Slavery, the Scottish Caribbean connection


In 1967 I completed a PhD at Edinburgh University. Now retired, I was a cereal grain scientist and lectured at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh on the science and technology of brewing and distilling. I have had the good fortune to represent Heriot-Watt and Scotland in these disciplines all over the world. A most memorable visit was to Africa to help with the growth and processing of the tropical grain, sorghum. Before a lecture a young African spoke to me in a local language believing I was a company representative. He was angry! Now, although my ancestors may have come from that part of Africa, I had no idea what was being said to me. One of my African ex-students over-heard the young man, laughed and explained he was asking, "Why is the company sending a Scotsman to speak to us?"


During a visit to Register House, Edinburgh last year I noticed a poster referring to "The distribution of Scottish people around the world". With a smile I said to my host that I hoped people of Scottish descent in the Caribbean were included in this survey of the Scottish Diaspora. He turned and said goodbye quickly to get away from a Jamaican who had suddenly taken leave of his senses. Talking about Scottish-Caribbean history elsewhere in Scotland elicited similar responses.


In 2007, the British government decreed that the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade should be commemorated, a trade which had started in 1562. Many commemorative events took place and I was asked to give lectures to Scottish historical societies and various organisations in Scotland and England.


In contrast to my knowledge of brewing, distilling and cereal grains, my knowledge of the history of British/Scottish slavery in the Caribbean was limited. To prepare myself for the lectures I did some research and completed a small book on the consequences of British slavery, especially with regard to Jamaicans*.


The Scottish-Caribbean link is centuries old, but grew rapidly from the early 18th century with the slave trade. By the late 18th century, Britain dominated the West Indies and along with other European countries had developed a system to transport black African slaves to work the plantations of this New World. Scottish slave masters and slave owners played a significant part in British slavery. Jamaica was important to the British Empire. Pitt, the British Prime Minister, said in 1800 that Jamaica provided Britain with most of the money "acquired" from the Empire. She was a primary producer of sugar, coffee, rum and spices and large quantities of these products came to Greenock, Port Glasgow and Leith.


It is estimated that 20,000,000 African people were bought or captured in Africa and transported into New World slavery. Only about half survived to work on the plantations. However, even Adam Smith was impressed by the profitability of this free land, free labour, business called Chattel slavery. The terrible and unique feature of this slavery was that legally slaves had "no right to life". The working life of a field slave was about five years. Those who compare this slavery with other kinds of inhuman behaviour such as trafficking are being unfair to all such terrible activities.


Although Jamaica is only 146 miles long and no more than 50 miles wide, by 1800 there were 300,000 slaves, 10,000 Scots and a similar number of English. The Scots and English were mainly men and they administered the island and the enslaved black population. In 1795, the Caledonian Mercury noted that Jamaica's slave population was valued officially at £10.25 million. The same Scottish paper publicly disclosed the activities of West Indian slavery yet some Scots still think "It wisnae us" – the title of an excellent booklet from a young enlightened Scot which shows that the economic history of Glasgow is linked to the history of slave-grown tobacco and sugar and to the many Scotsmen who became millionaires from slavery.


How did the Scots join the slave business? Originally officially excluded from the English slave trade, Scots such as Colonel John Campbell left the failed Scottish colonial experiment in Darien, Panama and arrived in Jamaica between 1697 and 1700. He had a large family in Jamaica and died there in 1740, initiating the spread of the name Campbell all over the island. Today there are many more Campbells in Jamaica per acre than in Scotland. In 1707 Scottish politicians signed 25 Acts to unify the parliaments of Scotland and England. The Act that was signed first was Act 4 which allowed the Scots to join the English slave business. Young Scotsmen rushed to the Caribbean to make quick fortunes as slave masters, slave doctors and administrators. The great economic benefits of Caribbean slavery to Scotland were clearly apparent to Robert Burns who wrote a toast honouring the "Memory of those on the 12th that we lost', commemorating one of the most gruesome and crucial naval battles fought between the French, Spanish and the British. The prize was Jamaica. Like other young Scotsmen who wanted to change their lives making money from slavery, Burns bought his ticket for Jamaica in 1786, intending to sail from Greenock with Highland Mary but his new book of poems sold well and he did not sail. Later, Burns' new lady friend, Clarinda (Mrs McLehose), sailed to Jamaica to discuss the state of her marriage with her husband, a slave master. On her return she told Burns her husband told her to return to Edinburgh as he was quite happy in Jamaica with his "ebony woman and mahogany children".


Many Scottish and English slave masters had children with their slaves. Robert Wedderburn (abolitionist) was the Jamaican mixed race son of Scottish slave master James Wedderburn and his black slave Rosanna. Many Caribbean people are of mixed race and many of us are descended from Scottish slave masters. It is therefore enlightening that the national motto of Jamaica is: Out of Many One People. My late mother's family name is Larmond – a mis-spelling of Lamont. The issue of surnames has been a matter of debate between the descendants of slaves but I feel that our lost African names and our present Scottish/British surnames are all part of a history that cannot be changed. My ancestors came out of a cruel slavery and chose the family surnames. I see no reason why I should alter the choice they made. I am proud that our slave ancestors endured and produced proud nations of black people in the New World. My mother's forefathers, like others who gained a small piece of land after slavery, described themselves as "planters" – the same name used to describe white slave-plantation owners. A small but significant statement of 'equality in position'.


Having read that the Scottish Lamonts were from Argyll, I drove there on a windy day to see what the place was like. I arrived at what seemed like the end of the world and walked up to the only house in sight and knocked at the door. An old couple looked at me through the part opened door. From their expressions it was clear that they thought I was returning to Africa and had lost my way! I asked if there were any Larmonds/Lamonts in the area. They smiled, said nothing and closed the door. Could they be Campbells, I thought! I had read that the Campbells had beaten up the Lamonts and drove them from their homes. It would seem that the Lamonts fared better in Jamaica than they did in Argyll!


This is part of a series of articles on
The Slave Trade




Many other Scottish surnames such as Douglas, Robinson, Reid, Russell, Lewis, McFarlane, McKenzie, McDonald, Grant, Gordon, Graham, Stewart, Simpson, Scott, Ferguson, Frazer and Farquharson are common in Jamaica – so are Scottish place names. At a lecture in London to Jamaicans I asked the audience to raise their hands as I read a list of Scottish surnames and over 60% of the audience raised their hands. At the end of my lecture a couple took me aside not wanting their friends to hear that their surname may not be Scottish. They then asked tentatively, "Is Morrison Scottish?"!


Scottish place names too are common in Jamaica. Scots surveyed the island and divided it into slave plantations; the best known was James Robertson from Shetland (1756-1841). Many of the slave plantations were given Scottish names such as Monymusk, Hermitage, Hampden, Glasgow, Argyle, Glen Islay, Dundee, Fort William, Montrose, Roxbro, Dumbarton, Old Monklands and Mount Stewart. As a boy I lived near Elgin Street and was in awe of the wealthy white people who lived in St Andrews where some of my aunts worked as maids for Scottish and English families.


We may never know all the life stories of the Scotsmen who made fortunes and new lives for themselves when they returned from slave plantations in the Caribbean. The slavery in which they made their money was brutal. The rebellions of the slaves and the hangings that followed attest to that. Post slavery rebellions such as the Morant Bay Rebellion of Bogle and Gordon in Jamaica in 1865 resulted in social improvement but both were hanged. The Scottish surnames of these black martyrs are significant. The name of a Colonel of Maroons (escaped slaves – not Hearts supporters) whom I met recently in Birmingham was Wallace Stirling.


Many Scots submitted petitions for the abolition process but we also know that British slavery was legal and controlled by MPs whose careers did not depend on public votes. We know the names of the abolitionists such as Wilberforce, Clarkson, Wedderburn and Equiano. Less known are the names of Scottish slave masters and merchants who became multi-millionaires such as Cunninghame, Oswald, Houston, Gladstone (father of the Prime Minister William Gladstone), Wedderburn, Baillie, Bogle of Daldowie, Spiers of Elderslie, McDowall, Glassford, Buchanan, Stirling of Kier, Malcolm of Poltallach, Moyes, Grant and Ewing. James Ewing of Glasgow who owned Caymanas sugar plantation in Jamaica built the Necropolis. Rich merchants and slave owners were called tobacco lords or sugar barons – frivolous titles. Many of Scotland's streets bear their names – Glassford, Buchanan, Gladstone, Wedderburn. Many of the grand estates bought or built by these slave masters or merchants still exist and the Churches to which they contributed rewarded them with stained glass windows and burial plots. In many cases, those who administered and became rich from British slavery were given Knighthoods and Lordships which persist in some titled families today. British slavery extended from the government to the Church. Some Churches owned slaves and branded them. The Church of Scotland did not petition against this slavery. Thankfully, today, a small group of Scottish Churches support education and Church projects in a limited way in Caribbean countries such as Jamaica. This is the kind of initiative that is required to help reduce the historical neglect felt by Caribbean people whose ancestors contributed so much to the Scottish/English Empire and have had so little in return.


Caribbean slavery transformed the Scottish economy in the 18th century and its profits helped develop many Scottish cities. Academies were built with money from slavery – Inverness and Bathgate being just two. A host of other buildings and institutions – Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art, Buchanan Street, Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, Harmony House, Inveresk Lodge and Gillespie School – were either bought or built using money acquired from slavery. Industries grew in Scotland which used raw materials such as tobacco, cotton, spices, coffee, sugar and rum. The money made from these drove the development of other industries. Ports such as Leith, Glasgow and Greenock flourished during slavery. The large solidly built brick buildings along the shore at Greenock were sugar warehouses and were obviously built to last. At a dinner in Glasgow not long ago I met a man who said that he is certain that his family foundry company made the metal equipment used in slave pens. He did not elaborate on the nature of the metal equipment. Historical links between Scottish universities and British slave colonies have been important in the development of the universities with some establishing links with Jamaica during slavery, educating the white children of slave masters. Educational links remain to this day.


On 30 November, 2007, in St Andrew Square in Edinburgh, I came upon a gathering near the monument to Henry Dundas. People were commemorating St Andrew's Day. Looking at the tall column, I wondered how many knew that Dundas prolonged British slavery in the Caribbean by stopping MPs voting for its abolition. He also tried to reverse the independence process in Haiti as he feared similar rebellions damaging the economics of British slavery. He selected governors for the slave islands and, as governor of the Bank of Scotland, loaned money to shore up the slave business of his friends. When Wilberforce tried to secure the abolition of the slave trade, Dundas frustrated the process and forced him to add two notorious words to his Bill – "gradually abolished". These two words ensured that slavery lasted 31 more years. Scottish friends tell me that the achievements of Dundas are on a notice board on the fence of the gardens and state that he was a "controversial figure". I guess this is the closest we get to mentioning his role in promoting and prolonging British slavery. Sadly such denial has been effective in keeping the history of British slavery out of British education. Although the reasons for the denial of Scottish-Caribbean history are self evident, I wondered on that cold St Andrew's Day what Dundas would have thought of the multi-ethnic folk celebrating together and how others felt celebrating freedom and justice on St Andrew's Day below the feet of Henry Dundas.


Last year Edinburgh University announced a wonderful gift of £1,000,000 from Mr and Mrs McFarlane to fund a study of the experiences of Scottish migrants in different countries. This will be conducted by the distinguished historian Professor Tom Devine. To produce the best history possible of the Scottish people, I hope the work will include Scottish-Caribbean history. Caribbean people need the truth to be told about a history that has had a significant effect on the way we live in Britain today.


The historical links between Scotland and West Indian islands such as Jamaica are real and strong. Many Scottish people are angry that they were never told of these historical links. The response to this rediscovered history has been encouraging because it is evident that the goodwill of the Scottish people may now extend to a part of the world that helped Scotland in the 18th century to change from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the richest.


How we deal with our past plays an important part in the way we live. Culloden has a similar effect on Scottish people as New World Chattel slavery has on black people. In race relations, success is more likely to come from acknowledging the past than from bill boards imploring us to be nice to each other. History tells us that the Caribbean people are not only part of the African Diaspora they are also part of the Scottish/British Diaspora and cannot be excluded from any valid narrative of Scottish/British history. The link between Scotland and Jamaica, extends to the flags of both countries. The cross of St Andrew dominates both flags . . . I am not sure how this came about but it is evident that our shared heritage is all around us and should be acknowledged and respected.


The Commemoration year of 2007 has ended. A New Year begins and our knowledge of Scottish-Caribbean history has improved. If I were asked to make a wish for 2008 and beyond, it would be that a fund is created by the people of this country as a "cup of kindness" to help children descended from Caribbean slavery, escape the poverty, social despair and violence that destroys so many of their lives. The negative consequences of British slavery in the Caribbean are still with us today. To say the past has no effect on the way human beings live today is untrue.


Professor Geoff Palmer, Published February 2008.


* The Enlightenment Abolished – Citizens of Britishness. By Geoff Palmer. Published by Henry Publishing: 23 Waulkmill Drive, Penicuik, EH26 8LA, Scotland.



Further reading:

The Slave Trade

The White Slave Trade

Slavery in the Carolinas

England's Irish slaves

Sample slave sale records

Research by Allen Omega


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