Category Archives: British Empire

Who profited from slavery (Scotland’s hidden shame?): David Livingstone and Blantyre Mill

David Hayman’s excellent two-part series on BBC2 ‘Slavery: Scotland’s Hidden Shame’ stirred up quite a bit of debate. I’ll admit I was not a fan of the title (it was too close to book of similar title on sectarianism in 2000). I also don’t think its ‘hidden’ so much, and I assumed the accusatory tone would get people’s backs up. Which turned out to be the case. Nonetheless, I was a bit surprised at the nature of the critiques. After all the scholarship and public engagement work over the last 10-15 years, I thought there was a more mature outlook and understanding about Scotland’s imperial past. Seemingly not (that said, how representative are the twitterati of public opinion in Scotland?)

Firstly, the producers were accused of being part of a ‘BBC Unionist plot’ to undermine Scotland in the lead up to any Independence referendum. This seemed a bit absurd. Several of those involved – including an SNP councillor – were high-profile campaigners or supporters of the Yes campaign leading up to September 2014. But that critique raises an important issue for historians about the influence of their political beliefs on their work. Are historians of Scotland required to be supporters of the Union today to research and write about the imperial benefits of the British Empire to Scotland then?

The second response was the majority of the Scottish population were not involved with Caribbean slavery. In direct terms, perhaps so. But that doesn’t tell the full story. In the Hayman programme, both myself and Tom Devine pointed to the multiplier effects of slavery on Scotland that stretched beyond the elites. The employment created by manufactories based on slave-grown produce (sugar, cotton and tobacco) as well as exports to the West Indies (eg. linen, slave cloth). The big fortunes made by the elite Tobacco Lords and Sugar Aristocracy were also sunk into commerce, landed estates, industry (such as railways) and agriculture which stimulated the economy. In fact, colonial investment created employment in and around Glasgow, underpinning a dramatic rise in wages in the west of Scotland after c.1750 at a rate faster than the national average [1]. The effects weren’t confined to Glasgow either. There are now many recorded examples of Highland estates improved by returned imperialists or absentee owners. Edinburgh was the financial and legal centre. Those who say that the lower orders did not profit from slavery fail to take into account the impact of the multiplier effects. Summed up by a letter to the Herald on 13 November: ‘The bulk of the Scottish population were not involved in nor did they benefit from slavery, nor do the Scottish people two centuries later in any way share responsibility for the crimes committed by previous generations…Being politically correct may be very fine, but being historically accurate is more important’. It takes no little chutzpah to attempt to publicly explain the impact of slavery and its commerce to historians who actually research and publish in the field. RecoveringOn 17 November, Tom Devine wrote an article titled ‘Slave-based economies impacted on lives of most Scots’ which summarized the findings of recent work Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past. Devine reiterated that the impact of slavery was not confined to the elites: the Legacies of British Slaveownership project has revealed a social mix of the developing middle classes in Scotland profited from compensation money in 1834, whilst, as Devine’s work from the 1970s onwards has shown, some of the labouring sorts were employed in manufactories which dependended on slave-grown produce or were funded by colonial investment.

Thirdly, a defence was mounted in the Herald about one of Scotland’s greatest heroes, David Livingstone. ‘There was also an unwarranted and scurrilous attach [sic] on David Livingstone who, as a working-class boy, worked hard to better himself then took healing and Christianity to Africa. Shame on the producer’. Since it was me who mentioned Livingstone as an example of the labouring sorts employed in manufactories fuelled by slave-grown produce, I’ll elaborate [2]. Culpability and complicity are two different things.01-Livingstone David Livingstone was born in Blantyre Mill in 1813. The mill was taken over by Henry Monteith in 1802, manufacturer, Tory politican and Lord Provost of Glasgow twice in the 1810s. Monteith was in partnership with three separate merchants in Glasgow who owned shares in West India firms: Adam Bogle, Alexander Garden and Francis Garden. These partnerships with colonial merchants brought capital derived from slavery into the business and the cotton to supply the mill. The overall investments by West India merchants in cotton manufactories seem to have been relatively small, but it behoves us to remember where the cotton was grown. And the bulk of Blantyre’s exports went to Africa. But work in Blantyre Mill was both arduous and dangerous. In 1823, Livingstone was put to work aged ten as a ‘piecer’ and was part of a child labour force. Ten years later, James Stuart visited Blantyre Works and was scathing about working conditions. There is no question the elites profited from a double-level of transatlantic exploitation: that of the enslaved people in the West Indies and the Scottish labourers. Yet, the conditions of both cannot be compared. In Blantyre Works, housing and educational facilities were noted to be of a high standard. Monteith was known as a paternalist owner, and in fact Livingstone defended cotton masters in a speech on his return to the Mill in 1856. Crucially, the work in Blantyre Mill was well-paid. In 1832, the wage rate for mill-workers was tenth highest (from twenty-nine) cotton mills in the Glasgow area. Moreover, the wages on offer were more than was available to weavers in the twenty weaving mills in the local area. The high wages on offer at Blantyre partly explain why  ‘lad of pairts’ Livingstone was able to save and invest five months of his income into a medical education at the Andersonian and Old College (now Glasgow University). By his own admission – Livingstone was well-paid for work in a cotton mill owned by a conglomerate of West India merchants. And he was part of a major textile labour force in Scotland. As historian Anthony Cooke has shown, textile manufacturers were the largest employers in Scotland (cotton 154,000 of 257,900 (60%), linen 30%, and wool 10%). Citing Sir John Sinclair in 1826, the cotton industry in particular was ‘by far the most important in the kingdom in regard to both the number of persons employed and to the value of their labour’ [3].

Historians are naturally wary of interpretations based on myths and anecdotal evidence which are deployed to deflect from the new orthodoxy. Namely, that slavery and its commerce had a profound impact on large sections of the Scottish population and more broadly on the development of modern Scotland.

[1] T.M. Devine ‘The golden age of tobacco’, in T.M. Devine and Gordon Jackson (eds), Glasgow. Volume I: Beginnings to 1830, (Manchester: Manchester University Press,1995), pp.139-184.

[2] This analysis was based upon the chapter: ‘One of Scotia’s Sons of Toil: David Livingstone and Blantyre Mill’, in Sarah Worden (ed.), David Livingstone: Man, Myth, Legacy, (NMS Enterprises, 2012).

[3] Anthony Cooke, The Rise and Fall of the Scottish Cotton Industry, 1778-1914, (Manchester University Press, 2010), p.57.



‘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.