Scotland’s Dark History of Colonial Exploitation (Part 2)

By Stephen Ramsay

I spoke to leading Scottish historian Sir Tom Devine who has spent some time, and a few dozen books, laying the academic groundwork for answering such questions.  He studied at the University of Strathclyde and he was a member of their academic staff from 1969 to 1998, and its Deputy Principal in the 1990’s, he currently holds the title of Professor Emeritus of History and Palaeography at University of Edinburgh. He is also the only historian ever knighted ‘for services to Scottish history’. He shared some of his thoughts.

‘Scotland was not significantly involved in the direct trading of slaves. The figure we have (roughly four and a half thousand black slaves) is between about 1707 and the late 1750’s. After that there’s absolutely no evidence of any direct trading of slaves in Scottish ports.’

‘This is one of the reasons why the Scots could claim, from the late 19th century, that they didn’t dirty their hands with the “nefarious trade”.’

There is a paradox in this, however: the Scottish dependency on Atlantic trade commodities such as tobacco, sugar, cotton, and rum for economic development, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was disproportionately greater than that of the more often condemned English, who were far more developed, and diversified in terms of trade – in fact, Scotland was likely more dependent on this market than any other European nation. Moreover, the transformation of Scotland taking place during this time was both profound and widespread.

This can also be seen in Universities in Scotland, where it was essentially a two-way process: racist ideas flowed out, and money from rich slave-owning (or ex-slave-owning) merchants flowed in. The University of Glasgow, which commissioned a report into historical donations, concluded in September of 2018 that it had benefited from the profits of racial slavery to the tune of between £16.7 million and £198.7 million in today’s money.

In the name of reparation, they put £20 million towards funding a joint centre for development research with the University of the West Indies.

What about the University of Strathclyde? The Andersonian Institution, its precursor, was founded as a ‘centre for useful learning’, a name that has persisted to this day although in was named in 1796. It doesn’t take much of a leap, therefore, to begin some morbid reflection on the reality of what was considered ‘useful’ in late 18th and early 19th century Scotland.

Until recently, Scotland’s underdog complex arguably hampered a fair assessment of this sort. 

‘The thing for 18th and early 19th century Scots is, the vast majority had no idea that colonial slavery was necessarily a bad thing. Don’t forget it was the basis of their economic development. They also had racist attitudes. Then, when it gets to the point where people have a choice, and their eyes have been opened by the abolition movement, then I think condemnation is possible.’

If we’re lucky, the Brits of the future  will be able to look back at present-day scandals such as the betrayal of the Windrush generation and the arbitrary denial of access to NHS care for terminally ill and destitute asylum seekers, and wonder, aghast, at how we could have let it all happen. Ignorance may still run rampant; whether it is of the invincible, or the vincible variety, however, remains an open question.

Perhaps, they will conclude, we were simply too busy worrying about “our own” problems. Worse still, we were mistaking those seeking refuge for the problem. Had our eyes not yet been sufficiently opened to the insidious nature of racism?

The hope is that we Scots are now more attuned to some of these issues and that it won’t lead to complacency on the issue of racism, a complacency that Scotland evidently has no right to hold. 

If there is to be any remedy, then, our societies would do well to recognise that the true problems of this island, and the problems of those living beyond our own shores, are not so separate. Indeed – though they seem far off at the moment, time will likely reveal them to be fundamentally the same.