Teach out: Edinburgh’s role in the slave trade

Last week, Edinburgh University’s History Society and African Caribbean Society hosted a Teach Out, called ‘How Slavery Changed a City: Edinburgh’s Slave History’. Speakers Professor Sir Geoff Palmer OBE, Professor Diana Paton and Lisa Williams, led a conversation as relevant today as it was 200 years ago.

Professor Sir Geoff Palmer, Scotland’s first black professor, opened his speech by reminiscing over his worst personal experiences of racism. In 1964, when at an interview for UCL for a higher degree, a well-known politician on the panel told him to “go home and grow bananas”. His response was that “it was difficult to grow bananas in Haringey”, was received with a laugh by the audience. Despite its candid tone, it highlighted how times and awareness have changed: “If it were 1964, I wouldn’t be here [today]”.

To understand how the slave trade was able to take place in Scotland, it was suggested that we must first look to the 25 articles of the Union, formulated in 1707. Article 4 states, ‘That all the Subjects of the United Kingdom of Great-Britain shall, from and after the Union, have full Freedom and Intercourse of Trade and Navigation, to and from any Port or Place within the said United Kingdom, and the Dominions and Plantations thereunto belonging’. This gave formal access to Scotland to take part in the slave trade, with slaves seen as commodities to profit from, rather than people.

In a time where the colour of someone’s skin proved divisive, many white people thought themselves as a different, and more superior, species to black people. Taxonomic descriptions in Linnaean Classification required that, to be members of the same species, reproduction had to produce viable offspring who could further reproduce. As the pioneers of the slave trade themselves proved that black and white people were indeed the same species, by raping those whom they saw as commodities to produce ‘illegitimate’ children,  a different classification system was sought: Race was born, and invalid reasoning brought redundant conclusions.

If you stopped someone at the David Hume statue, 24 Fort Street, 13 Gilmore Place or India Street and asked them about the role each took in enabling the slave trade, they would likely be unaware of these facts. Hume wrote that: “I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites”. Each residence mentioned were owned by members of the Scottish Aristocracy, who held slaves.

Similarly, Dollar Academy and the Gallery of Modern Art were founded on money from plantations in the Caribbean, which Scotland owned 30% of between 1707-1800, home to some 300,000 slaves. Professor Diana Paton similarly spoke of the ubiquitous nature to the everydayness of slavery.  Normal people too had slaves, not just those like John Gladstone. She further alluded to the commodification of human beings. Bella was from Nigeria and in 1795, was likely in her early 30s, working in sugar production in North America. However, on the inventory of David and Margaretta Robertson, Bella was known as ‘Mocha Bella’, reduced to the same status as property or the contents of a building.

John Gladstone was a Sottish merchant and slave owner, known for receiving the largest of all compensation payments after slavery was abolished in 1833. Lisa Williams spoke of another landmark case that took 100 years before, after which many considered slavery to be illegal. The Dolben Act, which decreased the number of people that slave ships could transport in Britain, was led by Sir William Dolben and the Abolition Society after the Zong massacre in 1781. It was here that around 130 slaves were killed on the slave ship Zong by its crew to save on supplies and drinking water. The crew then made an insurance claim to cover the slaves that they had been responsible for killing.

To encourage empathy, and a look into multiple perspectives, Williams said that African colonisation and culture must be taught before slavery is introduced. Additionally, greater credit must be given those who influenced white academics. John Edmonstone, a black enslaved man who was later granted freedom and became a taxidermist, moved to Edinburgh to teach students at the University. One of his students was Charles Darwin, who used the taxidermy taught to him to help during the voyage of the HMS Beagle, shaping his Theory of Evolution by natural selection.

The impact that the slave trade and empire had is a fundamental and inescapable part of British history. In the Q&A session at the end of the Teach Out, Professor Sir Palmer spoke of the Joseph Knight case, which established in Scots law that slavery would be abolished in 1774. The case, which saw Knight attempt to run away from John Wedderburn of Ballendean, brought with it a court session of 12 senior generals. Such a case, while monumental, was described as perpetuating “self-serving myths”.

Irony and dishonesty lay in that an entirely white court was deciding upon the release of a black person from slavery, all while 800,000 people still had no right to life in Jamaica at the hands of the Scottish. When the abolishment happened, many aristocrats were given compensation for their ‘property’, an oxymoron to the act which apparently saw those who had been slaves as having a right to life.

Slavery is not a popular topic to discuss. Many do not want to be reminded of it being fundamental to the success of the Empire, and the horrors that the transatlantic slave trade reaped. All speakers agreed that with political events, like the Windrush scandal coming to the forefront as one of the worst immigration scandals, the topic is far from over in conversation.

The Teach Out looked at whether the University and city should place a figure on reparative costs for its involvement in profiting from the slave trade, like Glasgow University has done in a ground-breaking report. However, it was concluded that looking at finances alone would be diverting from the wider context, and we must look to what they must really respond to; an admission of an involvement.

Image: Enric via commons.wikimedia.org

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