Scotland and Slavery Workshop

By Kristy Warren and Keith McClelland

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The Legacies of British Slave-ownership team recently launched a series of workshops which are being held this autumn across the UK. The aim of the workshops is to provide an update of the work being conducted on the second phase of the project while also collaborating with colleagues working on topics concerning slave-ownership, slavery, and the slavery business.  You can find out more about the series on our events page.

The first workshop was held this past Saturday (12 September 2015) at The Lighthouse in Glasgow in collaboration with Simon Newman, Stephen Mullen and Nelson Mundell who are the team of researchers on the University of Glasgow based project Runaway Slaves in Britain. The event was very well attended with up to 60 people there in the course of the day. The atmosphere was very friendly, lively and accessible.

The day began with a session run by LBS team members Catherine Hall and Keith McClelland. Catherine set the perimeters for the day noting that ‘re-establishing the place of slavery in Scottish history’ was one of the main aims of those who were giving presentations throughout the day.  She then gave a snapshot of her work investigating the role played by writings of slave-owners and their descendants in justifying the enslavement of Africans due to their ‘barbarity’. She chose William Young as an example of the many soldiers, medical men and indentured servants who left Scotland for the Caribbean to make their fortunes.  She outlined how the wealth he gained, in part through his marriage to a widow in Antigua, was used to gain a place in the English gentry and later, how the family wrote against the rights of the indigenous people of St. Vincent and in defence of slavery in the Caribbean. She also noted how the Young family does not appear in the compensation records as they had lost their fortune by that time, but that the work currently being done allows us to learn how three generations of the family profited from slavery.

Meanwhile Keith gave a sneak peek of the work being conducted on the second phase of the project. He outlined the wider work currently being conducted by the LBS team on estate ownership between 1763 and 1833. He showed the audience how the information is being organised in the database according to estate. This allows the user to see who owned the estates, those who managed them, and those who enslaved there throughout the period. He then gave examples specific to Scotland noting that Scots were disproportionally represented among absentee slave-owners; while Scotland’s population was about 10% of Britain as a whole, 15% of absentee owners were Scottish.

Tom Devine, of the University of Edinburgh, spoke about research contained in a collection he has just edited,  Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past: the Caribbean Connection,  which will be published in October.  He emphasised that Scotland had both ‘amnesia and denial’ with relation to its involvement in slavery. Exploring the country’s links to slavery, especially those with the Caribbean, where a great number off Scots benefited from the mass enslavement of Africans, is a vital task for historians. He also indicated the key role of the slavery business in relation to the extraordinary transformation of the Scottish economy between roughly 1760 and 1830.

The members of the Runaway Slaves in Britain Project team then gave an introduction to the research that they’ve conducted during the initial eight months of the project.  Newspaper advertisements concerning runaway enslaved people are being studied to learn more about the individuals involved. As their project develops it is bound to deepen our knowledge of the presence of those of African and Caribbean descent in eighteenth century Scotland and enhance our understanding of issues about slavery and freedom and racialised identities.

Two teachers gave presentation about teaching slavery in Scottish schools. Claire Wood, Principle Teacher of History, Modern Studies and RME at Jordon Hill School, focused on how primary evidence concerning slavery and the slave trade is used to teach research skills. She explained the assessment framework that teachers in in Scotland need to adhere to and how the sources are used for students at different assessment levels. For instance, she referred to the poem Send Back the Money (1846) and showed how the original was shortened and simplified to make it accessible to secondary school students. She ended with an appeal to academics to visit students in the classroom as such engagement is invaluable for their appreciation of what is being taught.

Katie Hunt, who teaches History at St Thomas of Aquin’s High School, Edinburgh, explained that teachers need to be confident in their knowledge of historical processes and as a result, the teaching of African history was easy to side step due to a lack of confidence.   She also noted the need for teachers to have access to the research conducted by those in universities. She explained that teachers need to be historical researchers themselves, and in order to do this, need access to high quality resources.

The last speaker of the day was Michael Hopcroft, a PhD candidate at Glasgow Caledonian University, who is investigating Highland Scots who were slave-owners in the Caribbean. His talk focused British Guiana (present day Guyana) as Highland Scots in particular, and Scots more generally, played a notable role in slave-ownership in that colony and its sugar plantation. Showing us the digital maps that he has developed of plantations, which included being able to match historic map of the plantations to a contemporary one, gave a vivid demonstration of plantation boundaries, the clustering of plantations along the coast, and illustrated too the continuation of naming patterns in the present.

The day ended with a lively group discussion in which participants shared why they had chosen to attend the event, what they had gained from the presentations, and how they might use what they’d learned going forward. We think that everybody found the day enlivening, informative, and that they were very enthusiastic about what they had heard. What was important too was the sense of people from different constituencies talking to each other. Teachers, academics, family historians, and people who were simply interested in the subject extended the dialogue about the importance of slave-ownership and the slavery business in ways in which we all hope will be taken out into the community as whole.