City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Book Festival: Scotland's Role In Slave Trade

By Bill Dunlop - Posted on 19 August 2008

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Professor Tom Devine, introduced by Iain Macwhirter

"Guilt," a late friend of this reviewer's observed, "is a useless emotion." Except perhaps insofar as it causes us to reconsider and revise our behaviours. Professor Tom Devine acknowledged his own sense of guilt in not recognising African slavery as a principal factor in the development of capitalist economies, including Scotland.

Professor Devine is one of the country's pre-eminent historians, with some thirty titles to his name and credit, and his opinion carries justifiable weight. In the case of African slavery, he regards Scotland's involvement in what has been elsewhere referred to as the "Black Holocaust" as crucial to the country's economic development.

It is certainly true that a considerable number of Scots were deeply involved, whether as carriers of slave cargoes, plantation owners or investors in companies tied into slave traffic or exploitation. However, Professor Devine acknowledged that the numbers of slaves directly trafficked was small in comparison with the trade as a whole. It's here that Professor Devine's thesis travels with difficulty between a rock and a hard place, for the numbers of Scots directly involved in the slave trade is comparatively small; their part is clear and undeniable, and we can hardly offer the excuse, "a big English merchant did it and ran away" for Scotland's part in the misery caused.

Yet Scotland was and remains a small country in terms of geography and population, and its resources and institutions reflect these realities. Although in many ways and instances very capable of punching above what might be our expected weight, the realities of available resources remain a counter. Certainly Scotland was involved in and benefited from the slave trade - or at least a number of well-placed and well-connected Scots did - yet the impact of the trade on the country as a whole is harder to demonstrate.

Professor Devine did his best to do so, citing the involvement of the two Glasgow merchants Paterson and Houston, the effect of whose dealings on the Scottish banking system takes us into another historical disaster, but which demonstrates ways in which the Scottish economy depended on slavery. This is perhaps the real point - Scotland's involvement in slavery was more secondary than primary - Scottish slavers existed, but were outnumbered both by people of other countries with direct involvement and by Scots benefiting indirectly from slavery, of whom the Glasgow merchants of Professor Devine's first book, The Tobacco Lords, offer an excellent example.

We are well to be reminded that Scotland was deeply involved in the slave trade, even if the economic benefits came largely at one remove. Equally, there's no denying if events had taken different turns, Scottish involvement might have been greater - as was pointed out in the subsequent discussion; Article 4 of the Treaty of Union states, "All subjects of the United Kingdom shall have full freedom of trade . . . ." which presumably included freedom to trade in slaves, and the Darien project, had it succeeded would have been well placed to engage in slave trading.

Developing a grown-up history for a grown up country perhaps depends, as much as anything, on a willingness among historians to look at events through both ends of the telescope, recognising that both views are unavoidably partial, and remind the rest of us of the danger of a singular view of matters. Professor Devine has previously given us one view in The Tobacco Lords, and has now presented another. It's up to each of us to honour his work with our own reflections and conclusions.

Time: Aug 18 at 20:00

Copyright Bill Dunlop August 2008

Published on August 2008