Making sense of silenced archives: Hume, Scotland and the ‘debate’ about the humanity of Black people

Blog post by Chisomo Kalinga, The University of Edinburgh, UK

Last September, the University of Edinburgh found itself at the centre of international scrutiny after temporarily renaming the David Hume Tower (now referred to by its street designation 40 George Square). The decision to rename the building, and hold a review on the way forward, prompted much commentary – a great deal of which encouraged a reckoning on what David Hume means to the University, its staff and students. These ideas include the full extent of Hume’s views on humanity, to establish whether he maintained any possible links (ideological or participatory) in the slave trade, and the role of Scotland in the African slave trade.

Hume’s belief that Black people were a sub-human species of lower intellectual and biological rank to Europeans have rightfully taken stage in reflecting whether his values deserve commemoration on a campus. “I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. […] No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences.” The full link to the footnote can be found here.

Deliberations are split on whether statues and buildings are being unfairly ‘targeted’ or whether the totality of ideas held by individuals whose names are commemorated by these structures stand in opposition to a modern university’s values. Depending on who you ask, the debate over the tower fluctuates between moral and procedural. On the latter, it must be noted the University has in the past renamed buildings at the behest of calls for review across specific points in history. The Hastings ‘Kamuzu’ Banda building on Hill Place was quietly renamed in 1995, with no clarity on whether there was a formal review process at the time. On the moral end, it is about either the legacy or demythologization of David Hume.

Some opposing the name change argue against applying present moral standards to judge what was not recognised in the past. Furthermore, they point to the archives to argue that prior to the 1760s there is scant evidence that Scots were not anything more than complicit to the slave trade given the vast wealth it brought.

I argue against this and insist that the African experience and the engaged intellectual abolition movement deserves prominence in this contemporary debate about Hume.

For to defend ‘passive complicity’ is to undermine both the Africans who rose in opposition against their oppression for hundreds of years and the explicit goals of white supremacy. For access to mass acquisition of resources on inhabited land requires violent dispossession of profitable lands and forced relocation of populations living on them. The ‘moral justification’ of denying the humanity of the enslaved African people has historically been defended through the strategic and deliberate creation of ‘myths’ – specifically Afrophobia – to validate these atrocities and to defend settler colonialism and exploitation. Any intellectual inquiry of the renaming of the tower must take the genuine concern into account: What was David Hume’s role in the strategic myth-making about African people in the Scottish imagination?

If we are starting with the archives as evidence of Scottish complicity in the slave trade, why ignore African voices on this matter? Does the Scottish archive adequately represent the African experience within the slave trade? How do we interpret their silence in the archives?

Decolonisation, the process Franz Fanon described as when “the ‘thing’ colonised becomes a human through the very process of liberation”, offers a radical praxis through which we can interrogate the role of the archive in affirming or disregarding the human experience. If we establish that the 18th century Scottish archive was not invested in preserving ‘both sides’ of the debate’, then the next route is to establish knowledge outside of a colonial framework where the ideology, resistance and liberation of Africans is centred. That knowledge is under the custodianship of African communities, who have relied on intricate and deeply entrenched oral traditions and practices which are still used to communicate culture, history, science and methods.

To reinforce a point raised by Professor Tommy Curry, the fact that Africans were aware of their humanity to attempt mutiny in slave ships (Meermin & Amistad) and to overthrow colonial governance (the Haitian revolution) amidst the day-to-day attempts to evade slave traders is enough to refute the insistence that the debates must centre around what Scots understood about the slave trade in the 18th century.

To make sense of these gaps in my own research, I have broadly excavated the archival records in Scotland if only to establish that a thorough documentation of the African-led resistance to Scottish participation in the slave trade and colonialism cannot be located in the archives.

Dr David Livingstone (1813–1873), whose writing documenting the slave trade across the African Great Lakes galvanized the Scottish public to take control of the region to be named the Nyasaland Protectorate, would prove to be a redemptive figure in Scotland’s reconsideration of its role in the slave trade. However, in 1891, 153 years after Hume wrote his footnote, Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston (1858–1927), the first British colonial administrator of Nyasaland, would re-inforce similar myths about the ‘British Central African’: “to these [negroes] almost without arts and sciences and the refined pleasures of the senses, the only acute enjoyment offered them by nature is sexual intercourse”. Even at that time, the documented resistance is represented by Scottish missionaries who aimed to maintain Nyasaland under their sphere of control.

Filling in the gaps that the archives cannot answer involves more complex and radical modalities of investigation.

I rely on locally-recognised historians or documenters within communities, who preserve their histories, including the slave trade, through methodically structured oral traditions. The legacy of both the Arab and Portuguese slave trade and British colonialism in Nyasaland remains a raw memory, even though there are no precise indigenous terms to describe these phenomena.

I have visited and listened to oral histories about the importance of ‘ancestor caves’ where families would conduct ceremonies and celebrations out of view to evade the slave catchers. These are the stories still being told about how children were hidden and raised indoors often only taken outside at night, keeping silent to escape the eyes and ears of the catchers. Embedded in these historical narratives are didactic tales, organised for ease of remembrance for the survival of future generations.
Despite what was believed by Hume and his contemporaries, the arts and sciences have always been intrinsic in African cultural traditions. Decolonising is a framework contingent upon recognising knowledge productions within systems that often will never make their way into archival records. It centres the recognition and legitimization of the ways in which African people have collected and shared their histories.

The knowledge we learn from these systems allows us to reckon with both the silence of archives and the fallacies of myth-making about African people.

At very least, these debates should lead to investigations to understand the full extent of Hume’s participation in the dehumanization of enslaved Africans, and the role he played to support the justification for their enslavement.

Image credit: Muti Phoya. Read further: ‘The Legend of John Chilembwe‘.