History Scotland


This is a moment of national remorse, when the Black Lives Matter movement brings down the statues of slave-traders and we all reflect on the sins of our imperial past. It should also be a moment when historians reflect on the facts and context of slavery.

Scotland was indeed deeply involved in every aspect of the exploitation of black slaves in the Americas, as described in Douglas Hamilton Scotland, The Caribbean and the Atlantic World, and in Tom Devine (ed.) Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past. When slavery was eventually abolished in the British Empire in 1833, there were 426 Scottish slave owners who were awarded compensation, the biggest number per head of population of anywhere in Britain. The payment, which was exactly comparable to the payment to coal owners for loss of property under nationalisation in 1947, was generous: the biggest recipient was James Blair, who got £85,530 for 1,598 enslaved people on his estates in Guyana, the smallest was Anna Archibald who received £64 for one slave in Jamaica. The slaves got nothing.

Scotland is dotted with Victorian mansions paid for by this compensation, like Penninghame in Wigtownshire (James Blair’s home) and Poltalloch in Argyll (pictured opposite), now roofless but still impressive, once home of the Malcolms who in 1833 owned 2,000 slaves in Jamaica. They rose from being minor tacksmen of the Duke of Argyll to rival the duke himself in affluence and influence, and were great evictors of the local crofters.

The rise of Abolitionism was one of those rare points in cultural history where what had been accepted unquestioned

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