Edinburgh Book Festival: Tom Devine, "Scotland, Slavery and Amnesia", Review

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Sir Tom Devine with Richard Holloway in the chair.
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There was again an absolutely full house for this British Academy sponsored event featuring Sir Tom Devine, who is 'Scotland's favourite historian' as he was described by Richard Holloway who was chairing the event. Tom Devine said that, although he had been writing about history since the 1970s, nothing remotely even challenged his academic assumptions than this work which he was editing on slavery.

He asked how we - he and his colleagues - could have missed it?

He said that never before had so much history come to light. All this is covered in detail in the book which he is editing and which has the title, "Recovering Scotland's Slavery Past".

In the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries there had been many books written on the abolition of slavery, but the Scottish angle had always been to deny any involvement. This is until the recent times when University College London carried out some extensive research. It was long recognised in England as a problem and this had been universally accepted. Now we have evidence that the slave trade from Scotland involved some 3.4 million people who had been sent to the Caribbean and to North America.

In 2007, when slavery was finally abolished world-wide some people drafting a pamphlet about this had a lot of trouble with the Scottish Executive who seemed in a state of denial about Scotland's involvement. The approach seemed to be that, "the planter never wears the kilt". Devine wondered how there could possibly be such a state of unawareness?

The Glasgow Herald (now The Herald) had as one of its leader some years ago, that, "unlike Liverpool, and other ports in England where every stone in the road is stained with the blood of slaves", which seems to set the Scots as being superior to the English. However, every part of Edinburgh and Glasgow society must shoulder its share of blame and accept its involvement. We need to accept that we were wrong and we badly need to educate our children that what we have been told up to now is bogus, nonsensical, and blatantly untrue.

What we have to come to terms with is that Scottish people were involved at every level with the slave trade. There is no doubt that the research by University College London is first class.

We need to accept that Scotland was responsible for some 15% of the slave trade, which is higher in proportion to our population. The slaves were shipped abroad to work in the sugar and tobacco estates of the West Indies and also those of North America. So everyone who used sugar, smoked, or took snuff was benefiting from the slave trade.

In Scotland, much was made of our role in the abolition of slavery but we blindly ignored all aspects of our involvement with the trade itself.

This was a fascinating and absorbing event.

Tom Devine's book Recovering Scotland's Slavery Past (Sept 2015) is available in hard and soft back.