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A nation’s shame: leading historian says sorry for failing to confront Scots’ role in slave trade

The nation’s leading historian has apologised for failing to focus on the shameful connections between Scotland and the slave trade, and accused the country of collectively shying away from facing up its own involvement with slavery for too long.

Professor Tom Devine made the “mea culpa” and spoke out about Scotland’s connections to slavery in the final lecture of his 40-year career at Edinburgh University.

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His controversial thesis, Did Slavery Make Scotland Great?, suggested Scotland has focused too much on its own “colonisation” by England during the Highland Clearances and confronts the role of Scots in one of the darkest episodes of world history.

Professor Devine argued that there was a close relationship between the Scottish economic transformation of the 18th century and slave plantations that were owned and run by Scottish masters.

His lecturer was made at a conference entitled “The transatlantic slave trade and plantation slavery in the Americas: Exploring Scottish connections”, jointly organised by Professor Frank Cogliano of Edinburgh University and Professor Simon Newman of Glasgow University, and attended by a cadre of internationally renowned historians.

The acclaimed historian added: “If you look at the telephone directory for Jamaica it’s stuffed full of Scottish names. These are people who have taken their names from their Scottish masters.

“The jewel in the crown in the Caribbean was Jamaica, which was the single richest colony in the British Empire during the 18th century. We know that and we have evidence that the Scots were the dominating force in Jamaica.

“Their owners didn’t want to live in this lethal environment so they were absentees. A lot of young Scots went out there, including one Robert Burns, who was about to go out to a post in Port Antonio in Jamaica in 1786 when he made his money with his poetry.”

Scottish academics have always skirted round the issue of Scottish slavery because it was mainly thought that the nation had not been involved. Professor Devine expressed regret in the lecture that in earlier studies he had also failed to realise the impact slavery had on the nation and omitted references to Scottish slavery in his past work.

Professor Devine apologised for his actions, saying: “There were a couple of references in the index to slavery [The Tobacco Lords: A study of the Tobacco Merchants of Glasgow and their Trading Activities c. 1740-90, which was published in 1975] but none of them raised the issues I’m now trying to raise. So as I said at the lecture in Edinburgh, ‘Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa’ - which means in the Latin tradition, my apologies, my very great apologies.”

His latest research shows thousands of slaves were involved in the trade from Scottish ports such as Greenock, Port Glasgow, Glasgow, Montrose and Leith.

Although not hugely involved in the actual “hands-on” side of the slave trade, Scotland played a considerable role in financing slave economies in North America and the Caribbean.

He said: “We know that there were only 4500 to 5000 slaves traded directly from Scottish ports and that’s from over four million in the British Empire. So the Scots didn’t play a significant role directly in the trading of slaves.

“But the theory I’m advancing is that they did have an enormous role in the plantation economies of North America and the Caribbean, which could not have existed but for slavery.

“There were two million slaves in the British Empire by the 1800s and 80% of them were based in the Caribbean, where sugar plantations were the main industry. Much of Glasgow was built on the money earned by the city’s tobacco barons – such as Lord John Glassford, after whom Glassford Street is named – who were involved in the slave trade.”

In the 19th century, Scots prided themselves that they had not been associated with the trade which they saw as centred on cities such as Bristol, London and Liverpool. They also had huge pride that they were in the vanguard of the anti-slavery movement.

In the 20th century, there was a rise of nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s and Professor Devine believes Scots became more interested in their own past, celebrating being victims of colonisation, and chose to forget their own links with slavery.

Professor Devine said Scotland should be able to admit to its relationship with slavery and accept it. He added: “If we are a mature democracy we should be able to take it on the chin. Every society’s history is light and shade, and a mature democracy faces its past, warts and all.”

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