Scotland & Empire 

Written by Angela Davis

‘People were Scotland’s most important asset’ concerning the British Empire is a discussion topic that, frankly, is perceived as an invitation for critique rather than a prompt for laudation. The premise of this discussion topic reflects a mythology that many Scots hold true: that they are “less racist” or “less implicated” in the violent imperialist expansion of the British Empire than the English. This essay discusses the collective amnesia of Scotland’s ties to the slave trade and subsequent strategies to reimagine the country’s history as enlightened and abolitionist. It will present counter-narratives. The British government criminalised the slave trade in the United Kingdom and its colonies in 1833. Nonetheless, slavery continued and thrived in Australasia under new guises. The three systems of slavery that persisted in Australia – “blackbirding”, the importation of “coolies”, and the forced unpaid labour of Indigenous Australians – were either instigated or propagated by powerful Scottish men. This essay will also consider the violent events between Scottish settlers and Indigenous Australians that led to the ruthless reputation of some Scottish settlers on the Australian Frontier. 

The deep involvement of Scotland in the Atlantic slave trade has recently become a topic of modern-day scholarship and societal discourse in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Historian Thomas Devine’s Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past and the BBC’s Slavery: Scotland’s Hidden Shame present the undeniability of this history. However, one still finds it remarkable that in some historiographical titles such as Scottish communities abroad in the early modern period, authors seldom mention, explicitly or implicitly, the role Scotland directly played in an industry that defined world history between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Moreover, Devine suggests that Christian and Enlightenment values led to the well-documented and celebrated abolitionist crusade by Scottish heroes rather than confronting the evil involved in the trade. Furthermore, the monument to abolitionist David Livingstone in Glasgow highlights a ‘white saviour’ narrative while conveniently misrepresenting Livingstone’s dependence on Arabic enslaved people and Africans. The memorial is a tangible example of the erasure and rewriting of Scotland’s history. Sometimes, distancing strategies include claiming Scotland was colonised by the English, therefore minimising Scotland’s responsibility for imperial crimes. After all, the idea of a Scottish slavedriver is incompatible with the victimised Scot of the Highlands or the progressive Scottish freedom fighter. These romantic ideals juxtapose the realities of the Scottish involvement in the colonisation of Australia. 

Statue of David Livingstone, abolitionist, in Glasgow. Photograph by Kim Traynor via Wikimedia Commons.

Extracting the Scottish thread from the British colonial narrative finds Scots were active and enthusiastic partners in the colonisation of Australia and the disposition and genocide of Indigenous Australians. Although, the interaction between Indigenous Australians and the Scots is not linear. While historian Benjamin Wilkie asserts there is evidence of sympathetic Scottish settlers, he argues that the Scots played an instrumental role in the destruction of Indigenous societies throughout Australia. In 1816, the Scottish governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, declared war against Indigenous Australians: 

“They [Indigenous Australians] … are to surrender themselves to you as Prisoners of War. If they refuse to do so, make the least show of resistance, or attempt to run away from you, you will fire upon and compel them to surrender, breaking and destroying the spears, clubs, and waddies of all those you take Prisoners. Such Natives as happen to be killed… are to be hanged up on trees… to strike the Survivors with the greatest terror.” 

This war is referred to as the Frontier Wars and current figures estimate 40,000-65,000 Indigenous and 2,000-2,500 British casualties. The battles became so violent that from the mid-1820s to 1832, the British (and it is impossible to imagine that Scots were not involved) had eradicated the entire Aboriginal Tasmanian population in history’s most apparent case of genocide. As historian Tony Barta argues, “anyone still ignorant of genocide… can be referred to the historical record.” The horrific and blood-curdling accounts in frontier journals speak for themselves.  

Scottish settlers in some areas of Australia were notorious for violence towards Indigenous Australians. In Benjamin Wilkie’s research on the Scottish in Australia, he uncovered accounts of children being beaten to death and burned alive by Scottish labourers; the deliberate lacing of arsenic in flour sent to families by a Scottish pastoralist; and one of the single most notorious massacres in Australian history led by Skye-born McMillan and his ‘Highland Brigade’ in which the men killed up to 200 Gunai men, women, and children in 1843. The cruel irony behind this story is that the men displaced by the Highland Clearances were partaking in the clearances of Indigenous Australians. It is recognised that the Stolen Generation and the generational trauma ensuing is an important topic when discussing the relationship between the Scottish and Indigenous Australians. However, a sufficient analysis is beyond the scope of this essay.  

Scottish colonisers in Australia utilised their skills and knowledge from the Atlantic slave trade to establish a lucrative and “legal” slave trade, even after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833. In the late 1830s, it became evident that convict transportation to New South Wales was ceasing. Early schemes to attract white Europeans to Australia failed, leaving the Sydney Gazette to note that “the notorious scarcity of labour at the present moment is severely felt in all parts of the country.” Thus, a demand for alternative forms of cheap labour was created. To fill this shortage, Scot John Mackay, the owner of a Bengalese indigo plantation, organised the first importation of forty-two “coolies” (Asian workers) from India. The trafficking of humans from Asia to Australia continued until 1855. Contractual obligations for the indentured labour scheme (i.e., providing food, shelter, and clothing) often were not met, and the workers were subject to kidnapping, assault, and slavery, according to The Sydney Monitor in 1838. Efforts to investigate the trade were delayed, and pressure was placed on the government to continue the importation by Edinburgh native and later politician Gordon Sandeman. These schemes of importing and exploiting a cheap labour force in Australia were not limited to Asia. 

‘Blackbirding’ was the term given to the trade of kidnapping and tricking approximately 62,000 Pacific Islanders into working on plantations in Australia for little to no money between 1863 and 1904. Benjamin Boyd, a Scottish entrepreneur and enslaver, initiated this practice in 1847. It is important to note that the conditions of this trade were terrible, as recalled by a Scottish sailor of Inverness-born blackbirder John Mackay, who estimated the mortality rate of “kanakas” (Pacific Islanders) at 60 per cent. “They worked in miserable conditions, the food was very poor – not suitable for natives. It was legalised slavery,” the “veteran seaman” quoted in the local Mackay newspaper, the Daily Mercury, in 1950. Furthermore, the reputation of the scheme in Queensland was so notorious that an Adelaide journalist in 1885 exclaimed that Queensland had become “what the United States was before the Wars of the Secession.” It is an undeniable fact that Scotland’s ‘most important assets’ were instrumental in introducing and maintaining a brutal and illegal system of slavery in Australasia. 

From William Wallace to the Jacobites to enlightened Scottish abolitionists: the idea of freedom forms the foundations of Scotland’s history and national identity. Though, the concept of freedom is not compatible with Scotland’s strong ties with slavery. Attempts to reposition Scotland’s part in the trade have resulted in collective amnesia of the horrific truths of history. In turn, the erasure of such history generates an illiterate understanding of the impacts of some Scottish nationals in perpetuating systems of racism, degradation, and exploitation. While inconvenient truths are beginning to be uncovered concerning the Atlantic slave trade, it is argued that not enough is known about the treatment of Indigenous Australians, Pacific Islanders, and Asians by the Scots in Australia. Discussing colonial crimes committed by Scotland in Australasia is necessary for reconciliation.  


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Statue of explorer and abolitionist David Livingstone in Cathedral Square, Townhead, Glasgow. Date created: 1875-9. Photos retrieved from  

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Featured images credit:  East Boyd, 1847. Oswald Brierly. Watercolour. Accessed via: Public domain.

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