01 October 2020

Professor Sir Geoff Palmer: Scotland's Caribbean slavery connections

Scotland's Caribbean slavery connections

Professor Sir Geoff Palmer receiving his honorary degree at Abertay


Professor Sir Geoff Palmer became Scotland's first Black professor in 1989. He was knighted in 2014, and received an Honorary degree from Abertay in 2009. 

He has written this article for us to mark Black History Month, which begins today. 

Scotland’s connections with the Colonial New World started in Darien, Panama, in the 1690s.  This failed and Scotland’s connections with slavery in the Caribbean became significant after the Union of 1707.

Many well-known Scottish families such as:  Campbell, Wedderburn, Baillie, Grant, Stirling of Keir, Houston, Oswald, Gilbert, Glassford, Gladstone, Taylor, Buchanan, Ewing, McDowall and Wemyss and many other families made large fortunes from their involvement as slave owners and Managers in the enslavement of black people in British slave colonies, especially in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

British slave owners owned about 800,000 slaves in British slave colonies. For example, Jamaica, where I was born, contained about 300,000 slaves.  Jamaica was the main producer of sugar and coffee.  However, a significant amount of slave-produced cotton and tobacco came from North American slave plantations to Scotland. Black slaves were chattel slaves. A chattel slave ‘had no right to life’ and was legally owned as property. Therefore, when the slaves were emancipated in 1833/34 slave owners were given £20 million compensation (billions of pounds today) because they were entitled by Law to be compensated for losing ownership of their slaves.  British slavery was finally abolished in 1838.  During the enslavement of black people as chattel slaves by Britain, Scotland changed from a poor country to a rich country. About 30% of the slave plantations in the Caribbean were owned by Scots and Lady Nugent (wife of the governor) observed in Jamaica in 1801 that, “Almost all the agents, attornies [sic], merchants and shopkeepers, are of that country [Scotland] and really deserve to thrive in this, they are so industrious”.

Cities such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee made large fortunes from this slavery. The buying and selling of slave-produced products such as sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco transformed the wealth of these cities.  For example, the Necropolis cemetery in Glasgow was built by a slave owner and Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art, was a Tobacco merchant-slave owner’s house.  Glasgow’s Merchant City had significant links with this slavery.  Many addresses in Edinburgh’s New Town are on the slave money compensation list.  This means that families in these houses received financial compensation for losing ownership of black slaves in the Caribbean.  Dundee had significant links with slavery in North America and in the Caribbean. The city produced significant quantities of coarse linen called Osnaburg which was sold to slave owners to clothe their slaves.  The city made millions of pounds from this business.  Slavery money, built schools, railways and funded different kinds of commercial activities in Scotland.

This slavery produced a black Scottish Diaspora in the Caribbean. About 60% of the surnames in the telephone directory of Jamaica are Scottish surnames and a plaid design is part of the National Dress of Jamaica. There are more Campbells in Jamaica per acre than there are in Scotland. In my family there are Scottish surnames such as La(r)mond, Wood, Walker, Elliot, Gordon and Mowatt. Gladstone was the Christian name of my cousin whose surname was Wood. In the famous Bob Marley and the Wailers’ reggae band, Tosh is short for McIntosh. Other Jamaicans with Scottish names are: Naomi Campbell (model), Shelley-Ann Fraser-Price (athlete) and Sol Campbell (footballer).

The horrific death of George Floyd in the United States has brought to the attention of the world the racism that is linked to the past enslavement of black people.  It became clear to many institutions that their equality, diversity and inclusion activities were inadequate and many are trying to improve staff diversity and representation.  A diverse society requires diverse management to be efficient. The mis-treatment of many people of the Windrush generation is linked to historical ignorance of British colonial activity in the Caribbean during slavery.  Although we cannot change the past, we can change the consequences of the past, such as racism, for the better.  One way of correcting this historical ignorance and changing attitudes for the better is to ensure that this history is taught in schools as part of the Curriculum that is examined. Misconceptions such as, Scotland abolished slavery in 1778 must be corrected because, according to Henry Dundas (Lord Advocate (1776), the enslavement of black people in slave colonies was legal but slavery in Britain (Scotland) did not exist. This Edinburgh Court of Session case is known as the Joseph Knight case. That Scotland abolished slavery is an academic myth because the black man Joseph Knight was not a slave and slavery did not exist in Scotland. However, this myth has produced a ‘false national pride’ that believes that this myth of ‘abolition goodness’ balanced involvement in a slavery that benefited Scotland. Such academic myths must be corrected because David Hume’s statement that black people were inferior to white people, was not only used to justify slavery, it is still believed by racists today. The racism that is associated with our slavery must be given proper attention.

Glasgow University’s action in researching its links with slavery, before the recent attention to the history of our slavery, shows that institutions can lead in correcting social injustice. Glasgow University’s research results showed that the University benefitted from slavery and it has set up educational reparative justice links with the University of the West Indies and with the local community in terms of scholarships for black students.  Many Councils are examining their equality policies with an aim of improving equality, diversity, inclusion and a recognition of this history. For example, Edinburgh Council has produced a new temporary plaque which contains a new narrative of the political and pro-slavery activities of Henry Dundas MP (1st Lord Melville). Surprisingly, well know historical figures such as James Boswell were also pro-slavery. The title of his 1791 poem against Wilberforce, who was trying to abolish the slave trade, was: No abolition of Slavery.   

It has never been acknowledged on any of the previous plaques on Dundas’ statue that he ‘gradually abolished’ the slave trade in order to provide time for the slave owners to have a continuous supply of slaves for as long as possible. Indeed, Robert Burns perceptively called him, “slee Dundas”. Dundas’ deception was accepted by Parliament on the belief that when economic needs were met the trade would be abolished. This delay lasted from 1792 to 1807. Dundas was impeached for taking the Navy’s money in 1806. Although his peers in the House of Lords freed him, his impeachment ended his political career in 1806. The slave trade was abolished in 1807. During Dundas’  ‘delayed abolition of the slave trade’ about 630,000 African people were transported into chattel slavery. Dundas ignored petitions received from many members of the public that the slave trade should be abolished.  

Although many people have stated that statues such as that of Henry Dundas’ should be removed, my view is that if you remove the evidence, you remove the deed. Therefore, slavery-related objects such as statues and buildings (see National Trust report, 2020) should carry plaques which tell the truth of links with slavery. In this regard, the next statue that is removed, should be racism. Teaching this history properly in schools and giving it proper attention in our higher institutions of education should help to reduce slavery-related racism.

As an Honorary Graduate of Abertay University I have felt it is my duty to discuss the truth of this history with institutions and individuals.  The attention given so far to this history has been very positive and will change our attitudes to racism for the better. We are one Scotland…one Humanity, nothing less.

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