Category Archives: Historians

‘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.

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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.

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)

A Glasgow-West India Sojourn- Trinidad, Jamaica, Grenada

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.

wpid-230px-pg_1063burns_naysmithcrop-1.jpeg
On his way to Jamaica, August 1786

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.

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Outside Piarco International Airport, Trinidad

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.

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Eric Williams looking over travellers arriving at Trinidad

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).

 

John Pinney’s Georgian House

Georgian House Museum
Georgian House Museum

This short account documents my visit to the Georgian House Museum (formerly the home of John Pinney) in Great George Street, Bristol in late 2013 (see location in Google Maps). In his classic text, A West India Fortune, Richard Pares traced the fortunes of the Pinney family who owned the plantation Mountravers on Nevis in the Leewards Islands. A younger scion of the family, John Pinney inherited a slave fortune and retired to Bristol in 1783 to live as an absentee.

A Young man, believed to be John Pinney, watches over the house
A young man, believed to be John Pinney, watches over the house

John Pinney built the house in 1790 and it has been restored to illustrate how the mercantile elite lived in Bristol as well as acknowledging the city’s historical involvement with Caribbean slavery. This website provides more detailed information.

The townhouse has eleven rooms over four floors and recreates the living conditions as John Pinney would have lived as well as his servants, including Pero, an enslaved boy brought back from Nevis.

John Pinney's Plunge Pool
John Pinney’s Plunge Pool

I imagined Pinney being served breakfast in the kitchen by servants, perhaps even Pero, before going downstairs to his plunge pool in the basement. Pinney was known to favour a cold bath every day, perhaps a habit formed in his stay in warmer climes. There were also several other rooms that evidently used for entertaining, such as the guest room, where I took an atmospheric shot.

John Pinneys Guest Room
John Pinneys Guest Room

The city of Bristol has taken steps to address their historical connections with the slave trade and slavery. The Bristol Slave Trade Action Group was established in 1996 and academics have been instrumental in transforming attitudes and promoting acceptance of the city’s colonial past. This change has been underpinned by original archival research, fieldwork on the Pinney plantations (documented by Time Team, parts 1 and 2) in Nevis as well as publications such as the Madge Dresser’s Slavery Obscured and the Bristol Museums publication Pero: The Life of a Slave in Eighteenth Century Bristol by David Small and Christine Eickelmann. A bridge named after Pero was formally opened in 1999.

Bristol Museums have been fully involved in this transformation. In addition to the Georgian House, the M-Shed documents Bristol’s slaving past including the life of an enslaved girl, Frances.

Picture courtesy of Dr Miranda Kaufmann, @MirandaKaufmann
Picture courtesy of Dr Miranda Kaufmann, @MirandaKaufmann

A plaque outside the M-Shed has also been erected to acknowledge the contribution of Africans to the prosperity of the city in the colonial period. The approach in Scotland couldn’t be more different. Whilst commemoration and acknowledgement is the way forward elsewhere, the city of Glasgow has The Merchant City.

Richard Pares- A Historian of the West Indies

ParesOne of the first blogs about the Glasgow- West India trades concerns an English historian writing about a Dorset family who had plantations in Nevis and a merchant house in Bristol. Do bear with me…

In a period of historical research, the researcher sometimes finds a historian’s work that profoundly changes the way they think about their topic. In my own research, I have been very fortunate to be metaphorically standing on the shoulders (nanos gigantum humeris insidentes) of Richard Pares CBE (25 August 1902 – 3 May 1958). Described as the ‘the outstanding historian of his time’ alongside contemporary Sir Lewis Namier, Pares continues to shape the way historians think over half a century after his death.

A West India Fortune, published in 1950, altered my thoughts about the relationship between merchants and planters and their involvement with the West Indies. Pares used a small sliver of the voluminous Pinney Collection – most of it now held in the University of Bristol Special Collections – to trace the fortunes of successive generations of the Pinney family of Dorset, who owned plantations in St Christopher and Nevis. Pares set out to ‘practice what he preached’ by producing an economic history based on primary records of a representative family and West India merchant firm (A West India Fortune, p.vii).20140224-095837.jpg In doing so, he illuminated a two century long connection with the West Indies that started with a sojourner, Azariah Pinney travelling to Nevis in the late seventeenth century and ends with John Pinney operating a successful merchant house in Bristol after the 1780s. In between, Pares produced outstanding chapters on plantation management, West India finance, shipping and debt as well as the sugar market of Bristol. The text was later complemented by a shorter article on the London-West India merchant house of the Lascelles. Fortunately, Pares had worked on the Lascelles records in London before a German air raid in the Blitz of 1940 destroyed a lot of the material (although S.D. Smith recently studied the family in much more detail in Slavery, Family, and Gentry Capitalism in the British Atlantic). In his article, Pares outlined the business as well as the dangers for students returning from the West Indies to England for education: ‘Sam could not go back to school after the Christmas period of 1755, because he had been “unfortunately drawn into the embraces of a vile wicked Strumpet who gave him the foul disease”. He was reported to be a “sincere penitent”…when he was cured and ready to return to school’. (The Historians Business, p.217).

Pares Collection
Small but invaluable Pares-West India collection

I was now hooked on Pares and the inner geek in me set out to try and acquire as many first edition as I could. Most of these are out of print, others are quite rare and all can be expensive. A retired Professor of History at the University of Glasgow gave me a pristine copy of A West India Fortune with cover, which is quite valuable to purchase but priceless to me. I also managed to acquire a signed copy of King George III and the politicians : the Ford lectures delivered in the University of Oxford, 1951-52 (1953), which contained a note evidently Pares note(1)written when Richard was Professor of History at Edinburgh and lived in 7 Carlton Terrace, just off Calton Hill and a short walk to the University as well as to the Scottish Record Office and National Library. In the note, Richard thanked the recipient of the book, Molly, for the almonds before affectionately signing off Richard. Pares Note2This small piece of Pares family history in Edinburgh masks a personal tragedy. Just after taking the position at Edinburgh in 1945, he was diagnosed with Progressive Muscular Atrophy, and had to retire from duties in 1954. Richard returned to Oxford where he was appointed a Special Research Fellowship at All Souls. He used his limited time to work on material accumulated before 1939, resulting in Yankees and Creoles: the trade between North America and the West Indies before the American Revolution (1956) as well as a short monograph, Merchants and planters, (1960). Still at the height of his powers, Pares used the article to re-evaluate his views on the economic relationship with Great Britain and the sugar colonies and famously stated that Adam Smith was wrong as he viewed Empire as an economic drain. The text was published posthumously after Richard died on 3 May 1958. But what a legacy.

Selected Publications (incomplete- for now)

  • Public records in British West India islands, reprinted from Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research vol. 7 (1930), pp. 149-157.
  • War and trade in the West Indies, 1739-1763 (1936, 1963)
  • The economic factors in the history of the Empire Reprinted from: Economic history review, vol. 7, no. 2 (May 1937), pp. 119-144.
  • The manning of the navy in the West Indies, 1702-63 Offprint from: Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 4th ser., v. 20, 1937, pp. 31-60.
  • Prisoners of war in the West Indies in the 18th century Reprinted from. Journal of the Barbados museum and historical society (1937).
  • Colonial blockade and neutral rights, 1739-1763 (1938, 1975).
  •  West-India fortune (1950, 1968).
  • King George III and the politicians : the Ford lectures delivered in the University of Oxford, 1951-52 (1953)
  • Yankees and Creoles: the trade between North America and the West Indies before the American Revolution (1956)
  • Essays presented to Sir Lewis Namier, Edited by Richard Pares and Alan J. P. Taylor (1956, 1971).
  • Limited monarchy in Great Britain in the eighteenth century (1957, 1967)
  • Merchants and planters, Economic History Review. Supplement 4. (1960)
  • The historian’s business, and other essays edited by R. A. and Elisabeth Humphreys; with an introd. by Lucy S. Sutherland. (1960).