Friday, September 3, 2021

The unpalatable past

 Like many countries Scotland has been looking at its past, at the difficult question of slavery and how history will look back on our nation.

I don't think it makes comfortable reading.

I’ve read quite a few times recently that we Scots played a huge role in the abolition of the slave trade and that we, as a nation,  should be very proud of the stand that we took. Glaswegians in particular seem to be deserve to be lauded for the Glasgow Anti Slavery Society. The city was regarded as one of the most forward thinking centres of abolition when the society was founded in 1822. 

But anybody having a drive round Glasgow today, down Tobago Street, Jamaica Street and indeed over to the area called  Plantation, where my dad grew up can see the history large in front of them. I’ve read that  humanitarian liberalist Robert Burns was considering moving to a plantation before he realized he could make money from poetry. 

In 1817 32% of the slaves in Jamaica were owned by Scots.

The life expectancy on these plantations for the slaves was averaged at 4 years.

 And its also fair to say that many of the Scottish industries, our schools and our churches were funded by the misery of others. We are not alone in that, but for a long time the other side of the story has been made more public, the more palatable version  that Scotland very much played a huge part in the abolition movement.

And to balance the picture, that statement is also true.

In 1778 the owning of slaves in Scotland was banned. It didn’t mean that they were freed but it meant that no one could legally be held as a slave. That wasn’t the case in England so the more profit minded Scots simply plied their trade south of the border. There are stories of Scots setting up schools to train their slaves in manual crafts and then sell them on as skilled workers, at much greater profit.

Overall, William Willberforce and Thomas Clarkson are regarded as the great movers of abolition. Willberforce was supported in many ways by two Scots called Ramsay and Macaulay. These two gentleman had worked abroad on plantation sites, mostly in the West Indies and become increasingly horrified at what they were witnessing.

To write this short blog on a very long and complicated subject, I came across a list of buildings well known incredibly beautiful buildings, that were funded by the great profits the slaves enabled the Glasgow merchants to amass. Two of this country's most famous and expensive private schools were founded by money willed from well known slave masters.

It's an incredibly complicated narrative but looking back over the 300 years or so since these events took place I’m not sure I agree with any movement that says we, as we are today, have to take some personal responsibility for it.  Be aware, absolutely. But the idea of being responsible for it, the way our ancestors were? Well,  I'm not sure that it's realistic and it's too important a subject to become a political football.

Much more important, surely, is that we learn accurately what happened in the past and the sweat, the blood and the lives of others that gave us what we have today.  And have some awareness that it does not happen again. Oppression  for financial gain is still very much with us, our throwaway society, (especially in clothes)  shows that exploitation  is alive and well in 2021.

It would be a disaster if the Scottish populace get caught up in the narrative that we stood strong against it, proud in our belief in freedom for others and always fighting on the side of the oppressed. Any walk through the streets of Glasgow down on to the docks at Kingston (it's there in the name) leads to a much more unpalative truth.

Caro Ramsay


  1. Thanks Caro. Just as I've written when describing the often awful circumstances by which great African art treasures were plundered and moved to Western countries, there is no way to take blame for happened years ago. However, I think it is incumbent of our generation to ensure that the context is well known.

  2. Having been bombarded with a plethora of cataclysmic events affecting so many entrenched aspects of our lives, it will be "interesting" to see how our societies react to the challenges.