Category Archives: West Indies

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.

The Scots Kirk of Colonial Kingston, Jamaica

In April 2014, I spent a month on research leave in the West Indies, the majority of which was spent in Kingston, Jamaica. What a wonderful, enchanting place. But I was there on business.SAM_1209 I learned lots about the long dead Scots who had been there two hundred years before me from archival sources but also from the surroundings. I visited several former plantations owned by Scots, such as Caymanas in St Catherine and Papine in St Andrew (now the University of the West Indies). However, in downtown Kingston, I also spent a really illuminating afternoon in St Andrews Scots Kirk. I have since undertaken extensive archival research on this establishment. I have recently delivered a paper on the Scots Kirk at the Scottish Religious Cultures Networks conference ‘Religion in Scotland: at home and abroad’ at Queens University Belfast in May 2015. It has since been accepted for publication and will most likely become my first post-Ph.D. publication. The Scots Kirk was built, of course, by Scots in the early nineteenth century which was comparatively late in the era of Caribbean slavery. In December 1813, a group of Scots petitioned local dignitaries in Kingston to establish a Presbyterian place of worship, evidently to follow the religion which they had been accustomed to as youths. Some of the most prominent Glasgow-West India merchant firms contributed finance, thus the connections between Glasgow and Kingston were both commercial and ecclesiastical.

'I can see the light'
‘I can see the light’

The Kirk itself was octagonal shaped and based on a grand design. Indeed, opening was delayed by six years to 1819 due to the size and a lack of funding. The Kirk was evidently for the Scots plantocracy and the relationship with the enslaved population of Kingston was a little more complex but you’ll need to wait for the publication for that. Although the original building was damaged by an earthquake, they re-built it in accordance with the plans of the original. As I walked around the Kirk in April 2014, I thought about the many Scots who had been in there in a very different time. I saw many reminders of home. Understandably, Scottish clergy had a prominent role in exporting Scottish Presbyterianism to Kingston.SAM_1231 Like the Reverend James Watson, 19 years a pastor of the Scots Kirk and missionary in Jamaica. Born in Johnstone in 1799, he was one of the few who managed to return home and died in Edinburgh in 1873. I wondered if Watson was an abolitionist, or if he was guilty of what one historian has described as ‘Presbyterian hypocrisy’. I also saw very tangible reminders of the connections with Glasgow and Kingston. Like the memorial to Andrew Scott, born in Penicuik in March 1804. A merchant in Kingston, he died in London and was buried in Glasgow Necropolis. The memorial also referred to his wife, Anna Maria Mayne, who died on the passage from Jamaica to Scotland in 1843. Their children, some of whom were born in Kingston, were also mentioned. SAM_1228No doubt they all worshipped and perhaps were married or christened in the Scots Kirk. Other memorials testified to the elevated status of Scots in Kingston in the post-slavery period. Another Andrew Scott, late merchant and magistrate of Kingston, died at Rothesay in January 1866, aged 42. The monument was erected by his widow and brother, suggesting they had remained in Kingston whilst he went home temporarily. The members of the Scots Kirk remembered him for his excellence as an office-bearer and his ‘unwearied efforts to promote its prosperity and & perpetuity’. SAM_1235And perpetuate it did. St Andrews Scots Kirk still remains an active place of worship today although as far as I am aware, there are no formal connections with the Church of Scotland as it was disestablished in the twentieth century to join with other Caribbean Churches. I still found it amazing that little historical dots of Scots, including their places of exploitation and worship, remained in Kingston over two hundred years later.

Emancipation Acts

Not even in my wildest dreams did I ever consider I would be writing a review of a play based on sections of my own book, It Wisnae Us (2009). WisnaeBut here goes. I’m no Arts correspondent so I’ll instead describe how the work evolved, my input as an adviser and how the historical reality shaped the scenes. I’m a huge supporter of the use of public history – underpinned by academic research – as it allows dissemination in a new medium to a wider audience. Tours are the natural way to do this but a multi-scene roving play was a far more ambitious project that required a skilled, multi-disciplinary team.

Emancipation Acts was a series of site specific performances that took place in Glasgow’s Merchant City during the Commonwealth Games, 31 July – 1 August 2014. Graham, 1The origins of the play can be traced to meetings last year for those interested in the Caribbean Commonwealth. Graham Campbell and Anne McLaughlin, co-directors of African Caribbean Cultures Glasgow, had the original idea for an inaugural event with a community cast on Emancipation Day, 1 August, the 180th anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies. I agreed to provide specialist advice on Glasgow. This happened in tandem with another discussion. Last year, Jean Cameron, the producer of Glasgow 2014 international programme, attended one of the Glasgow- Slavery tours I run for the Merchant City Festival and afterwards suggested some dramatic performances around the locations based on the characters I described.

Collaboration was natural and Emancipation Acts was born.

Written and directed by the acclaimed Alan McKendrick and produced by Emilia Weber for Glasgow Life, the play explored Glasgow’s involvement with Caribbean slavery, abolition and reparations. It was nice that three University of Glasgow alumni collaborated on this production. AlanIt was a masterstroke identifying McKendrick for this role. I’ve since discovered he deploys a number of contemporary allusions in his work which was evident throughout the play and dramatic finale. Alan and I met for the first time at the University of Glasgow just before the summer with an agreement that although we were up against time we would make this project happen. I provided historical expertise and Alan brought to life my world of dead, white men who lived in Glasgow in luxury based on the proceeds of Caribbean slavery.

The locations almost picked themselves based on locations in It Wisnae Us and the tour; Merchants Steeple at the Briggait, Ramshorn Kirk, City Halls, Virginia Court and the Cunninghame Mansion (GOMA). To tell such a story we also needed a diversity of historical characters; an abolitionist, a pro-slavery voice (merchant or planter) and of course, the enslaved peoples themselves. EA, 2Some of the characters and locations were naturally connected- the City Halls and the abolition movement, Virginia Court and the merchants. Alan was ingeniously creative with other locations, transforming the graveyard of the Ramshorn Kirk into Bance Island, a slave trading fort off the coast of Sierra Leone, and the plantations of the Caribbean. Alan also perfectly recruited a cast of highly rated professional actors – Ncuti Gatwa, Ross Mann, Martin McBride, Lou Prendergast and Paksie Vernon – and it was a real privilege watching these guys in action. Professional dancers Ashanti Harris and Joy Maria Onotu worked their magic as well.

Now it started to get more difficult. In many ways, Alan faced the same issue as any historian starting to write a chapter or book. How do you introduce big concepts that set the scene and can be explored further in later stages? Alan managed this in a variety of innovative ways in the first scene at the Briggait. The play naturally complemented the activities at the Empire Café last week (thanks again to Louise Welsh and Jude Barber) and we made use of their outstanding set up. Almost at the outset of the performance, the title of the book It Wisnae Us – which always seems to go down well with a Glasgow audience – was introduced to explore the popular misconception that Scots had limited involvement with the Caribbean. Briggait sceneThe dialogue made it clear although there was minimal Scottish involvement with the ‘triangular trade’, there were long term trading connections with the plantations. A stanza from John Mayne’s poem Glasgow was read to remind us that goods from the West Indies and America that made a ‘penny or twa’ came to bonnie Clyde. Advertisements for indentured servants and for runaway slaves implicitly established the transition from white, indentured labour to enslaved Africans in the Caribbean. Having attended the conference for the ‘How Glasgow Flourished’ exhibition in the Kelvingrove Museum in May 2014, Alan was well aware of the issues. Songs and first-hand accounts relating to the Middle Passage described the triangular trade as well as the Scots involved in slave trading in Africa, particularly Richard Oswald of Auchincruive. Oswald owned Bance Island from whence 13,000 captured Africans were shipped to the New World between 1748 and 1784.Bunce_Island_north-west I especially liked Alan’s use of Oswald’s gushing obituary of 1784 (which I found in the Glasgow Herald) to illustrate the hypocrisy that such merchants had an esteemed place in the Georgian period which, in some cases, has continued into modern times yet their fortunes were based exclusively on exploitation and death. From the Briggait, we commenced our voyages through the slave Merchant City.

There were three separate routes around the locations allowed concurrent performances; Cotton Masters, Sugar Princes or Abolitionists. Naturally, as a researcher of the city’s West India Interest, I was a Sugar Prince and I shall describe the scenes in that order. David Hanock’s magisterial study, Citizens of the World, described Richard Oswald’s activities in Glasgow, London, the Caribbean and in Africa in some detail. This knowledge allowed us to transform the Ramshorn Kirk for three days into Bance Island by clever use of a flag and tartan. The wonderful costumes were designed and made by Melissa Zofia Devine. Richard Oswald had horrifically embraced his Scottish heritage on the slave fort by constructing a golf course for slaving captains and using his slaves as caddies who were dressed in tartan imported from Scotland. Paksie Vernon and Ncuti Gatwa did a remarkable job at this scene which was at once comedic, informative and ultimately emotional. The actors nodded to the authenticity of accents by putting on pronounced Scottish twang in places. McKendrick also toyed with the idea of historical accuracy and artistic licence in theatre. This production was never intended as a historical enactment and in fact, it would have been much the lesser had it been so. EA, 3In any case, the audience weren’t historically accurate; they were pleasantly interacting with enslaved caddies which wouldn’t have been the case on Bance Island! At the same time, he told us what we should have been seeing which allowed an exploration of conditions on a global entrepot; surrounded by mangroves and rum and tobacco from the Caribbean and America, slaves in tartan from Scotland. The scenes were also very powerful. Ncuti stood on an old tomb and referred to the rusty cages whilst alluding to the instruments of incarceration, torture and punishment designed for enslaved peoples. Paksie perfectly encapsulated the brutal absurdity of Bance Island with the memorable line ‘Disneyland with slave trading’ whilst Ncuti described how their job wasn’t that bad – ‘caddying, it’s the best’ – compared to the labour intensive agricultural work on sugar plantation. We were then transported to the Caribbean.

In the most poignant scene of all, the audience were slowly walked through the Ramshorn Graveyard to the sound of slave narratives describing various aspects of plantation life, emancipation and rebelliousness (including Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince and Harriet Ann Jacobs).EA, 1 At first, I interpreted this as a journey into the plantations of the New World but also interpreted the long walk as the Middle Passage. In any case, we eventually arrived and Ncuti warned us that whilst Glasgow should take some credit for abolition, the enslaved peoples also emancipated themselves. I was impressed many times by McKendrick’s capacity to quickly absorb and explore important issues in a new research area but particularly with this scene. He contrasted the assumption of subservience of enslaved peoples on plantations with the much wider narrative of slave rebellion and resistance. At that point, we were treated to a moving song by the community choir and I’m told that some people were in tears. The local African-Caribbean community were involved with Emancipation Acts from the start and all Graham and Anne’s hard work paid off.

The direct reference to Glasgow’s commitment to abolition laid the basis for the next location. Lou Prendergast has had a dramatic rise in her new career and this monologue allowed her to deliver powerful oratory.Lou, 1 Frederick Douglass and female abolitionists spoke at the City Halls during the Campaign for Universal Emancipation, 1834-1865 and Alan used this as context for Lou’s scene. As a female abolitionist, she pointed out the hypocrisy that whilst William Wilberforce wanted to emancipate the slaves, he accepted the subjugation of women and hoped to confine them to a supporting role in the abolition movement. However, the  movement provided women with their first civic role and McKendrick connected this with the later move for female suffrage. This scene allowed exploration of further hypocrisy that the refined, pious class of Glasgow tacitly accepted chattel slavery. Lou advised an education to overcome ignorance. Firstly, she pointed out that enslavement occurred due random accident of birth. There was nothing pre-ordained about chattel slavery- it was social construction entrenched in colonial law by the Barbados Slave Act of 1661 which ultimately facilitated economic exploitation of enslaved peoples. This provided the basis to explore the argument made by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations that Empire and slavery were unprofitable as well as Eric Williams’ thesis in Capitalism and Slavery that the Caribbean provided the primitive accumulation of capital that fuelled the rise of Great Britain to industrial powerhouse. In one of his contemporary allusions, McKendrick used the female abolitionist of the 1840s to look into the future towards a dystopian post-slavery future where there were ‘no slaves, but workers on wages’ with more workers than work.  Louise Welsh noted something similar today when she suggested any ‘discussion about our country’s connections with transatlantic slaving inevitably leads to discussions about class, capitalism and modern day exploitation’.

From the City Halls, we journeyed into one of Glasgow’s most bustling commercial streets in the colonial period: Virginia Street leading to the court of the same name. This was the scene I was anticipating the most; I’ve spent years of my life researching the city’s West India merchants and planters and now I was about to meet them (or at least the actors Ross Mann and Martin McBride). This was perfectly cast; both of these young gentlemen looked the part in a location that once housed the galleries where merchants sold sugar and tobacco.Merchants I thought this was Alan McKendrick’s best section but I appreciate I am biased given my own research interests. The two Sugar Princes were based on James MacQueen, the chief propagandist of the Glasgow West India Association, a key focus of my own research. In the 1820s, MacQueen made a series of pro-slavery justifications in the Glasgow Courier as well as in private and public correspondence. But how do you put forward this position in a theatrical production? The Sugar Princes were comedic yet convincing and streetwise; we had arrived at the ‘actually inarguably good bit’ of the show. As expected, they proceeded to play down the brutality of chattel slavery to the audience using a familiar argument of the West India propagandists: the enslaved had it better than the Scottish working class of the same period. But they weren’t there to tell us slavery wasn’t a ‘CRUEEEELLLLL!’ condition. Oh no. Instead they pointed out that ‘life was full of cruelties’ and contrasted the sun kissed plantations of the Caribbean with the coal mines in Scotland where many miners were thirled for life. They posed the question to the audience: where would you rather be? I’m told a young boy shouted out he would rather be in the Caribbean, so for the two MacQueen’s, it was job done! The Sugar Princes then pointed to an unavoidable and perhaps unpalatable fact about the role the colonial class and chattel slavery played in the economic development of the city. It wasn’t the Police nor the miners that allowed Glasgow to flourish. No, it was the merchants who kept the Clyde ‘flowing with commerce’. Further, they outlined a theme direct from the writings of James MacQueen. Slavery was a national sin and the concept of slaves as chattel property was established by British Government legislation over several centuries. They were therefore only property developers operating for the benefit of Glasgow within a nationally approved system. They subsequently pleaded:

Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

McKendrick expertly used a paragraph written by MacQueen in the Colonial Controversy of 1825 in which he compared the economic system of slavery to a building. The merchants used the built heritage of Virginia Court as a theatrical prop to point out they were happy with the system. If the Government decided to take away the first floor on which it rested (Caribbean slavery) they required compensation.Ashanti This was the crux of the Glasgow West India Association argument leading up to emancipation; slaves were legal property protected by British laws. McKendrick also made a comparison that was at once both historical and contemporary; were these suppliers really the bad guys? They were only providing a service to the public based on basic economics. And a good service it was too. The tobacco and sugar was imported because it was in great demand. Further, it meant the public didn’t have to deal with the brutalities of the supply chain. They were, according to them, doing the public a favour. Think of the modern large conglomerates that depend on sweatshop labour. These places only exist because we, the consumer, continually purchase the goods.

The dramatic and highly provocative finale at the Gallery of Modern Art (formerly the mansion of Tobacco Lord, William Cunninghame) had a carnival atmosphere with the community cast of singers and dancers although it posed two key questions. How long will Glasgow continue as the only Atlantic port that doesn’t have a permanent exhibition in a museum or memorial recognising the role of Caribbean slavery (in direct contrast to London, Liverpool and Bristol)? I noted this after research trips to all cities and after making this  point last year at an NUJ conference in October it has taken off, particularly with a discussion at the Empire Café. This was a new way of delivering the message.Panel discussionIn the discussion connected to Emancipation Acts on Glasgow Green, Professor Sir Tom Devine alluded to this in the discussion with myself and Dr Karen Salt as he called for a ‘Museum of Empire’ in Glasgow that addressed Caribbean slavery. Another question centred on reparations. Much of my thinking here was shaped by Professor Hilary Beckles’ landmark text ‘Britain’s Black Debt’, although I noted that Scotland remains largely absent from the text. Yet Scotland is beginning to face up to her slavery past in recent times. Will this be accelerated in the next month? If the nation becomes independent, will CARICOM name Scotland as a beneficiary of Caribbean slavery and subsequently to be pursued for reparations? The legal and political questions surrounding reparations will be answered by others, but historians clearly have an important role. In spite of disapproval and even outright animosity towards historical research on the Scottish involvement (not least in the publicity article associated with this project in which I was accused of ‘profiting from the slave trade’!), such research is not invidious retribution or anachronistic judgement to expose slave owners and their gains, nor is it a quest to exonerate the nation. Historians have a duty to explain and several issues are becoming clear: how was this wealth acquired, where did it go, what was the impact and how should we, as a nation, commemorate it today?

The aim of many historians is to explain ‘how things actually were’ which is based on the famous mantra of Leopold Van Ranke: wie es eigentlich gewesen. I am very confident that we managed to achieve this with this piece of work which was also situated in modern context. And when I say ‘we’ I mean Alan McKendrick. I provided historical expertise whilst he shaped the sometimes short essays into a very clever, provocative play that addressed key historical and contemporary  themes. This was effective in tackling a difficult subject. Public history – although it cannot be used for all research areas – should be promoted by historians to take the archives to the streets. At the same time, there was the perfect mesh with African-Caribbean Cultures to produce a very moving couple of hours. Sad it had to end so soon.

 

Photographer credits: official Emancipation Acts – Tommy Ga-Ken Wan; Lou Prendergast – Jean Cameron; Briggait scene- Juliette Carty.

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.

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).

Origins of the Glasgow-West India Trades

The city of Glasgow had a long imperial connection with the West Indies. The first voyages were thought to have departed in the 1630s with Barbados – the prototype English sugar colony – the main arrival point. In this period, the port of Ayr was used by merchants in Glasgow although by 1667, Port Glasgow was constructed in order to take advantage of the deep water in the upper Firth of Clyde which facilitated large scale maritime trade. Port Glasgow and Greenock became the city’s satellite ports although most of the Glasgow-West India commerce was undertaken in counting houses near Glasgow Cross. The area west of the cross evolved into the New Town after 1711 and is now known as the Merchant City. 'Old Sugar House, 138 Gallowgate, circa 1845' by William SimpsonAlthough tobacco commerce has become  almost synonymous with Glasgow’s imperial history, the sugar trade began before the Union of 1707 and was more important over a longer period. There are no surviving Sugar Houses today, but contemporary engravings recreate the industries in the centre of Glasgow that were dependant on colonial imports. Glasgow developed into a port of international prominence, at one stage trading more tobacco in one year  (1757) than all other British ports, including London, together. cropped-port-glasgow-j-w-appleton-picture-by-w-h-bartlett-published-in-findens-ports-and-harbours-18421.jpgThis later engraving shows a bustling Port Glasgow in the 1841. Note the dock-workers sitting on the unloaded Hogsheads (perhaps filled with sugar or tobacco), as well as others taking out boxes of stores (perhaps destined for the West Indies) onto the pier.