the prevalent form of servitude in the British West Indies. An English concept, chattel slavery was established by the Barbados Slave Act of 1661 which ratified enslaved African peoples as property with no right to life. Professor Simon Newman has recently traced the transition from indentured servitude to chattel slavery in Barbados and argued the early development of the plantation economy was dependent on the exportation of vagrants and the poor as well as criminals and political and religious exiles.

A New World of Labour

Thus, the labour force of the embryonic tobacco and sugar plantations was created by forced and voluntary emigration from Scotland, England and Ireland. White indentured servitude was eventually superseded by African slavery from the 1630s which became entrenched in the colonial  legal system after 1661. Chattel slavery subsequently developed into a hierarchical system of exploitation initially based on class and subsequently race which evolved into the most lethal form of slavery known to mankind.

However, indentured servants were always regarded as human beings whilst enslaved persons were viewed as sub-human chattel listed in plantation inventories next to cattle with names such as Fido, Caeser and Jumper. They were treated as beasts of burden to be bought and sold and worked to death on sugar plantations. Mutilation as a punishment was permitted as was murder by hanging, slow burning and starvation in gibbets. In contrast, the penalty for slaves striking a white person was death, unless the assault was to protect a slave’s owner. Furthermore, indentured servants worked for set period (usually three to seven years) and, in theory at least, there was an end to their servitude. By contrast, the Uterine law meant the offspring of slaves were born into the status of their mother, thus thirling successive generations for life to plantations and owners and perpetuating the cycle of racial hierarchy .

Without too much work, it has been quite easy to debunk the myths contained in a factually inaccurate and conceptually wrong letter. This was a prime example of historical whataboutery. The underlying theme seems to be It Wisnae Us- It was the English. Even the ages of the child prisoners transported on The Veteran were underlined for effect in the letter as if to reinforce the depravity of the English retribution. Thus, according to the author, whilst Scots were involved with Caribbean slavery, we were also victims of English imperial tyranny and this should be a qualifier in any book on Scots and slavery.

But should an unrepresentative example be used in an attempt to somehow exonerate much wider involvement elsewhere? Many hundreds (perhaps up to 2,000) of Scots were transported to the West Indies as indentured servants and David Dobson suggested that only 600 prisoners were deported between 1707 and 1763. Some of these might have become plantation owners themselves. Moreover, up to 20,000 Scots economic sojourners travelled voluntarily to the West Indies between 1750 and 1800 in a quest to find fame and fortune [1].

Edward Long, 1795
Edward Long, 1795

Many arrived in Jamaica in particular as noted by Edward Long, a planter-historian in 1774:

Jamaica, indeed, is greatly indebted to North Britain, as very near one third [i.e. 6000 of 18,000] of the [white] inhabitants are either natives of that country, or descendants from those who were. Many have come…every year, less in quest of fame than of fortunes; and such is their industry and address, that few of them have been disappointed. [2]

These figures are broadly consistent with the view of modern historians.

Furthermore, Dr Nicholas Draper of UCL and the Legacies of British Slaveownership project have outlined that Scots were disproportionately represented in the compensation lists (awarded to slave-owners by the British Government for the loss of their chattel slave property) on emancipation in 1834

Archibald Smith senr.
Archibald Smith senr.

Of the £20million compensation, Scots claimed £2million. Individuals in Glasgow were amongst the most concentrated  groups of claimants in Great Britain. Absentee West India planters and merchants in Glasgow, such as Archibald and James Smith of Jordanhill,  owned over 14,000 slaves and made over 100 claims which resulted in a total award of over £460,00. Contemporary estimates suggest this total is worth c.£30m today or even up to £2billion depending on what index is used. There is no question that Scots had sustained involvement as profiteers in the plantation economy from the c.1620s – 1838.

The letter also refers to miscegenation as well as misinformed opinions as to how serious historical research and analysis is undertaken. Do Scottish historians merely copy ‘Anglo–centric shite– from Unionist Historians’? There are several Scottish historians working on this area and there is little disagreement amongst practitioners – whatever political views they hold – that the Union of 1707 opened up the largest common market in the world (at that time) to Scots and they took full advantages of imperial opportunities. It is also widely accepted that Scots were deported as indentured servants. Yet, the inference seems to be that an historian cannot be a Scottish nationalist if their chosen research topic involves uncovering the more unpalatable aspects of the Scottish past. That is one assertion that I profoundly disagree with.

[1] Douglas Hamilton, ‘Patronage and Profit: Scottish Networks in the British West Indies, c.1763-1807’ (Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Aberdeen, 1999), p.36-7.

[2] Edward Long, A History of Jamaica Vol. II, (London, 1774), p.287.