'Slaves and Highlanders, Silenced Histories of Scotland and the Caribbean', by David Alston (published by Edinburgh University Press)
This is an excellent example of a scholarly book: detailed, well-documented, judicious, clearly structured and carefully argued. Meticulous throughout. At the same time, it is a deeply disturbing, sometimes shocking work, and not easy to read.
It is a book about slavery. About how in the almost two centuries before the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, and of slavery itself in 1833, not thousands, not hundreds of thousands, but no fewer than seven million Africans were shipped across the north Atlantic to the colonies of what became the British Empire. Another five and a half million crossed the south Atlantic to the empires of Spain and Portugal. These are but statistics – and statistics are desperately dehumanising. It is one of the primary achievements of Alston's book that he reminds us – and even illustrates – how each one of that immense number was an individual man, woman or child.
But that is the reality that the slave trade chose to ignore. The very name 'the slave trade' gives the game away. Trade is a question of the movement of goods and products of every kind between different countries. The slave trade could only exist as long as slaves were regarded as objects, just another cargo, rather than human beings. Once that ceased to be accepted, abolition would eventually happen. Still, abolition was a long time in coming.
Slavery was also all about money. Slaves were bought, sold or auctioned like all other forms of goods. And for those who owned them, slaves were above all a source of profit. Colonies were worth having only for the wealth that could be extracted from what they produced – be it sugar, cotton, hemp, or rum in the case of the West Indies. Exploiting these resources was all the more profitable when the labour involved was undertaken by unpaid slaves.
What would become the British Empire began to emerge across the Atlantic early in the 17th century – initially with the island of Barbados in the 1620s. Ignored by the Spanish and Portuguese, Barbados was densely forested and grew nothing of value. Yet, astonishingly, within 25 years, it was producing more wealth than anywhere else in the English-speaking world – thanks above all to slavery. Between 1627 and 1700, 236,725 enslaved Africans were transported there, whereas only 119,208 reached the somewhat later acquired Jamaica. By 1808, a further 371,794 arrived in Barbados meaning that up to abolition, above 600,000 had been transported there.
What happened in Barbados was also vitally important in the sense it was there that the system of the large plantation was developed as the most profitable form of colonial exploitation. That was the system that would flourish in the rest of the West Indian islands acquired by the British in the 18th century: Jamaica, Grenada, Tobago, St Vincent, Dominica and elsewhere. Some of these were originally Dutch but were ceded to the British. That was also true of Guyana in the north-western mainland of South America which would eventually become British Guiana. All of these locations were worked by African slaves. Thus, for example, between 1791-93, 25,000 slaves were brought to Grenada alone. Slave trading had become the biggest of businesses.
What was the role of Scotland in this history? The subtitle of this book provides the answer. In the conventional history of Scotland, the country's involvement in slavery has been glossed over. The history of Glasgow is a perfect example. The Clyde to and from West Africa and North America became busy trading routes. But what we hear most about is how, unlike Liverpool, Bristol, and London, Glasgow never became a slave trade port. Nevertheless, Glasgow benefitted immensely from slavery. The tobacco trade with North America became a major source of the city's wealth in the second half of the 18th century, and the reality was that the tobacco grown in Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas, was totally dependent on slave labour. Similarly, Scottish merchants were deeply involved in the slave trade even if their offices were in London.
The cover-up goes even further. There are those who argue that, post the Union of 1707, Scotland itself became no more than a colony, oppressed and exploited by its more powerful southern neighbour. The cruelties and injustices of the Highland clearances of the mid-19th century are cited as proof of this imperial exploitation. David Alston flatly rejects all such arguments, insisting that the pain of the clearances, however great, can in no way be compared to the reign of terror endured by generations of African slaves.
In the body of his book, Alston, largely through a series of case studies of individuals and families, reveals just how far Highlanders were involved in every aspect of slavery and the slave trade. Highland soldiers helped to garrison the castles and forts on the west coast of Africa where thousands of kidnapped Africans were imprisoned until being shipped across the Atlantic. Some of the best known and most successful slavers were captained by Scots on the Middle Passage to the West Indies and the Final Passage to Guyana and elsewhere. But most significant of all is the number of Scots who saw the slave plantations of the British colonies as places to make their fortune.
Between 1750 and 1800, some 17,000 Scots left Scotland for the West Indies. Most were successful – a few did make a fortune. Scots too were active in the slave trade itself. For example, between 1785 and 1796, 23% of enslaved Africans sold in Jamaica were traded through Scottish slave factors. But the great majority of Scottish colonists simply sustained the slave plantation system. What that meant was that the Scots, like the colonists in general, were complicit in the worst forms of brutality used to subjugate the working slaves. Their black slaves outnumbered white colonists to an extraordinary degree. In the Berbice section of Guyana, 500 whites owned 20,000 slaves.
In 1807, when the slave trade was abolished, 3,000 whites in Berbice and Demerara owned 100,000 slaves. Slave uprisings did occur from time to time – often supported by the hundreds of slaves who had escaped into the forests around the plantations. But, in the end, all were brutally suppressed and the captured horrifically executed as a warning to others. Some Scottish plantation owners opposed abolition or even the amelioration of the conditions under which slavery existed. The system required that the terrorising and brutalising of slaves should remain in place.
In the concluding chapters of his book, Alston describes the legacies of slavery in the north of Scotland. There is fascinating material here about house slaves brought back to Scotland to work in their owners' homes, about freed slaves who chose to remain in Scotland, and about the lives of the large number of mixed-race children brought home by their Scottish fathers. It is depressing to learn that the racism that is still with us today flourished in the 19th century to a far greater degree than it had done in the 18th.
This claims to be a book about Highlanders. Would one about Lowlanders be different? I suspect not. Is it fair to remember that that democratic icon of Scottish culture, Robert Burns, was in 1786 within days of sailing from Greenock to take up a job as an overseer of slaves on a Scottish-owned West Indian plantation when the sudden success of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect
made him change his mind?
Andrew Hook is Emeritus Bradley Professor of English Literature at the University of Glasgow