Sat | Dec 16, 2017

Anthony Gambrill | Jamaica in Britain: mulatto abolitionist

Published:Sunday | December 3, 2017 | 12:14 AM

By 1774, it was estimated by historian Edward Long that a third of Jamaica's white population was Scottish and of whom there were more in Westmoreland than any other parish. Some came as attorneys to represent absentee plantation owners, some as merchants, some as doctors, some as artisans, some merely to seek their fortunes.

James Wedderburn, a "practitioner in physic and chirurgery", joined his brothers John, Peter and Alexander on the island in 1747. James was the second surviving son of Sir John Wedderburn, a Scottish baron, who was executed following the unsuccessful Jacobite uprising in support of the Stuart kings, as a result of which the family's land and baronetcy were confiscated by the English crown. The final defeat of the Jacobites was at Culloden in 1745, reprising the name of a settlement today in St Elizabeth. Arriving virtually destitute, the Wedderburns gradually accumulated enough to begin purchasing estates.

Their plantations eventually included Blue Castle, Mint, Moreland, Retreat, Spring Garden and the pens of Paradise and Mount Edgecombe, primarily in Westmoreland. James Wedderburn remained in the island for 25, returning to Scotland, where he raised a family of four sons and two daughters. While his will made no mention of mixed-race offspring, he gained notoriety when Robert Wedderburn, an illegitimate son by one of his housekeepers, was to publish a pamphlet in England titled 'Horrors of Slavery'.

At the time of his death in 1807, James Wedderburn owned only two Jamaican estates outright in conjunction with his brother John. By 1806, John Wedderburn owned more than 17,000 acres and eventually was to claim compensation of £29,400 after Emancipation.

The Scots accumulated land and wealth by applying themselves to growing their fortunes, not squandering them on conspicuous consumption as did their English counterparts. Their intention, generally, was to make enough in Jamaica and return home. More accustomed to the weather in the rugged terrain of north Britain, the highlander Scots disliked the tropical climate but were of hardy stock.

One Scot who was an exception to the custom, John Campbell of Auchenbreck, is remembered on a tombstone in Black River as "the first Campbell in Jamaica". He had landed in Jamaica on board the Rising Sun being one of the ill-fated survivors of Scotland's tragic attempt to start a colony in Darien on the Panamanian isthmus. Refused assistance at Kingston before returning to Scotland, the vessel anchored in Bluefields Bay, St Elizabeth, in search of food and water. Campbell, who had been a captain of the militia, was more fortunate than others on board, many of whom were sick and dying. On an earlier assignment in Jamaica, he it is believed had married a well-off young woman, Katherine Clayborne, the daughter of a Virginia land surveyor. Following his marriage, he began accumulating land, starting with 300 acres in Black River, gradually extending his landholdings to Westmoreland and Hanover. He encouraged his Scottish nephews, his brothers, and his sisters to join him. Katherine was to have seven children, three of whom survived.

 

Enviable reputation

 

As the years went by, he earned an enviable reputation for public service as a colonel in the St Elizabeth militia, a member of the House of Assembly, and custos of his parish. When he died in 1740, John Campbell was a match for James Wedderburn, both of whom had worked assiduously to succeed in an environment completely unfamiliar but determined to make the most of the opportunities that slavery and sugar provided. Yet it was the latter man who unwittingly contributed to the abolition of slavery. The previously mentioned illegitimate Robert Wedderburn, fortuitously freed by the owner who had bought his five months' pregnant slave mother, was to join the Royal Navy and find his way to Britain following his service below deck. He took up the trade of tailoring, but life was a struggle, relieved only after he converted to evangelicalism at 28.

His crusade may have been stimulated as the result of a visit by the famous evangelical abolitionist William Wilberforce while Robert was serving a term in Dorchester prison for blasphemous libel. Wilberforce undoubtedly tried to convince Robert to pursue the emancipation of his West Indian brothers rather than blaspheming God and undermining the monarchy. His inability to abandon the latter would finally be his downfall. Nevertheless, his description of the 'Horrors of Slavery' was a damning indictment, even to the extent of naming his natural father, Dr James Wedderburn. His well-to-do merchant half-brother tried unsuccessfully to refute the account of his mother's slave experience.

His radical campaign against English religious and political values, as well as the passing of time, resulted in him being overtaken by his more progressive evangelical rivals. Driven by poverty, he was to find himself convicted for operating a brothel. Mulatto Robert Wedderburn died in obscurity in 1835, the year after the abolition of slavery, a Jamaican in Britain who had stridently championed the cause for so long.

- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright and historian. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.