We Scots must face up to our slave trading past | Kevin McKenna

In Glasgow, our part in the slave trade, especially in the Caribbean, is inescapable: Jamaica Street, Tobago Street and the Kingston Bridge

The bones are rattling once more in Scotland’s closet and they are throwing down a challenge to our cultural and civic authorities. The full extent to which this nation was involved in the most brutal form of human trafficking has been laid bare in one of the most important books to be published in Scotland this century. Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past (The Caribbean Connection) is a collection of essays by academics who have begun properly to study and analyse Scotland’s part in the African slave trade and why the country has been in complete denial about it since slavery was abolished in 1807.

To cover our tracks more securely, we have insisted on celebrating our part in abolishing slavery. We deemed this sufficient to be an act of mass atonement for hundreds of years of the most inhumane behaviour to our fellow human beings and justification for never bringing the subject up again.

Well, now it has been brought up again in this collection edited by Professor Sir Tom Devine, in which he excoriates the academic community, including himself, for not digging more deeply in an area that is not lacking in documented evidence.

In the two centuries until 1807, the British slave trade processed almost 3.5 million Africans into a life where they were considered to be less than human and thus subject to routine torture, rape and premature death. Scots were assiduous in it from the outset, helping to administer it at every level and often growing rich on the proceeds.

Devine and his colleagues analyse and outline the collective amnesia about our involvement in slavery and ask why only in the past 15 years or so has serious study begun on this long and dark period of Scottish history.

As Devine notes in his introduction to the collection, there was an “impressive scale of Scots migration to the West Indies which at times and in specific locations was more extensive than that from the other nations of the United Kingdom when measured by the respective size of their base populations”.

Devine is unequivocal on the reason why: “They sailed across the Atlantic in search of business opportunities and quick fortunes.” That they did so by inflicting unimaginable cruelty on millions of innocent men, women and children did not seem unduly to have troubled this Christian nation’s conscience. And when abolition did come, we spent the next 40 or so years arranging extravagant compensation for the slave drivers who had lost their livelihood. There are a significant number of families in Scotland today whose continuing opulence and influence was built on their family’s administration of pure evil.

Not only did Scotland fill its boots on the proceeds of this trade, we have been celebrating it ever since. In Glasgow, our part in the slave trade, especially in the Caribbean, is inescapable: Jamaica Street, Tobago Street and the Kingston Bridge. The civic leaders of Glasgow, a city that prides itself on leading the world in equality and fairness, even renamed its most fashionable quarter, just east of the city centre, as the Merchant City. It has never occurred to them – or to the rest of us – to ask just how they became rich on their mercantile excellence.

Well, a lot more of us ought to know now and we ought also to be demanding that we quietly take down the grotesque Merchant City signage and simply desist from using the term. And while we’re at it, we can also start looking at more appropriate names for Jamaica Street, Tobago Street and the Kingston Bridge, as well as the other roads and avenues that bear the imprint of evil. After all, we rightly celebrated renaming St George’s Place as Nelson Mandela Place.

Of course there is a body of resentment over “reopening old wounds” and “raking up the past”.

In 2006, the Scottish government asked two of the contributors to this volume – Dr Eric Graham and Dr Iain Whyte – to write Scotland’s Involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its Abolition: A Historical Review. It seems they didn’t like some of the home truths that the academics revealed and so they were quietly jettisoned from the project.

What possibly can be gained by bringing up the bones of a period more than two centuries ago? It’s not as if there are any real consequences; it didn’t materially alter the course of Scottish history, did it?

Here’s how and why it matters. It matters to the African people who, for hundreds of years, were considered to worthy of less regard than sewer rats. Such a prolonged period of wickedness desensitised, and continues to do so, many of us to racist attitudes and ideology. By beginning to consider our racist past, we are better able to demonstrate to our children why racism, which dehumanises those whom we consider to be inferior, is intrinsically evil.

It addresses the complacency that suffuses the recent social and cultural narrative we Scots have begun to construct about ourselves: that we are the absolute dog’s bollocks when it comes to fairness, social progressiveness and equality. That our widespread role in the conduct of evil happened relatively recently in our history means we must be vigilant in ensuring there can be no repeat.

The ugly and vindictive voices of those Scots who are already beginning to resent the presence of a few oppressed Syrian families in our midst echo the mindset that allowed the slave trade to flourish under our noses.

It is a timely reminder, too, to any Christian who believes the church has a monopoly on truth and wisdom. They said nothing when slavery was occurring and precious little about it since.

Devine and his academic cohort all acknowledge that a lot more research and study in this is required. As Devine notes: “This volume does not claim to be the final word on a subject that has been long lost to history.” While they are about their business of excavating, analysing and highlighting, the rest of us ought to get interested, too.

The Scottish government of this enlightened wee nation ought to be listening. I am now counting the days until Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past is a recommended textbook for the relevant paper in the Higher Scottish History exam syllabus.

  • This article was amended 4 December 2015 to correct to 2006 the commissioning date of Scotland’s Involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its Abolition: A Historical Review.


Kevin McKenna

The GuardianTramp

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