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Colonialism & Me: Life on a Scottish Plantation

In response to the Black Community's call to educate ourselves on issue's of race and racism, history graduates and brothers, Niall and Nathan Moorjani, are sharing their own personal educational exploration of Scotland's role within the British Empire.

You can find out more about Colonialism and Me by visiting their website and following them on Facebook.

Exploring the treatment of enslaved Africans on Scottish owned Sugar Plantations

N.B: This blog has been a learning process for both of us. In doing so we have had helpful feedback and as a result we have moved from the term slave and slaves to enslaved and enslaved Africans. We were informed and agree that this shifting of language helps to establish the non-consensual nature and human elements of Trans-Atlantic trade in African lives. We hope that in improving the precision of our language we can do better justice to the history we wish to explore.

‘Colonialism and Me’ was born from our desire to gain a deeper understanding of aspects of Scotland’s colonial past which we had not been taught even as history graduates. In our exploration for this deeper understanding of racial history we have come across a wealth of information and stories regarding those who were oppressed: a history untold and one which for many years was a history that found few who wanted to listen.

By digging into these unheard stories we have found ourselves questioning history and it’s narratives more than ever before. We recently watched Quentin Tarentino’s ‘Django Unchained’, the fictional story of the liberated formerly enslaved ‘Django’ and his quest to reunite with his still enslaved wife, being held on an American plantation. It got me (Nathan) thinking about how much I knew of plantation life and what most people know of life for an enslaved African. The only knowledge I really had was that of American plantations, most of which were involved in the production of cotton. Life on any plantation was horrific for enslaved Africans, in fact this we have even been taught at a base level in schools. But once more the focus has been on that of plantation life in America; not British owned plantations and certainly not those run by Scots. The British Empire’s hugely profitable relationship with slavery was in a large part due to the abundance of crop plantations, which were shamelessly exploiting the labour of shackled Africans, torn from their homeland and family, condemned to a life as livestock not humans. Sugar cane was one of the most profitable crops of them all and the vast number of sugar plantations across the Caribbean Islands is testament to the fact the British saw this opportunity for mass profit equivalent to a gold rush. As shown in our article 'Scotland, Britain & The Atlantic Slave Trade', the number of Scot’s involved in West Indian plantations, (including many as owners), was incredibly high.

But how was this profit achieved?

How were enslaved Africans treated in the West Indies by Scottish sugar plantation owners?

William Mcdowall and James Milliken

In Scottish historical narratives, there is often a tendency to view any of the atrocities and benefits of empire as the fault of the English and UK governments, and placing blame solely upon them. Therefore, this promotes the idea that Scots didn’t have a say in where they went or what they did and are therefore less to blame than their English counterparts. However, interestingly there were Scottish merchants who pioneered the Leeward Island sugar plantations well before Scotland had entered in the Union. The suggestion that Scotland was in anyway dragged unwillingly into the darker aspects of Empire holds little weight when we reflect on what this means.

Two such men were Scots, William McDowall and James Milliken. Both men entered the world of sugar plantations in the 1690’s as trainee planters on the island of Nevis. They would both go on to own and profit massively from sugar plantations on St. Kitts. By the time of their deaths in the mid-18th Century the number of enslaved Africans who had been under their ownership or direct control was in the thousands. Mcdowall and Milliken were part of a relatively small pioneering number of Scots in the British Sugar islands. In part due to their legacies: the profits they made and their influence on fellow on Scots, the number of Scots involved in the control and ownership of enslaved Africans began to boom from the mid-18th Century onwards.

There were of course many Scots involved in other crops. Demerara for example saw a large population of Scottish plantation workers and owners, land which was tailored to the more commonly known cotton picking. slavery plantations throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries. However the focus on this article is on the less popularly known sugar plantations, ones which made men like Mcdowall and Milliken some of the wealthiest Scots of their time.

Life on their Plantations

Working conditions for enslaved African’s on sugar plantations were more horrific than for any other form of crop due to the fact it was a highly specialised process. Sugar canes could take 14-18 months to fully mature and they took intense levels of labour and technique to produce at every single step of the way.

Underneath the burning heat of the West Indian Sun, enslaved Africans were required to dig deep trenches for the Sugar Cane to be planted and then fertilised with manure. When ripe, enslaved Africans cut the cane by hand with machetes and loaded the carts for the cane to be carried to the Sugar mills.

During the harvesting season, the sugar mills and boiling houses had the worst conditions. Due to their slow processing rate, enslaved Africans worked the mills and boiling houses nonstop, all day and all night.

In the sugar mill the cane would be fed by the enslaved into the wooden or metal rollers to extract the juices. This process was especially dangerous, particularly when exhausted. So much so that next to the enslaved worker feeding the cane into the mill; was another with a machete, ready to cut off the arm should it become trapped. The process left enslaved African’s like Mimba mutilated by the machinery, after her hands were literally “ground off”.

Next came the boiling house and as the name suggests, it was hot. The cane juice would be boiled in large metal basins called “coppers” in order to extract impurities. The making of the sugar was such a highly specialised process, that a skilled slave known as “the boiler” was needed to test the sugar and determine the perfect time for it to be left to set.

It is impossible for us to truly imagine the suffering of working for 24 hours straight, often in 30-degree heat with little food and little water. For those forced to work like Mimba, mistakes couldn’t be afforded and if machinery wasn’t to harm you, the overseers’ whip certainly would.

Sadly, the horrors of Sugar plantations in the West Indies did not end with the working conditions. Under the rule of plantation owners like Mcdowall and Milliken, Enslaved Africans endured cruel and barbaric acts on a daily basis. 

The only real form of protection enslaved Africans could hope for came through the fact that they were considered livestock and therefore it was, according to William McDowall, important to take care of them. After all it was these enslaved Africans that they relied on to complete the complex process of sugar production. McDowall’s idea of “taking care” most likely equated to little more than keeping his enslaved Africans alive so that they could keep working. Scots like Mcdowall and Milliken  strived for profits, which is why they would provide only the bare minimum food, water, clothing and shelter needed to work. Their lack of provisions meant in times of disease, draught or famine, enslaved Africans were among the first to die on the Leeward Islands alongside the cattle.

Whilst working as an attorney on a sugar plantation during a bad year of weather which ruined crops, Milliken, void of any compassion, wrote to tell the owners that “several of your negroes are dead here, we must buy others”.

If working conditions and living conditions didn’t provide enough misery to enslaved Africans then the colonial laws in place did. The Nevis Council passed a law in 1686 determining the punishment for the rather petty crime of a slave stealing sugar, would be the cutting off ears. After two offences and presumably two ears had been removed, a third offence though minor, would justify the punishment of death.

Furthermore, on most of the colonial islands, including St. Kitts and Nevis, the deliberate killing of a slave by their white master was not considered murder in the eyes of the law. It is therefore impossible to measure how many Africans were murdered in the centuries of colonial slavery on plantations alone.

Why does this matter today?

There is such a wealth of information regarding our history as humans. It can be difficult knowing what to look for and where to find it, particularly when our emphasis as a society focuses on moments which we deem more important.

What we have come across both as history students and through writing for this blog, is the difficulty historians have at popularising the wealth of information that exists.

In order to bridge this gap then we must improve the areas of history we teach. I myself have been guilty until this week of thinking of plantation life for a slave, only in an American setting. This only acts to further narratives of slavery and racism only being an issue “over there”, something which didn’t happen “over here”.

Out-with school education we must popularise understanding of Scotland and Britain’s role within slavery. We need more. More museums dedicated to the truths of our past, more memorials, documentaries, more novels, films, Tv shows and plays. All of which will work together to tell both the stories of our ancestors who acted as oppressors and finally give a platform to tell the stories of our ancestors who were silenced.

For the USA we have an abundance of popular art based on the true stories of freed slaves. The story of the Oscar winning ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ for example is an adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir. Frederick Douglass’ ‘My Bondage and My Freedom’ was written in 1855 and even then was being read keenly by educated Scots, willing to condemn American slavery as more evil than anything they had ever been part of.

Undoubtedly part of the problem was the isolated nature of the West Indian islands which made escape rather challenging. In addition to this there were few literate West Indian Slaves making the writing of memoirs less common but not impossible. History may well be written by the oppressor not the oppressed; but this does not mean that the stories are not there to be found and told, equally we must be ready to listen to those who tell them.

It is too easy to simply say Scotland profited from the slave trade. It is crucial we understand just how cruel the process was in order to make that profit. Scots like so many other white Europeans, chose to get rich from an industry which ripped Africans from their communities and families, crammed them in a dark cage beneath the deck and shipped them across the Atlantic to be worked to death in disgusting and torturous conditions. The past was not lived by statistics, it was lived by people like us today, they felt, loved, laughed, suffered and struggled. Therefore we must always remember the human toll of something like our role in the Transatlantic Trade of Enslaved Africans and remember that the wealth we enjoy as a nation today was built on very real human suffering.

Special thank you to Briony Farrell for sharing her research and knowledge on the topic with us.

Source Material

Stuart M. Nisbet, ‘Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past’ Chapter 3

Richard S. Dunn, ‘Sugar and Slaves’



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