Academic Features Reviews

Teach-Out Review: How Slavery Changed a City: Edinburgh’s Slave History

Written by Lewis Twiby. As part of the teach-outs currently happening in solidarity with the UCU Strike, the History Society and the African and Caribbean Society hosted a very informative talk on Edinburgh’s connection to the slave trade.

Written by Lewis Twiby.

As part of the teach-outs currently happening in solidarity with the UCU Strike, the History Society and the African and Caribbean Society hosted a very informative talk on Edinburgh’s connection to the slave trade. Chaired by two History undergraduates, Jamie Gemmell and Isobel Oliver, three experts – Sir Geoff Palmer, professor emeritus at Heriot-Watt, Lisa Williams, the director of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association, and Professor Diana Paton, our own specialist in Caribbean slavery in HCA – gave short speeches, and then answered, questions about Edinburgh’s slavery connections. In keeping with the ideals of the strike, of resistance and hope for a future, the speakers aimed to move away from traditional narratives of subjugation, instead focusing more on rehumanising enslaves peoples, discussing resistance, and how we can educate others on slavery.

     Sir Geoff Palmer was first to speak, beginning his talk on how he moved to London from Jamaica, and eventually up to Edinburgh in 1964. He discussed how, where Potterrow is now, was where the Caribbean Student Association was located, and how this talk would never have happened in 1964. Sir Palmer then went on to discuss the economic and ideological ties Edinburgh had to slavery. This included how David Hume used slavery as evidence for Africans being of lower intelligence, which, in turn, became a justification for the enslavement of Africans. He further highlighted how the literal structure of Edinburgh is partially built upon slavery. Scots owned 30% of Jamaican plantations, amassing to around 300,000 people, and the staggering wealth which was made through slavery helped built the city. 24 Fort Street, 13 Gilmore Street, York Place, and Rodney Street all had slave owners living there – Rodney Street is even named after an admiral who defended Jamaica from the French. The person who received the largest government compensation following the abolishment of slavery in 1834, John Gladstone, lived in Leith and received £83 million in today’s money. Despite the dark history of exploitation, Sir Palmer had some hope. He emphasised how having these talks was a step towards a brighter future, and stated ‘We can’t change the past, but we can change the consequences’.

     Professor Diana Paton continued after Sir Palmer, and wanted to look at the everyday aspects of slavery, and the rehumanisation of those enslaved. She explained that many of those who had plantations in Edinburgh actually inherited them – the horrors of slavery meant that plantation owners had biological children, but they were fathered by on enslaved women in an exploitative system, and many were barred from inheritance. As a result, inheritance subtly spread the influence of slavery in Edinburgh. For example, the Royal Infirmary in the 1740s received £500 from Jamaican slaveholders as a donation, and in 1749 was left in a will a 128-acre plantation with 49 enslaved people. Margareta McDonald married David Robertson, the son of HCA’s ‘founder’ William Robertson, and then inherited a plantation from her uncle, Donald McDonald. The callous attitudes they held towards people showed the dehumanisation of slaves, according to Professor Paton. The infirmary, a place of healing, rented out slaves earning £20,000 a year in today’s money, and a letter in the 1790s from Margareta asked whether she would get money from selling her slaves. However, Professor Paton also wished to rehumanise those enslaved and try to piece parts of their lives back together. For example, using the inventory of the McDonald’s, she found out about the life of Bella, born in Nigeria she was around 30 in 1795, and tragically passed away in 1832 – just two years before emancipation. Professor Paton stressed that by looking for people like Bella we can remind the public that those enslaved were not just nameless masses, but real, breathing people.

     Lisa Williams then began her speech, stating that her own Grenadian heritage, and the works of figures like Sir Palmer, inspired her to create the Edinburgh Caribbean Association. Williams wanted to break the exploitation of black historical trauma by creating the Black History Walks – specifically it was not a walking tour of slavery, although slavery is covered. Instead, it traces the forgotten history of Edinburgh’s Caribbean and African population since the sixteenth-century. In the 1740s, where the Writer’s Museum is today, a black boy worked as a servant and was baptised; Malvina Wells from Carriacou was buried in St John’s Kirkyard during the 1887; and how the mixed-race Shaw family even inherited slaves. Williams further emphasised the ideological impact of slavery, both in the past and today. Some white abolitionists, including William Wilberforce, exposed racist beliefs, so non-white abolitionists, like the Robert Wedderburn, challenged slavery and racial bigotry. Meanwhile, John Edmonstone from Guyana taught Darwin taxidermy and biology, something now believed to inspire him to go on his journey where he began developing the theory of evolution. She then discussed how the impact of slavery in Scotland today impacts education. Pride in the Scottish Enlightenment, a lack of teaching in the past, and racism in present society, a by-product of slavery, meant that this has been forgotten by society. However, she further argued that shifts in public opinion over reparations, including Glasgow University’s recent announcement that they would start looking at reparations, opens the doors for new educational opportunities. She concluded saying that the first look at African history and slavery should not be through the slave trade, instead it should be with African civilisations being taught in schools and the events of the Haitian Revolution.

     The question section, split into two with set one by the hosts and set two from the audience, cannot be adequately summarised here. This section of the teach-out allowed the speakers to elaborate on ideas they had wanted to discuss earlier, and the intellectual and emotional impact from this cannot be accurately represented here. Instead two themes cropped up throughout the discussion: education and decolonisation. Even then, these two themes were interconnected and can be best described as education through decolonisation. Sir Palmer, for example, spoke of how more research was needed to trace the economic and intellectual connections institutions had to slavery. Old College was partially funded through plantation profits, and how graduates from the medical school went to work on slave ships and plantations. This was echoed by Williams and Professor Paton – Williams cited how UncoverEd literally uncovers the forgotten history of the university, and how this was needed to be done elsewhere, not just in universities. Professor Paton echoed that the study of the Scottish Enlightenment had to be radically challenged, how their views on race helped justify slavery and the emergence of racism how we know it today. This further raises the question of should we even be naming buildings and raising statues of these people? The passion of the speakers is one thing to take away from this – Williams’ drive to challenge heritage sites in Scotland to acknowledge slavery and abolition, and Professor Paton’s description of education and public memory in Scotland about slavery as ‘insulting’ highlighted their desire for change. A direct quote from Sir Palmer remains with me, and shows why we need to study the past and decolonise, we have to ‘find out what is right, not do what is wrong’.

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