John Knox House and the legacies of slavery

Guest Blog by: R. J. Morris[1]

John Knox House 1843‘John Knox House’ stands in the lower part of Edinburgh’s High Street near to the old town-gate, the Netherbow. It is picturesque in the true meaning of the word. Tourists and citizens often stand across the street with their cameras. As a result of an unlikely alliance between the Free Church of Scotland and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, this sixteenth-century merchant’s house survived attempts to demolish it in the 1840s. Despite lack of evidence, it was widely believed that Knox, founder of Protestant Scotland, had spent his final years in the house. For many it was holy ground. None the less, the survival of the house was to be both threatened and assisted by a complex web of the legacies of slavery.

The Free Church of Scotland resulting from the Disruption of the Kirk in 1843 was no ordinary dissenting church. The ambition was to replace the Church of Scotland as the national church, independent of the state. Christ was the head of the church not the Pope nor the Sovereign. Such an ambition required huge amounts of money for churches, manses and schools. Fund raising involved a trip to North America where large sums were raised including a substantial amount from the slave states of the southern USA where the Presbyterian Church was strong.

At this point Frederick Douglass arrived on the scene. A skilled and forceful campaigner, he formed an alliance with a variety of radical and anti-slavery groups in Scotland and promptly challenged the Free Church with the slogan ‘send back the money’.[2] Meetings were held, doggerel verse was printed, and children shouted slogans in the street. Douglass knew how to hit the Scots; how could those who had experienced the Highland clearances support slavery; did they know teaching black people to read the Bible was a crime in the slave states?

The Free Church leadership was clearly uncomfortable. Motions in the General Assembly were remitted to committee and deferred for future consideration. The Free Church was supremely confident of its own virtue but insecure regarding its future and hence often regarded critics of the Free Church as dangerous enemies of the true faith. Many concluded that the anti-slavery movement was the work of Satan.

It was time to hit back. Henry Clarke Wright and George Thompson, the British anti-slavery campaigners, had given lectures in Rose Street Chapel, belonging to the rival Secession Church. The Free Church defenders claimed that the Rose Street Missionary Society had accepted £500 from the owners of the Goshen Estate in Jamaica, owners who had just ‘pocketed their share of the TWENTY MILLIONS – ‘the price of blood’– with which Great Britain purchased the freedom of the whole slaves of the West Indies.[3]  They received over £7,000 in compensation for 428 enslaved people. Andrew Fyfe, Secretary of the Rose Street Missionary Society replied, no money went to Rose Street, they just sent the preacher. Still, Rose Street had given its pulpit to those who attacked the Free Church. This was not forgotten.

The 1820 Return of the enslaved people living on Alexander Aikman's Birnam Wood Estate in Jamaica.The Independent Church in Argyle Square was another target. The initial claim was that the Rev. John Aikman had built the church with money inherited from his slave owning father. In fact, it turned out that father was ‘a respectable tradesman’ from Bo’ness just west of Edinburgh on the Forth. It was brother Alexander, King’s printer in Jamaica who owned enslaved people. He indeed got £6,940 for 354 enslaved people under the 1833 emancipation act. Some of these people were employed in his printing works. Brother William was a bookseller who had two enslaved people, Harry and Neddy, employed as domestic servants. John, who had one enslaved person employed as a stable boy, inherited William’s wealth. On William’s death, these three were all granted their freedom and John returned to Edinburgh.[4] The Free Church was satisfied that even if John’s direct involvement with slaveholding had been small, he had ‘made his money by trading with slaveholders’ and thus money had gone ‘from the foul hands of the slaver-dealer’ to finance the building of Argyle Square Chapel. Insult was added when Edinburgh Corporation decided to give the freedom of the city to George Thompson, seasoned radical agitator, anti-slavery campaigner and, for the Free Church, worst of all, a Sabbath breaker.

Frederick Douglass and James Buffum looked on.[5] It was a violent and bitter contest for public virtue fought with all the weapons of civil society, the public meeting, the celebrity visitors, reports and editorials in the newspapers, pamphlets and letters to the newspapers.[6]  Scotland had a sustained and complex relationship with the Atlantic slave economies, often involving the trading activities of people like William Aikman as much as direct ownership. It was inevitable that political campaigns around slavery issues would be tense as there were few groups, political, religious or social who did not have some experience or history of gain. The Disruption meant that a key and dynamic group in Scotland failed to participate with any clarity but saw the primary issues as the need to defend their church and faith. The moral and religious claims of the Free Church were not negotiable.

Strangely and significantly no-one mentioned the major inputs of compensation to the Free Church leadership, although this must have been known at least to the parliamentarians involved. The Marquis of Breadalbane shared £6,630 for the 379 enslaved people of the Hope Estate in Jamaica; Francis Brown Douglas, advocate, received almost £3,700 for one estate in St Vincent and a share of the compensation for a second.

John Knox House modernThe legacies of slavery fed a growing intra-protestant sectarian bitterness. The alliance to save John Knox House was threatened and only stuck back together by the skilled diplomacy of Daniel Wilson, the young secretary of the Antiquaries.

Scotland’s links with slavery and the slave economies are increasingly acknowledged.[7] Jamaica Street is quietly hidden in the New Town of Edinburgh. The ‘stooshie’[8] around John Knox House was a reminder of how diverse and diffuse were the links with slavery and how threatening such links could be to social cohesion in situations already divided by sectarianism, party politics and social class. Memories of slavery were not just a threat to Scotland’s sense of virtue but a barrier to social co-operation. Both dimensions account for the ‘silences’ that obscure this history.[9]

[1] We are very grateful to R. J. Morris for this blog. He is Emeritus Professor of Economic and Social History, University of Edinburgh. He was also a member of the Advisory Panel of phase 1 of the LBS project.

[2] Iain Whyte,  Send Back the Money! The Free Church of Scotland and American Slavery (Edinburgh 2012).

[3] The Witness, 9 May 1846.

[4]  Letter from M. and Jas. Aikman, The Witness, 9 May 1846.

[5]  The Witness, 10 June 1846.

[6]  It was claimed that the pamphlet, The Free Church and her Accusers on the matter of American Slavery: being a letter to Mr. George Thompson regarding his recent appearances in this City, signed a Free Churchman (Edinburgh, 1846), [NLS 3.2744(5)] sold over 6,000 copies in the first weeks of June 1846. The Witness, 12 May 1846.

[7] James Robertson, Joseph Knight (London, 2004) is a novel but gives an idea of Scotland’s complex relationship with slavery. Paxton House in the Borders, almost totally financed by the slave economy, has developed thoughtful links with the High Commissioner for Grenada, Berwickshire News, 8 December 2014.

[8] There is no decent English equivalent of this Scots word but you can work it out from the context.

[9] John Knox House has re-invented itself as the ‘Story Telling Centre’, a project active in the re-making of Scottish culture as an open and creative environment which the historical John Knox might have regarded with astonishment.