Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery, 1756-1838

July 20, 2006

Iain Whyte

Next year sees the 200th anniversary of the British abolition of the slave trade. There will be many events to mark this, including a leaflet produced by ACTS (Action of Churches together in Scotland), an ecumenical service, and a document commissioned by the Scottish Executive. It was of course just a first step towards the legal abolition of slavery in the British Empire thirty years later and as a Jamaican friend rightly observed ‘it took 300 years before Christian Britain did anything about one of the greatest crimes against humanity.’

In recent years there has been a recognition that Scotland and Scots were heavily involved both in the transatlantic transport of humans beings and in plantation slavery itself. Robert Burns, like many young men, planned to escape poverty through a job as a slavemaster in Jamaica where 1/3 of the white population were Scots. What has not been recognised is the contribution made by Scots to abolition – far in excess of the size of the nation.

Iain Whyte’s recent book ‘Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery’ (Edinburgh University Press 2006) traces the origins of abolition in the support of churches and communities for black slaves in Scotland seeking their freedom. The Court of Session in 1778 by a majority decided that Scotland could not give legal sanction to slavery and freed the Jamaican, Joseph Knight. Baptism played a key role in this. But it was another ten years before public petitioning against the slave trade was to force Henry Dundas, the Scottish minister in Pitt’s  Government to agree to its abolition. In 1788 and 1792 Britain sent over 600 abolition petitions to the House of Commons. Scotland provided one third of these, including one from the Presbytery of Edinburgh through a deliverance moved by the skating minister, Rev. Robert Walker of Canongate.

Wilberforce’s efforts in Parliament were made possible to a large extent by Scots.

James Ramsay, Episcopal priest from Fraserburgh provided vital evidence on the horrors of the trade from his experience as a surgeon in the navy. James Stephen, an Aberdeen educated lawyer who vowed never to own a slave in the West Indies, drafted the 1807 bill. William Dickson from Moffat, secretary to the governor of Barbados, travelled all over Scotland in the winter of 1792 meeting ministers and other community leaders and winning them to the cause. Zachary Macaulay, son of an Argyll manse and Governor of the free slave colony of Sierra Leone edited the ‘Anti-Slavery Monthly Reporter’ with a circulation of 20,000 providing not only news of abolition committees all over Britain but crucial evidence on the horrors of slavery in the West Indies.

In January 1792 William Dickson gave a Wedgewood token to the 10 year old grandson of the Anti-Burgher minister of Paisley when the lad vowed not to eat West Indian sugar while slavery existed. In November 1837 135,000 Scottish women petitioned Queen Victoria to put an end to the Caribbean Apprenticeship Scheme that was slavery by another name. In between numerous people worked tirelessly for the cause. In the late 1830s the young David Livingstone walked from Blantyre to Glasgow to hear sermons on slavery by the celebrated Congregational abolitionist Dr. Ralph Wardlaw.

Sadly the legacies of slavery remain today. Although few governments would give legal sanction to human  trafficking and a slave system on which Britain’s wealth in the 18th century depended, Anti-Slavery International remind us of the sobering fact that there are more slaves today than ever. At the recent World Cup there were women trafficked for sex in Germany. And our own government has yet to ratify a European treaty that will protect women imported to Britain for the sex industry from such as the mafia in Albania, against deportation and a very dangerous future. The convenient use of illegal and highly exploited migrant labour (as the cockle pickers showed) boosts our economy. It is not the same as the transatlantic traffic but it calls for campaigning in the same way that Walker, Ramsay Dickson, Macaulay undertook two centuries ago.

Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery, 1756-1838
Iain Whyte
Edinburgh University Press
21 June 2006

ISBN: 0748624333

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