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Legacy of slavery we must still confront

It is often asked why the great humanitarian, Robert Burns, wished to become a "negro driver" (his own words) in Jamaica in 1786.

This was because British slavery in North America and the Caribbean offered great opportunities for young British men to make quick fortunes from the enslavement of black people. David Hume (1750s), the father of enlightened reasoning, using dubious logic, proposed the prejudice which still exists, that black people were inferior to white people.

Some historians have focused narrowly on the "entrepreneurial spirit" of Scottish tobacco "lords" and sugar "barons" who became millionaires from the proceeds of a slavery that sentenced black chattel slaves to a life-span of about five years. A black chattel slave, under British slave law, had no right to life. Tobacco "lords" and sugar "barons" were highly respected for their '"entrepreneurial spirit". Some gave their names to thoroughfares and places: Glassford, Buchanan, Ingram, Cunningham and Cochrane were tobacco "lords": Ewing, Stirling of Keir, Robertson, Campbell, Oswald, Buchanan, Wedderburn, Gladstone, Donald, Dennistoun, and Baillie were sugar "barons". Recent research at University College London has shown that the country's involvement in slavery was more extensive than first thought because people living at addresses all over Scotland and England received financial compensation for the slaves (property) they owned in the Caribbean when the slaves were emancipated in 1833.

The money derived from this slavery built or bought the Gallery of Modern Art, the Necropolis, Glasgow Royal Infirmary, Bemore Botanic Gardens, The academies of Dollar, Inverness and Bathgate, Inveresk Lodge, Fasque House, Harmony House and countless estates. Glasgow's Jamaica Street was built in 1763 to manage the growing trade in tobacco, sugar, cotton and coffee.

The wealth of these "fortune hunters" can be deduced from Robert Burns's vitriolic poem, Ode, Sacred to the Memory of Mrs Oswald of Auchencruive. He damned her to perdition for obtaining an annuity of "ten thousand glittering pounds a-year" from her dead husband who was a notorious slave owner. In general, the negative "It wisnae us" attitudes of some Scottish people to British chattel slavery may reflect failure to teach this history in schools. For example, many Scots are concerned that they were not told by historians that an Article of the Union of 1707 gave the Scots permission to become slave owners and slave masters in British slave colonies. Article 1V, which was signed first and had the greatest majority votes, states: "That all the subjects of the United Kingdom of Great Britain shall, from and after the Union, have full freedom and intercourse of trade and navigation, to and from any part within the said United Kingdom, and the dominions and plantations thereunto belonging, and that here be a communication of all other rights, privileges, and advantages which do or may belong to the subjects of either kingdom, except where it is expressly agreed in these articles." In 1707, the number of Scots in Jamaica could be counted in hundreds. However, by 1800 there were about 10,000 Scots in Jamaica. To prolong this slavery, Henry Dundas (Lord Melville) delayed Wilberforce's Bill to abolish the slave trade by about 15 years. Another consequence of this slavery is that most of the surnames in the telephone directory of Jamaica are Scottish, which makes the descendants of Scottish slavery, like me, part of the Scottish diaspora.

The main response to my community lectures on Scottish-Caribbean history is: "Why was this history not told to us before?" To a limited degree, this history is part of our Curriculum for Excellence. As a country, we are subjected to many race laws and other equality laws because some people are not prepared to respect the rights of other people. This attitude must change and the best way to do this is through an education process that will persuade us to understand and accept that we share a common humanity as "one race" and our rights are equal.

Sir Geoff Palmer OBE is a Professor Emeritus in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, in Edinburgh. In 2011, he became the first and only black professor in Scotland.

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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