In an exclusive Herald on Sunday essay, Scottish historian Sir Tom Devine asserts his belief that the abolition of slavery was ‘nigh impossible in the late 18th century’ and that Henry Dundas is now a ‘scapegoat’

Did Henry Dundas prolong the slave trade in the British Empire?

Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, is not to modern eyes a sympathetic personality. He was an autocrat, imperialist and reactionary opponent of political reform in Scotland. Now he has also been publicly charged for suggesting a “gradualist” approach to abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in the 1790s and by doing so allowing that evil and murderous commerce in African people top continue for a further 15 years.

Yet, despite his unappealing reputation, Dundas still deserves impartial and rigorous historical evaluation, both of his conduct on slavery issues in Parliament and its supposed impact on prolonging the “nefarious trade” in human beings.

READ MORE: Scots historian Sir Tom Devine criticises rush to ‘clarify’ slave trader Henry Dundas' actions

The recent revised plaque agreed by Edinburgh City Council to be affixed to his statue in St Andrew Square, Edinburgh send out a stark and clear message: “In 2020, this was dedicated to the memory of more than half a million Africans whose enslavement was a consequence of Henry Dundas’s actions.” I believe these words are bad history and in future years will come back to haunt the city council.

For a few years it had been considering the Dundas case as a result of an unrelenting campaign led by the activist Sir Geoff Palmer and his associates.

The first advisory committee appointed on the matter was a balanced grouping of pro- and anti-Dundas members including one historian. They failed to reach a consensus on the way forward. The remarkable rise of the global Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020 led to a separate Edinburgh City Council sub-committee being established in June this year. Notable by their absence were the two pro-Dundas members of the old committee.

They had been dropped. The group now consisted of the ECC leader Adam McVey, other councillors and the aforesaid Geoff Palmer. It was they who agreed the words for the plaque described above.

The minute of the relevant meeting recorded that “the wording was checked by an academic at the University of Edinburgh”, the implication perhaps being that this unnamed figure had academic competence on the subject under discussion. Far from it, the person involved was not a historian but a senior academic manager from a different discipline with no known expertise on Dundas, his period or the issues at stake. Those readers who think on this evidence that a kangaroo court had been assembled may not be far from the truth about this affair.

A loaded “jury” rushed to judgment on a complex set of questions without taking the advice of any real expert. The waters were then further muddied by a BBC Scotland documentary, Scotland, Slavery And Statues, broadcast last Tuesday.

I will not dignify the programme by extended comment. Suffice to say it came across as a kind of Punch and Judy show involving the two warring factions of the descendants of Dundas on one hand and the Palmer camp on the other. It was replete with claim, counter claim and unsubstantiated assertion but precious little in the way of explanatory power.

If the aim was to educate and illuminate the attempt was a miserable failure. Did, then, the intervention of Henry Dundas in favour of “gradualism” stop abolition of the British slave trade for a generation as alleged by social activists and local politicians? My own answer to that question is a resounding no. The strategic, economic and political circumstances of the 1790s rather than the rile of any one individual were the influences of critical importance in the postponement of abolition for a generation.

Here are the four factors that ensured abolition was well nigh impossible in the late 18th century.

Slave insurrections at St Domingue (now Haiti)

This well-known French Caribbean island was the single largest producer of sugar in the world for huge European markets.

In 1791, its  black slaves rose in ferocious and bloody rebellion against their masters.

Around 4,000 whites were killed; 180 sugar plantations were destroyed; it was said that the decapitated heads of French children were stuck on spikes which led the rebel columns.

The insurrection endured for several years and ended with the foundation of the independent state of Haiti.

READ MORE: Henry Dundas - Controversial legacy of Scotland's 'most powerful man'

These horrors played into the hands of the anti-abolitionists in Britain who argued attempts at abolition would inevitably lead to such unbridled anarchy.

Shockwaves were sent through the government who feared the virus of rebellion would spread to the British islands if the laws governing slavery were relaxed.

The war with France

In 1793, war broke out between Britain and revolutionary France. It quickly became a titanic conflict for the control of the Atlantic and the colonies providing lucrative sugar, cotton and tobacco. The West Indies now assumed even greater strategic importance for the war effort. The Treasury depended on taxes levied on the imports and exports of the islands to fund the conflict (as income tax was not introduced until 1798) while the Caribbean trades were essential as the “nursery of seamen” who could be pressed into the Royal Navy for national defence in time of war. Tragically, the crisis therefore ensured that the supply of chattel slaves from Africa would continue. National survival was at stake.

The economic factor

The Industrial Revolution in Britain was in its early textile-based phase in the later 18th century with mill-based spinning of cotton the leading sector in the great transformation.

The only source of raw cotton at the time for this rapidly burgeoning  

manufacture, before the American South eventually became the major supplier, was the West Indies. For the Scottish economy  in particular, the Caribbean colonies were of fundamental significance. By the early 19th century they accounted for over 60 per cent of the country’s imports and exports, the employment of tens of thousands of linen spinners and weavers in the eastern Lowlands, and markets for the dried salted fish of West Highland Hebridean fishing communities.

The political factor

By the end of the century the abolitionist cause, for the reasons outlined above, was in the doldrums. Whatever the machinations of Henry Dundas,there was no political majority for abolition. The House of Lords was fundamentally opposed as was the reigning monarch, George III. The Prime Minister, William Pitt, himself with abolitionist sympathies, was unwilling to use his influence and prestige to further the reform agenda. These were the historical realities which current scapegoating of Henry Dundas cannot deny.