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Stabroek News

Scots ashamed of role in Jamaican slavery
published: Monday | March 17, 2008

Earl Moxam, Senior Gleaner Writer

Left: Kevin Walsh, editor of the West Edinburgh Times. Right: Geoff Palmer, lecturer at Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh. - Photos by Mike Wilkinson

(The printer's devil was at work in Sunday's edition of this story. We now reprint the story.)

There is a great stirring of painful memories in Scotland today and Jamaica is at the heart of the reawakening. Many of today's Scots are for the first time being made aware of the role their forebears played in the enslavement of thousands of Africans and in the operation of sugar plantations using slave labour in the West Indies. This in turn served to enrich and transform their country.

One of the main instigators of this reawakening is a Jamaican - Professor Geoff Palmer - a grain scientist who has spent the last two years away from his usual scientific pursuits in Edinburgh to reconstruct the historical links between the two countries in the era of slavery.

In his book, The Enlightenment Abolished, Professor Palmer highlights the part Scotland played in Jamaica's slavery-driven economy and details the largely forgotten activities of Scottish men of great distinction in perpetuating the evil system.

It was, he claims, a period in which the Scottish economy grew from being one of the weakest in Europe to become one of the most powerful. All over Glasgow and Edinburgh there are monuments and edifices built by and to honour these participants in Jamaica's slave economy.

Pernicious slavery

Of Jamaica he says this is a country "that has contributed more wealth to the world than it will ever receive, while enduring a most pernicious slavery for hundreds of years".

Last year Scotland marked 300 years of union with England and Wales under the umbrella of the United Kingdom. It was also the year in which the world observed the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade.

In the hundred years between these two landmark events Scotland was to grow in prosperity, perhaps like no other time in its history, because, by signing on to the union with England, the Scots immediately gained access to the lucrative triangular trade in African slaves and goods and to the plantations of the West Indies.

Driving through booming, modern Glasgow and Edinburgh last week, Professor Palmer reiterated that this show of prosperity had its genesis in Jamaica.

The revelations in Professor Palmer's book and in various interviews and speeches he has given have placed Scotland's role in slavery squarely on the public agenda for the first time in decades.

It's been a painful experience for Kevin Walsh, editor of the West Edinburgh Times. Walsh's paper, impressed by Professor Palmer's revelations, in January assigned Leroy Carter, a journalism student with Jamaican connections, to write a feature article, Scotland's Role in 300 Years of Slavery, based largely on an interview with the professor.

"Since the article came out we have spoken to a lot of people and they were all amazed at what they learnt from it," he told The Sunday Gleaner.

"We knew about England's and America's involvement in slavery through films and popular culture, but not about Scotland's role," he explained.


Two centuries after the abolition of slavery the friendly, bespectacled newspaperman confesses to being deeply embarrassed at the realisation that his countrymen were also culpable. He seethes, particularly at the mention of the Scotsman, Henry Dundas, the 1st Viscount Melville, who, as Lord Advocate in 1807, helped to persuade the British Parliament to retain the system of slavery beyond the abolition of the slave trade.

Dundas (nicknamed Henry IX because of the powers he exercised) is memorialised with a monument at St Andrew's Square in Edinburgh right across from his house which is now the head office for the Royal Bank of Scotland.

"Aye, I am very embarrassed to find out about the role of this fellow Dundas who was instrumental in keeping slavery going for another three decades, yu nuh," he rasped, with a touch of dialect very reminiscent of the people of South St Elizabeth here in Jamaica.

This embarrassment is shared by James Cant, a Scottish historian. Cant is now doing research to uncover more of the links between Scotland and Jamaica, especially those on the south west coast of Jamaica. He is reexamining the emergence of Scotland as an economic powerhouse in the 18th and 19th centuries. "We look at the agrarian revolution in Scotland, the scientific development, and we look at entrepreneurial excellence in Scotland. We never looked at the other side of the ocean to where the raw material and the wealth were truly coming from".


As a native of Glasgow he recalls his familiarity with city landmarks such as the Kingston Bridge and Jamaica Street. Yet, he said, "I would not for a second stop and think of the human cost which was involved and paid for in building the wonderful 19th century architecture of our city."

According to James Cant even leading academics in Scotland have only "very recently" realised the extent to which the economic boom in the 18th and 19th century was built on profits from the Caribbean "ultimately, profits built from slavery."

Now he wants the word to spread throughout Scotland, in the interest of the Scottish people and their Jamaican counterparts.

"The general public in Scotland knows very little of our national history as a whole and we know virtually nothing about the legacy we have in Jamaica and the important role that Jamaica played in creating the Scotland of today," he bemoaned.

Even the great Scottish poet, Robert Burns, does not escape scrutiny. According to Professor Palmer, Burns (known for riveting verses such as A Man's A Man For A' That), bought a ticket in 1786 to travel to Jamaica to work as a slave driver. While Burns ultimately did not make it to the island to take up this shameful position, the revelation does take some of the sheen off his image in the eyes of some of his 21st century countrymen.

Now that the 'secret' of Scottish involvement in slavery is out what's to be done about it?

For Kevin Walsh the process of atonement should start with an apology from Scotland to the Jamaican people. Citing the recent apology issued by the new Australian government to the Aboriginal people in that country, he believes the Scots should do the same. Thereafter, he suggests tangible cooperation in areas such as education could see Jamaica receiving significant support from the Scots.

James Cant is also hoping that the two nations will "grow new links together". He sees "huge potential for us to grow together in a new relationship", again with a special focus on education.

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