• Fri. Feb 23rd, 2024

When it comes to slavery, 40 George Square should worry us more than DHT

ByRob Lownie

Oct 27, 2020

In the weeks since taking action to rename David Hume Tower, the University of Edinburgh has become an international laughing stock. News articles and opinion pieces from around the world have weighed in on the decision to rebrand the building as 40 George Square, almost unanimously to decry the call as ludicrous and poorly thought out. Information on who this George is, however, is scant. 

Several news sources, including The Telegraph, have claimed that, as with Edinburgh’s George Street and George Square in Glasgow, it refers to King George III. For the uninitiated, the monarch reigned from 1760 until 1820 and fiercely opposed the abolition of slavery, in contrast with Hume. In less judicious corners of the internet, and even in Dutch tabloid De Telegraaf, it was asserted that the tower was being renamed after George Floyd, whose death at the hands of police in May sparked global protests against racial injustice. Really, it is a different George the square commemorates: George Brown. He was the older brother of James Brown, who designed the square, and a man with far more troubling links to the slave trade than David Hume.

Laid out by James Brown in 1766, George Square began life as a popular residential area for some of Edinburgh’s more well-heeled inhabitants, including the writer Sir Walter Scott and the politician Henry Dundas. It had been built on what, at the time, was the undeveloped south side of the city, not long after the architect had worked on the nearby Brown Square. Brown Square was later demolished to make way for George IV Bridge and Chambers Street, the latter of which is now host to a number of university buildings. Having named one location after himself, James Brown chose to christen George Square after his brother.

George Brown was born in 1722 to a prosperous and upwardly mobile family with ties to South Lanarkshire and the Scottish Borders. He was the first son of William Brown of Lindsaylands and Elliston, who was a Commissioner of Supply, responsible for collecting taxes. George served in the British Army between 1744 and approximately 1753, fighting in the War of the Austrian Succession and sustaining injury at the Battle of Lauffeld in 1747. 

After the premature death of his first wife, Helen Scott, in 1765, Brown remarried four years later to Dorothea Dundas. She was the cousin of Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville, whose statue in St. Andrew Square was graffitied in June by Black Lives Matter protestors as a result of his perceived role in delaying the abolition of slavery. According to Eileen Stewart’s Honest George, the only biography written of Brown, he and Henry Dundas long moved in the same social circles, and the Brown family benefitted from Dundas’s patronage.

Though Stewart writes about George Brown’s links to the controversial Dundas, she neglects to cover an altogether more worrying family connection. George and Dorothea’s daughter Margaret, born in 1775, married David Wedderburn in 1800. David’s father, John Wedderburn, was the single largest landowner in Jamaica at one point in the eighteenth century, possessing 17,000 acres of land, or ten per cent of the island’s landmass. Unsurprisingly, John Wedderburn was an enthusiastic participant in the transatlantic slave trade, becoming rich off his Caribbean sugar plantations and gaining notoriety for bringing a slave, Joseph Knight, back to Scotland with him in 1769.  

These family interests were formalised in the West Indian merchant company Wedderburn, Webster & Co. David Wedderburn, George Brown’s son-in-law, was a partner in this company between 1796 and 1815, and is reported to have taken one sixth of the organisation’s profits. University College London’s Legacies of British Slave-ownership website describes Wedderburn as ‘partner in Wedderburn, Webster and slave-owner’. The site goes on to list three Jamaican plantations in which he had direct interests over the course of more than thirty years: the Fontabelle, Blackheath and Blue Castle Estates. At the time of abolition in 1832, Blackheath held 386 slaves and Blue Castle 222. In 1815, the Fontabelle Estate was recorded to comprise 357 slaves. At certain points in this timeline, it is entirely possible that David Wedderburn owned as many as 1000 enslaved individuals. He died in 1858, the family business ruined by abolition. 

James Brown was survived by three daughters but none of them married, so his fortune passed to George, and then on to the latter’s male heirs. Eileen Stewart’s biography of George Brown notes that ‘the feus of George Square were eventually given by the Brown family to the University of Edinburgh’, with a feu being an annual sum paid in Scotland for the use of a piece of land. This enabled the university’s takeover of the majority of George Square.

And so it is that one of the university’s key buildings no longer bears the name of a thinker who labelled slavery as ‘more cruel and oppressive than any civil subjection whatsoever’. Instead, it is named after a man who married his eldest daughter to the foremost slave owner in Georgian Scotland. This irony is no doubt lost on our university authorities.

The university’s failure to consider the issue properly is worthy of criticism. How could they have known that Hume’s ‘notorious footnote’ to the essay Of National Characters was most likely added at the request of his London publishers, Andrew Millar and William Strahan, in 1753? How could they have known that it was expanded in a posthumous edition by Hume’s editor, William Preston? How could they have known that, using this logic, other University of Edinburgh buildings require a rebrand, given that the Dugald Stewart Building is named after a close friend of slave owner Thomas Jefferson and Appleton Tower honours a scientist who zealously promoted the use of nuclear weapons? That’s not to mention Edinburgh’s Koestler Parapsychology Unit, which takes its name from Arthur Koestler, the writer and alleged serial rapist.

They didn’t know, and they certainly weren’t bothered to check. Easier to go ahead with the name change than to study the facts or consult Edinburgh’s numerous Hume experts, who justifiably took the decision as an affront to, even an invalidation of, their work. Easier, certainly, to make a vapid, self-congratulatory gesture than to pursue necessary reform to the university’s system of reporting racial discrimination, or to counselling services for ethnic minority students. David Hume is a pretty big beast for student activists to fell. George Brown is a comparatively obscure figure in Scottish history, whose life exists today in parenthesis, and who is rarely linked to the square which bears his name. Now, though, we may need to rethink. If it’s down with David Hume Tower, what do we do about 40 George Square?

Editor’s note: This article has been amended on 28th October 2020, removing a paragraph from the print edition and further mention of the student who started the petition, as it doesn’t reflect the viewpoint of the paper. We apologise to the person who was accused in this paragraph and we plan to take more precautions in our editing process to avoid this in the future.

Image: A John Kay etching from 1787, depicting (l-r) Lord Rockville, Adam Smith and George Brown. Reused with permission of National Portrait Gallery, London.

By Rob Lownie