Colonialism & Me: Scotland, Amnesia, and the Slave Trade
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.
How did we forget?
So far in our exploration of Scotland’s colonial past we have confronted our (Scotland’s) role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Recent research has highlighted our profitable relationship with the slave trade. Its nature was unique within the Empire and our involvement was proportionately higher than other parts of the UK. It is only in recent years that our slavery past has been uncovered within universities. We hope that current calls for widespread education on the topic help improve popular understanding of the darker side of our history. All this begs us to ask… How we could possibly forget such an abhorrent yet important aspect of our history? And why did it take longer to uncover our true past?
Newspapers provide fascinating windows into our past; through them we can see that slavery was not always a taboo topic. The National Museum of Scotland’s ‘Scot’s in America’ gallery reveals that In January 1769, The Edinburgh Advertiser included an advert for the sale of a slave.
By 1833, the transportation of slaves had been abolished for nearly twenty-five years, and Parliament was on the cusp of emancipating almost all British colonial slaves, barring those in India. In July of the same year, the British Parliament passed the Abolition act, something which was greatly celebrated in Scotland and Britain more widely. This act was proof of Britain’s morally righteous efforts in the struggle against the sinful slave trade. However, at the same time there was outcry from those who profited across the UK from slavery, many of whom were Scots. The Glasgow Courier were long supporters of the institution of the Slave Trade. On the 9th of March, 1833, they printed a response to the anti-slavery society, which they felt “undeniably disproves” the pro-abolition arguments of the anti-slavery party at the time.
Extraordinarily, by then the Glasgow Herald printed a speech given by the Glasgow West India Association which boldly declared that:
“It is to Glasgow’s lasting honour that while Bristol and Liverpool were up to their elbows in the slave trade, Glasgow kept out of it. The reproach can never be levelled at our city as it was at Liverpool that there was not a stone in her streets that was not cemented with the blood of a slave.”
Historian Tom Devine has called this period of forgetting “Slavery Amnesia”, a term we feel aptly describes the process.
So how could we forget?
Previously, in our ‘statues’ article, we touched upon the idea that ‘commemoration took precedence over reflection’. The quote above was after all, from a speech given at a 50-year abolition commemoration by a group who had formerly invested in the continuation of the Slave Trade.
We suppose this fact is unsurprising. In life we prefer to highlight our successes rather than our shortcomings. So rather than reflect on our abhorrent role within slavery we chose to commemorate our actions which lead to abolition.
It is important we note that we do not wish to remove the positive lens with which we view key abolitionists such as William Wilberforce, who made genuine moral arguments against slavery rather than simply economic ones.
This desire to commemorate our role as abolitionists was not at all unique to Scotland, a similar process occurred across Britain. Although, as argued in our article Scotland, Britain and the Atlantic Slave Trade, evidence suggests Scotland’s profit from the slave trade was disproportionately high compared to the wider UK. We would suggest then our slavery amnesia although like the rest of Britain, was formed in a unique way having started from different circumstances.
Proximity played a key role in Scotland’s ability to place distance between itself and its profitable relationship with slavery. From the outset there was a physical distance, Africans were purchased and enslaved thousands of miles from our shores. They were shipped on English boats, briefly stopping at English ports heading towards the Caribbean Islands where they would spend their remaining days being forced to work on Plantations.
As demonstrated in ‘Scotland and the Slave trade’, we know that many Scots were involved in every level of the Slaving industry, including factories which provided goods to be traded for the lives of Africans on Scottish soil. There were Scottish crews and surgeons aboard the slave ships. They got drunk and enjoyed themselves as enslaved Africans perished in unimaginable conditions beneath their feet. Those enslaved, who were lucky or arguably unlucky enough to have survived the voyage, would then arrive at plantations. Many of these plantations had Scottish workers and owners. Thousands of miles separated us from the deeds which provided profit and the use of money to grow our economy. This played a large part in allowing us to claim that we had never been involved in the first place.
Confirming our moral superiority
In my own research I have found it to be the case that moments of heightened anti-slavery national sentiment in the 19th century helped to strengthen our nation’s narrative as abolitionists, and therefore morally righteous. In celebrating and reconfirming narratives which boosted ideas of moral superiority, Scotland and Britain successfully distanced themselves from their own past involvement in the Slave Trade.
Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave from a plantation in Maryland, USA, came to Scotland as part of his British Anti-slavery tour. He was one of several African American’s to tour the UK with the aim to raise support from the British public to end American slavery. Douglass, who derived his name from a character in the famous Sir Walter Scott’s novels, wrote of his emotional attachment to Scotland. Creating empathy for his struggles as a slave with his Scottish surname and connecting it with the history of Scotland’s past struggles, in doing so he gained support for his ideas. Douglass described Scotland as “a land whose hills have nearly all been watered with blood in behalf of freedom”
He was exceptionally successful; town halls were packed to the nines with crowds (as they had been across Britain) of educated Scots in support of the “freed slave”. His goal was to condemn American slavery; Using the world powers as a fence he wished to “encircle America about with a cordon of anti-slavery feeling”, which he stated in a speech at Glasgow City hall in January 1846. This is an illuminating point. Douglass’ methods for raise anti-slavery feelings, directed at the USA, served to help Scots forget their own role as oppressors just a generation prior. It helped Scots to reconfirm a narrative of their role as liberators, and abolitionists, allowing us as a nation to distance ourselves even further from memory of life as profiteers.
Confronting our pasts
There are many similarities between Scotland and the rest of the UK’s process of forgetting. However, what has been entirely different has been our ability to confront the uncomfortable aspects of our pasts. Scotland has only recently begun to uncover the truth, yet England has been addressing it’s own issues (not always perfectly) for decades longer.
Why is this?
The 1970’s and 80’s saw a turning point in the way England’s slavery history would be perceived on a popular level. As a result of mass West Indian and non-white immigration from the mid 20th century, such as the ‘Windrush Generation’, Black history began to gain a platform. Black history was brought to the forefront of public thought through the formation of public celebrations such as Notting Hill Carnival in 1959, which has grown increasingly popular. These celebrations of Afro-Carribean culture posed a challenge to the British narrative which had previously been accepted as morally just Abolitionists. By the end of the 20th Century funding was in place to allow black and other British BAME communities to challenge for the counter-narratives of the British Empire to be told.
It is largely due to the mass non-white immigration in post war England that forced the country to confront its past, and as a result, British/English slavery amnesia was uprooted. Proof of this can be seen in the late 20th century books, documentaries, galleries and museums which were aimed at uncovering the true nature of Britain’s profitable relationship with slavery.
There are undoubtedly still issues posed by how long it took England to uncover and acknowledge the profits it made from slavery, whilst simultaneously failing to fully recognise the problems posed by having accepted the false narrative of moral superiority for so many years. It must also be noted that it was by no means easy for communities of colour to re-write narratives which refused to recognise their own past.
To our minds Scotland’s lack of acknowledgment for its role in Slavery can in part be attributed to this lack of population pressure. Scotland did not have a period of mass non-white immigration to anything like the same extent. By 2007, London’s Black Population was numbered at 820,000. By 2011, Scotland’s total Black population was 6,546. If we accept how vital the role of the English Caribbean community was in the process of uncovering and discussing England and Britain’s role in slavery, then it certainly creates a compelling case for why this process has taken so much longer in Scotland.
If we combine two aspects of this discussion, both the recent and longer past, we gain a better perspective of slavery amnesia in Scotland. First, the fact that our limited non-white population has struggled to find a platform to confront our predominantly white national narrative. Secondly, that even during Slavery, and in the years that followed immediately afterwards, we were able to distance ourselves, often entirely, so that we could confidently state that we played no part in the atrocity. We strove only for its demise.
Why does this matter today?
Continuing to deny our role in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is the worst thing we can do. It is through our ability to deny which enabled us to forget and that has enabled us to harbour a false narrative of non-involvement. One which we would argue is very visible in society today. A narrative that wrongly implies a strong sentiment of Scottish and indeed British moral superiority.
When George Floyd died, our first reaction as Brits was often to condemn American racism. It was not until our own Black community called for reflection on racism in the United Kingdom that we began to do so. This idea of our moral superiority in our opinion has in a large part stemmed from our ability to forget and ignore our own role as oppressors. Instead we have placed far too much focus on our role as saviours. In Scotland, the confronting of our slaving past has only recently entered the world of academic history and that has only just begun to filter into popular thought. There is so much we are yet to learn. But from what limited evidence we have it is already clear that as a nation we have much to answer for. We are not responsible for the actions of those long dead. However, we are the beneficiaries of those actions and this must be acknowledged. We understandably take pride in the many wonderful historical moments and characters that make our countries past, it therefore serves that we must feel shame for our forgotten role in the slave trade and shame for how long it has taken us to remember. The only course of action is to remember, recognise and reconcile with the descendants of those whom we so severely harmed.
Niall and Nathan Moorjani
T.M Devine, ‘Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past: The Caribbean Connection’
David W. Blight, ‘Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom’
Iain Whyte, ‘Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery 1756-1838’
Mitchell Library Glasgow, Newspaper Archives