HE has long been seen as Scotland’s “great tyrant”, the strongman politician most historians believe prolonged the Atlantic slave trade for a decade and a half.

Now a major new investigation shows that Henry Dundas also played a key role in Britain using the delay he enabled to buy enslaved Africans to serve in its army.
The revelation was unearthed by historian Stephen Mullen from earlier but widely forgotten research into the UK’s slave redcoats.

The finding torpedoes a slick PR campaign designed to rebrand Dundas, the first viscount Melville, as an abolitionist just as authorities in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Toronto decide what to do with streets named in his honour.

Last week, City of Edinburgh council shrugged off attempts to defend Dundas’s legacy by agreeing to put up permanent plaques outlining his role in delaying abolition at the Melville monument in St Andrew Square. 

READ MORE: Opinion: Iain Macwhirter: Let’s dump Dundas and erect a statue to the Scottish Radicals

The structure – a 150ft column with a statue of Dundas at its top – became the focus of protests during the Black Lives Matter campaign last summer, including from a unionist fringe group fronted by a Holocaust denier.

Campaigners, such as Geoff Palmer, Scotland’s first black professor, wanted visitors to know how much pain was caused by Dundas’s rearguard action against abolition. 

The politician’s supporters, including his descendent Bobby Melville, the current viscount Melville, say Dundas wanted to end the slave trade – but favoured “gradual” abolition as the only practical way to do so.

This has always been dismissed as spin by scholars specialising in Caribbean slavery. However, The Herald on Sunday can reveal that Mr Mullen, the leading expert on Scotland and the slave trade, has just completed a three-year research project in Dundas. 

‘Great Delayer’

A peer-reviewed paper will be published later this year in the Scottish Historical Review, the country’s premier history journal. Its title is Henry Dundas: a ‘Great Delayer’ of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Speaking about his work, Mr Mullen said scholarship by historians of slavery and abolition was “unequivocal that Henry Dundas played an instrumental role in delaying abolition for vested interests after 1792”.  

Context is everything. Dundas, as the right-hand man of wartime premier William Pitt the Younger, was heading up the Empire’s desperate attempts to defend its lucrative sugar islands after the French ended slavery in their colonies.  The British came up with a planto use slaves as soldiers to protect slavery.

“New strategies were devised under Dundas as Secretary of State for War (1794-1801), Mr Mullen said. “The work of the late historian Roger Buckley revealed that the British government after 1795 – including Pitt and Dundas – sought to maintain the trafficking of enslaved people from Africa to enhance the British army’s military capability.”

“Between 1795 and 1808, around 13,400 African enslaved people were purchased for British West India regiments: almost four percent of the total that British ships transported to the British Caribbean in the same period. 


“As Buckley noted, Henry Dundas participated ‘in all stages of the development and implementation of the policy of purchasing slaves as recruits for the British army’ as the British government became the ‘largest individual buyer of slaves and, consequently, the major promoter of the wretched trade’.”

Other historians of slavery have always said Dundas should be understood as a defender of the sugar empire in the Caribbean against France. The policy of putting slaves in uniform – even in the 1700s – was controversial, not least because Caribbean plantation owners thought African redcoats, some of whom would have had military experience before being enslaved, would be a threat. Now such a move would be considered a crime against humanity. 

British state

“DUNDAS sought the indefinite delay of the abolition of the slave trade after 1793 in order to advance the interests of the British state, which included the large-scale purchase of enslaved people to bolster colonial security,” said Mullen. 

“Dundas’s motives for delaying abolition after 1793 were thus rooted in imperial defence: the delay improved the military capability of the British army and also allowed planters to purchase many hundreds of thousands of enslaved people.

Those who claim that Dundas was an abolitionist ignore the fact that at the time he was opposed to immediate abolition, he was heavily involved with the British state’s policy of purchasing African enslaved people. 

“There is no question in my mind that Henry Dundas was one of the ‘great delayers’ of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.”

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

While scholars of slavery have always agreed with this proposition, some popular historians of the 18th century have not. Campaigners have produced rebuttal documents for Edinburgh council insisting Dundas loathed slavery.


Online anonymous Twitter accounts have engaged in detailed debates about obscure episodes of Dundas’s career and the statesman’s wikipedia page has been constantly amended to make him abolitionist. 

Scotland's foremost public historian, Professor Sir Tom Devine, intervened to suggest Dundas was being “scapegoated”.

Neither Dundas nor Pitt had a chance of getting abolition through the houses of commons or lords in the 1790s, Sir Tom told this newspaper last year. 

Behind the scenes, however, the Dundas debate has sparked academic concerns about simplified or “fake history” amid ongoing culture wars about statues and streets in honour of imperialists or racists.

Mr Mullen said: “The Dundas episode represents a clear failure in how historical expertise contributes to conversations in civic society in Scotland. 

“Dundas biographer Michael Fry recently claimed in the media that Dundas was an abolitionist. However, journalistic outputs do not undermine established historiography going back almost a half-century written by leaders in the field such as Roger Anstey and David Brion Davis.”

“The irony is that Sir Geoff Palmer has been written off as a Professor of Brewing Science, yet his campaign – and the wording of the plaque just endorsed by Edinburgh City Council – is consistent with historiographical orthodoxy.”