In the last two weeks the painstaking work activists and historians have done over decades to document Scotland’s historic connections with Atlantic slavery has exploded into public view. No longer can someone like Dundas be put literally on a pedestal, without recognition of his role in prolonging a great evil.
There is a risk, though, that these discussions focus excessively on individuals. More important is to understand that Scottish life at every level had connections to slavery, as was also true across the rest of Britain. These links are clearest in the imports and processing of sugar, cotton, and tobacco, all grown by slaves in the Americas. But slavery was also important to other, less obvious, areas of the economy. Scotland exported the bulk of its linen cloth to the Caribbean and the Southern United States, where it was worn by enslaved people. Many doctors trained in Scotland’s universities worked as surgeons on slave ships, or on plantations. Their presence ensured the continuity of slavery. Young Scots went in large numbers to the Caribbean to work as overseers of enslaved labour. Many others who never set foot in the region became owners of human beings through inheritance. All this contributed to Scotland’s remarkable economic transformation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The benefits to Scots were not spread evenly across the country, but they were real.
Some dismiss this history as something that happened a long time ago. But at the same time as it helped transform Scotland, slavery ensured the Caribbean was and remained poor. It built Caribbean economies around monocrop production for export, syphoning wealth out of the region. The British government finally legislated to end slavery in 1833, pushed by uprisings of enslaved people in the colonies and mass public campaigns at home. The end of slavery did not mean the end of the plantation economy, or of exploitation. Instead, the British government combined neglect of and indifference to areas with little apparent scope for profit-making with support for the sugar industry in newer colonies like British Guiana and Trinidad. Government-backed loans enabled plantation owners like John Gladstone (born in Leith, father of future Prime Minister William) to expand sugar production. Gladstone and his fellow planters replaced enslaved people with hundreds of thousands of unfree indentured workers. Most were from India, which was undergoing disruption from the expanding British presence there. Others were Africans, taken from foreign ships through the Royal Navy’s anti-slave trade activity. These so-called ‘liberated Africans’ did not become free but rather were forced to work, mainly as indentured labourers. Some of the biggest sugar firms in the post-slavery Caribbean had their origins in Scottish investments in slavery.
Across the Caribbean, British policy until the end of Empire combined divestment with support for the plantation sector. There was no attempt to foster a more diversified economy that could have provided greater opportunities for economic development. This plantation orientation worked hand-in-hand with intense racial discrimination to keep descendants of enslaved and indentured people poor. Windrush-generation migration to Britain after World War Two was a product of this sustained underdevelopment and racism. With few opportunities in their home colonies, and Britain desperate for workers, Caribbean people moved across the Empire to a country where they faced racism in housing, policing, employment, education, and social life.
In 2013, CARICOM, the supra-national community of Caribbean states, established a Reparations Commission which put forward a plan for reparatory justice. CARICOM’s demands include a full formal apology for slavery and the genocide of indigenous people, along with measures such as cancellation of debt, funds for cultural institutions, illiteracy eradication, and alleviation of chronic health problems such as diabetes and hypertension. British government representatives have responded only to tell the region to ‘move forward’. The Scottish government could do better. Nicola Sturgeon recently stated that the Scottish government will seek to lead a national discussion about the implications of Scotland’s involvement in slavery. To be truly effective, this national discussion should address not just how Scotland’s past is represented in our streetscapes and museums, but also the long-term implications of that past, for the Caribbean and for race equality in Scotland. This is not a history that ended in 1807 or 1838, but one that has direct consequences in the present, economic as well as symbolic.