Scotland and the Slave Trade: 2007 Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act

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Introduction

The detailed history of the transatlantic slave trade is unfamiliar to the majority of the Scottish public. It was a period that lasted for nearly 250 years, affecting generations of people, but a period that is often dismissed.

Credit: The Kneeling Slave - 'Am I not a Man & a Brother' (oil on canvas) by English School (18th century) © Wilberforce House, Hull City Museums and Art Galleries, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: English / out

Credit: The Kneeling Slave - 'Am I not a Man & a Brother' (oil on canvas) by English School (18th century) © Wilberforce House, Hull City Museums and Art Galleries, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: English / out of copyright

Chapter 1: Introduction

The detailed history of the transatlantic slave trade is unfamiliar to the majority of the Scottish public. It was a period that lasted for nearly 250 years, affecting generations of people, but a period that is often dismissed. Although most people are appalled by the thought of slavery, there is also the attitude that it happened so long ago, that it was an 'American thing' and that very few British people had anything to do with it. The truth is it is only 200 years since the trade ended and even less since slavery was abolished in the British Empire. British ships carried just over 3.4 million Africans to slavery in the Caribbean and America.

(David Richardson, The British Empire and the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1660 - 1807 in The Oxford History of the British Empire, vol.2, The 18th Century, edited by P.J. Marshall (Oxford, 1998), 440-464; 441).

Slavery in mainland America and in the Caribbean was introduced and practised by Europeans who had established plantations and wanted cheap labour. London, Liverpool and Bristol were the main ports for the beginning and end of slaving voyages. However, other smaller ports also had their involvement such as Greenock and Glasgow. Most significantly the wealth and opportunities that slavery bought permeated across the whole of the British Isles, and can still be seen in our magnificent Georgian buildings, and street names such as Jamaica Street in Glasgow.

The history of the transatlantic slave trade is British history and Scotsmen and women played a strong part in its development as well as its abolition. These Scots, such as the slave trader and investor Richard Oswald, the abolitionist Lord Gardenstone, and the Glaswegian tobacco merchant John Glassford, are part of our history and that of slavery.

The exact figure for the number of West Africans captured and transported across the Atlantic is not known, but a conservative estimate is that approximately 10 million West Africans were enslaved by Europeans over the whole period of the slave trade and approximately 10 million more perished during the process of capture and transportation.

(Mimi Sheller, Consuming the Caribbean: From Arawaks to Zombies (London, 2003), 150. Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (London, 2005), 31)

The West Africans that were captured had their freedom removed and their own wishes ignored. Men, women and children were taken from their own countries and communities to be used as forced labour to create the wealth of the plantations. Children born to the enslaved were automatically enslaved themselves and could be sold away from their parents whenever their owner wished it. The enslaved were beaten, branded and abused, without access to the law.

The brutal transportation across the Atlantic, and the strict rules and punishments on the plantations, were used to control the enslaved, which resulted in many slaves dying during transportation or within the first year of reaching the plantation.

The severe treatment of the enslaved was carried out by ordinary British sailors, authorised by ships' captains and witnessed by ships' doctors. Scottish sailors took part in the slaving voyages, and Scottish ships' captains set out from ports in Scotland and from England on slave voyages. In addition Scottish merchants, such as Richard Oswald, were partners in slaving ventures in Scotland and the Americas and also in slave voyages that left from Liverpool, Bristol and London. Scottish merchants, including the Tobacco Lords of Glasgow, benefited from the sale of goods to West Africans and also the arrival of luxury goods from the Americas. Scottish investors, along with their English counterparts, benefited from all stages of the slave trade, including the preparations.

The plantations that the enslaved worked on were owned by European settlers. Many islands such as St Kitts and Jamaica, as well as the area of Virginia in mainland America, had Scottish owners and overseers. In Sierra Leone, West Africa, a hugely profitable private slaving fort was a London-Scottish venture. The fort, Bance Island, loaded on average 1,000 slaves a year on to ships from many countries.

In contrast the movement for the abolition of the slave trade created a model for political campaigning that still exists, and helped to introduce an era that championed the rights of the oppressed and fought the wealthy establishment. It was a grass roots movement encompassing thousands of people, many of whom campaigned tirelessly, despite not being entitled to the vote. It included ex-slaves such as Olaudah Equiano; social reformers such as Granville Sharpe; politicians such as William Wilberforce and passionate abolitionists such as Zachary Macauley. The abolition movement took nearly 40 years to reach its goal of ending the trade. However, it did not end slavery entirely: it took a further 30 years for all those people that were enslaved to be given their freedom.

During the years of British involvement in the slave trade millions of West Africans were sold to British owners and died serving them on the plantations. It was a system of forced unpaid labour that helped drive the British economy ahead of many of its rivals. British financial success from that time helped to develop the modern Britain that we live in today.

This discussion of Scotland and the Slave Trade, explores the following areas:

  • The development of the slave trade
  • The lives of the enslaved
  • Legal cases before the abolition of the Slave Trade
  • The abolition movement
  • The Parliamentary process leading to abolition
  • The turning of international opinion (1807 - 1838)
  • The legacy for Scotland, Britain and the Caribbean