‘Strike for Freedom’: Frederick Douglass, Scotland, and the Slave Trade

Written by: Carissa Chew

The ‘Strike for Freedom’ treasures exhibition, displayed at the National Library of Scotland from 4 October 2018 to 16 February 2019 in commemoration of the 200 year anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s birth, celebrates the life and work of one of the most renowned black American abolitionists and his historic connections to the Scottish capital. Frederick Douglass (c.1818-1895), who escaped slavery in the US in 1838, rose to fame as a social activist who traversed the Atlantic campaigning for social justice. Douglass was one of many black abolitionists who contributed to the Scottish anti-slavery movement in the nineteenth century, and the ‘Strike for Freedom’ project celebrates Edinburgh’s role as a centre of the abolitionist movement. As part of this project, Dr Celeste-Marie Bernier, chair of black studies at the University of Edinburgh, also delivered a public lecture entitled ‘Sorrow Images in the Life of Frederick Douglass’, in which she presented her research on the symbolic role that photography played in Frederick Douglass’s anti-slavery campaign.

The memorialisation of Douglass’s contribution to the abolitionist movement in Edinburgh, however, must be considered as part of an uncomfortable, yet vital, conversation that needs to be had about Scotland’s historic relationship with the slave trade. Traditionally we see that Scotland’s role in the abolition movement has been celebrated, whilst its contribution to the slave trade has conveniently been forgotten. The social and economic ties between Scotland and the Atlantic slave trade, however, have attracted significant attention from scholars in recent years, and the extent of slavery’s legacy in Scotland is beginning to be exposed. As Celeste-Marie Bernier has stated: ‘Slavery bleeds in every building, in every brick, in every town across Scotland.’

Scotland’s Relationship with Slavery

Scotland’s relationship with slavery dates back to the 1600s, a period in which both Englishmen and Scotsmen were establishing sugar and tobacco plantations in the West Indies and the east coast of America, where their native and indentured labour forces were afforded few rights. Although England’s role in the plantation system is commonly recognised, Scotland’s involvement is lesser-known. The fact that Scotland attempted to establish its own colony in the Isthmus of Panama in the 1690s, for example, is often overlooked.

Following the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England, more and more Scottish merchants joined the English trade routes, including the notorious ‘Triangular Trade’ system. Scottish merchants and plantation owners, therefore, played an active role in fuelling the international demand for slaves. By the late 1700s, a third of Jamaican plantations were owned by Scots. Even revered Scottish poet Robert Burns, prior to his career as a poet, had initially planned to go to Jamaica to become a ‘negro driver’. Moreover, one of Scotland’s most lucrative exports in the eighteenth century was the coarse linen known as ‘slave cloth’, 90 per cent of which was exported to North America and the West Indies; in fact, by 1790, Scotland was profiting approximately £50 million (in today’s currency) from its trade with the West Indies.

Furthermore, between 1728 and 1807, Scottish slaveholders held tens of thousands of African slaves at Bunce Island, which is located off the coast of Sierra Leone. There, slaves were held in appalling conditions as if they were cattle, whilst the Scottish slaveholders enjoyed a mini Scottish paradise, relaxing on their golf courses where they dressed their slave caddies in their clan tartan. These slaves were sent to the Caribbean and the Americas: but 50 per cent of them died on board the ships, and their bodies were thrown to the sharks. The grim reality of Scotland’s role on Bunce Island has been erased from Scotland’s history. In fact, when Sierra Leone achieved independence in the 1960s, the British removed all records of slavery.

The Scottish, therefore, were actively involved, if not complicit, in the well-known horrors of slavery. British ships are estimated to have transported 3 million slaves to the plantations and mines in vessels renowned for their overcrowding: in 1788, for example, it was recorded that one ship, built for a maximum capacity of 451 people, carried 600 slaves. Many slaves tried to commit suicide by jumping overboard (an option that was later restricted by the introduction of nets) and many died from diseases such as smallpox and dysentery.

Life on the plantations was little better, where the British system of chattel slavery defined slaves as property, essentially denying them any human rights and reducing them to the same status as cattle. There were no laws in place to protect the slaves in the West Indies and America, where they were subject to murder, abuse, sexual assault, and other injustices. When slaves tried to run away in the West Indies, they were often tortured or killed upon capture. The legacy of Scottish slave owners in Jamaica resonates in the prominence of Scottish surnames there today, such as Campbell, as well as in the highland names of the coastal towns in British Guyana.

It is important that we challenge this ‘collective amnesia’ regarding the controversial history of Scotland and open our eyes to the fact that many of the institutions and infrastructures around us in Edinburgh have been built with money generated from the slave trade. In fact, once we begin to notice these historic connections, we find that the legacy of slavery in Edinburgh is disturbingly visible. The ornate Georgian architecture of the eighteenth-century buildings in New Town is an outward reflection of the wealth accumulated by merchants, plantation owners, and some of the 148 slave owners in Edinburgh who were generously compensated following the emancipation act in 1833. For example, John Gladstone (1764-1851) of Leith, father of former British Prime Minister William Gladstone, who owned some of the largest plantations in British Guyana and Jamaica, received £93,526 (£83 million in today’s money) in compensation for his 2,039 slaves (a sum of money which inevitably benefitted his son’s political career).

Moreover, a 42-metre-high statue of Henry Dundas stands in St Andrew’s Square, commemorating a man who in 1792, as Home Secretary, delayed the enforcement of William Wilberforce’s abolition bill for 15 years. To give another example, James Gillespie High School was founded by a wealthy tobacco merchant who, upon his death in 1797, donated three-quarters of his wealth – which was derived from chattel slavery in the West Indies – to the school for the education of working-class Scottish boys.


Screenshot 2019-02-17 at 12.56.08.png

The addresses of former slaveholders in Britain have been mapped by the University College London’s Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership. This image displays some of the slaveholder addresses around Edinburgh. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/maps/britain/#zoom=15&lng=-3.190026&lat=55.946172

Port Glasgow was also central to the Transatlantic Trade, and the University of Glasgow has recently acknowledged that it benefitted from the financial investment of many benefactors whose profits derived from slavery. The Merchant City in Glasgow was also built using the riches of tobacco lords and cotton kings, revered figures whose memory was commemorated through street names, which remain in use today. Furthermore, the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow now occupies the mansion that was formerly owned by Lord William Cunningham, a tobacco lord whose fortune stemmed from slavery in the Americas.

Glasgow, however, is further along than Edinburgh in acknowledging its historic connections with slavery. In fact, it has recently been proposed that the Gallery of Modern Art could be the site of a new museum commemorating Scotland’s role in the slave trade, a motion that has the support of the Glasgow City Council. The plan to open a new museum is part of a broader campaign to see Glasgow – and Scotland more broadly – recognise its role in the slave trade, which includes: plans for the erection of a statue in memorial to the victims of slavery in Glasgow; calls for the renaming of Glasgow’s streets; and proposals that Scotland should pay reparations to countries such as Sierra Leone and the Caribbean nations.

Dr Celeste-Marie Bernier’s ‘Sorrow Images in the Life of Frederick Douglass’

Born into chattel slavery in Maryland, USA, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey escaped to freedom with the financial help of his fiancé in 1838 and adopted the surname Douglass, taken from Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake. Douglass soon rose to fame for his transatlantic anti-abolition campaign, renowned for his excellence as a writer and an orator. His first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was written in Massachusetts and published in 1845. This narrative named and denounced prominent white slave owners, including Douglass’ ex-owner, Hugh Auld, and so Douglass was urged to tour Ireland to avoid any backlash.

Before going on to become a major abolitionist figure in the US where he founded an anti-slavery newspaper and published two more autobiographies, Douglass spent two years touring round Ireland and Great Britain, giving many passionate anti-slavery speeches. Arriving in Edinburgh in January 1846, Douglass remarked:

Everything is so different here from what I have been accustomed to in the United States. No insults to encounter – no prejudice to encounter, but all is smooth. I am treated as a man an equal brother. My color instead of being a barrier to social equality – is not thought of as such.

Edinburgh contributed much to Douglass’ anti-slavery journey, whilst Douglass himself made a significant contribution to the movement in Scotland: delivering his famous ‘Send back the Money’ speech in front of the the Balmoral Hotel on North Bridge, as well as giving lectures at anti-slavery meetings held at South College Street Church, Rose Street Chapel, George Street Music Hall, and Queen Street Hall, for example.

Screenshot 2019-02-17 at 12.57.55

Map of places where Frederick Douglass lived and campaigned in Edinburgh, produced by the National Library of Scotland. https://geo.nls.uk/maps/douglass/

Throughout the nineteenth century, Edinburgh attracted many major abolitionist campaigners – both British and American. Douglass was one of many former slaves to join the Scottish campaign for abolition, with other renowned names being William Wells Brown, William and Ellen Craft, and Ida B. Wells. Scotland very much functioned as a centre for the abolitionist movement, with a number of renowned Scots, such as Zachary Macaulay (1768-1838) and William Dickson (1751-1823) being major abolitionist figures, and ladies’ emancipation societies were established in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Paisley. The Church of Scotland also played an important role in petitioning parliament to abolish slavery.

Using the collections that have made their way to Edinburgh regarding the lives of Frederick Douglass, the Douglass family, and the other American abolitionists who visited Edinburgh, Celeste-Marie Bernier offered a discussion of ‘Sorrow Images in the Life of Frederick Douglass’ in a public lecture that took place on 31 January at the National Library of Scotland. In this talk, Bernier explained that Douglass viewed photography as a way to not only remember the men, women, and children who had lived and died in slavery, but also as a way to resist white racist strategies of misrepresenting African American lives. For Douglass, photography was a way of communicating the pain that slaves had suffered.

Bernier began by speaking about the horrors of slavery. Most memorably, she told of the tactics of terror that Europeans used to maintain order on board the slave ships, with the British performing ritualistic executions on deck, for example. The bodies of women who jumped overboard were dragged back to shore and beheaded in front of the African men as a warning that they could not ‘fly back to Africa’ (a belief stated by Africans who committed suicide). Douglass himself had remarked: ‘You can see a slave ship by its trail of human blood.’ Bernier also showed her audience an image of a whipping tree: with the physical scars that slavery has left on the environment being a spectre of the scars that slavery left on the bodies of its black victims.

Bernier then explained problems of working with an abusive archive in which one of the main sources on slavery is runaway slave advertisements, which portray slaves in accordance with racist stereotypes. If we read against the grain, however, Bernier noted that we can learn important details about the lives of slaves, such as the fact that many suffered with alcohol addiction. Bernier finds that Douglass’ photographs offer a ‘powerful antidote’ to these racist stereotypes that pervade the archive.

For Douglass, photographs proved the humanity of black slaves: showing there was ‘a beating heart under the skin’. In this sense, photography was a weapon. In most of his photos Bernier noted that Douglass looks away from the camera as if looking toward a new future and never smiles. These photographs also draw attention to the scar on his head, from when he was hit over the head with an iron bar aged 7. In contrast to the conventions of European portrait photography at the time, which used lots of backdrops and props and costumes, Douglass preferred simplicity. Also, given that the technological photographic conventions at this time were geared toward white people, it is significant that Douglass took control of the lighting in his portraits so that his face was illuminated.

Photography therefore played an important role in Douglass’s abolitionist campaign and personal struggle for freedom, showing the degree of agency he could exercise when it came to his self-portrayal. As a historical figure, Douglass is in many ways epitomic of Edinburgh’s relationship with the abolitionist movement, yet it is essential to remember that on the flipside of Edinburgh’s central place in the anti-slavery campaign, there remains a darker legacy of Scotland’s historic involvement with the slave trade. In the photographs of Frederick Douglass we see an elegant black man who escaped slavery and found liberty in Edinburgh, but we must not forget Scotland’s complicity in the physical scars that lie beneath his clothes and the emotional scars that are not visible. Scotland may have helped with bringing slaves their freedom, but the nation has also profited from the thousands of deaths and immense suffering that the Atlantic Slave Trade produced, and it is time to acknowledge that fact.

Cover image: Photograph of Frederick Douglass, c.1850. National Park Service.


‘“Our Bondage and Our Freedom”- Frederick Douglass in Edinburgh and Scotland’, 2018, https://geo.nls.uk/maps/douglass/; accessed 16 February 2019.

‘How slavery made modern Scotland’, 4 November 2018, www.heraldscotland.com/news/17200038.how-slavery-made-the-modern-scotland/; accessed 16 February 2019.

‘Scotland & the Slave Trade’,  2011, https://www.nts.org.uk/learn/downloads/Scotland%20and%20the%20SlaveTrade.pdf; accessed 16 February 2019.

‘Slavery and the Slave Trade’, 2019, www.nrscotland.gov.uk/research/guides/slavery-and-the-slave-trade ; accessed 16 February 2019.

‘Slavery museum to be set up in Glasgow’, 4 November 2018, www.heraldscotland.com/news/17200039.slavery-museum-to-be-set-up-in-glasgow/?ref=ar; accessed 16 February 2019.

‘Slavery, Civil War and the Frederick Douglass Family’, 2018, https://www.nls.uk/exhibitions/treasures/frederick-douglass accessed 16 February 2019.

Lambourne, Molly, ‘Edinburgh’s historical association with the transatlantic slave trade’, 23 January 2019, http://www.studentnewspaper.org/edinburghs-historical-association-with-the-transatlantic-slave-trade/; accessed 16 February 2019.

McLaren, Stephen, ‘The slave trade made Scotland rich. Now we must pay our bloodsoaked debts’, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/13/slave-trade-slavery-scotland-pay-debts; accessed 16 February 2019.

UCL Department of History, ‘Legacies of British slave-ownership’, 2019,  https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/ accessed 16 February 2019.

Williams, Nathanael, ‘The Scottish Slavery Map: Plotting out Scotland’s past’, 4 August 2016, https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/8980/scottish-slavery-map-plotting-out-scotlands-past; accessed 16 February 2019.


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