Atlantic Slave Trade Extension Article Scotland’s Role

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Atlantic Slave Trade

Extension Article – Scotland’s Role

Jackie Kay

The Guardian, Saturday 24 March 2007

Slavery is one of those subjects we all think we know about. Men were shipped, packed like sardines, as in that famous drawing by Thomas Clarkson, the abolitionist. The Africans sold their own people - this gets mentioned so often. But what spirit, eh, the African people? Mind you, there's always been slavery, the ancient Romans were at it, etc etc. We are closed to any more detail; we don't want to know. Too much information fills ordinary people, black and white, with revulsion, distaste, or worse, induces boredom. We think we've heard it all before.

When I was asked to write something to mark the 200th anniversary of abolition, I replied that I thought enough had been written about slavery. Months later, having immersed myself in original accounts and research, I realise how ignorant I was. My play, The Lamplighter, emerged out of these shocking original testimonies, focussing on the lives of three women - Black Harriot, Constance Mary and the Lamplighter - during hundreds of years of enslavement. I felt as if I was writing a love letter to my ancestors. I've emerged from the experience wondering how I'm going to write about anything else.

Most British people think of slavery as something that happened in America and perhaps the Caribbean. They know vaguely about boats, Bristol, Liverpool, and something about sugar maybe, but not that Britain was the main slave trader. Nor that two days before a slave ship docked, it could be smelt, the horrible smell of blood, faeces, vomit and rotting bodies carried downwind into the port.

Being African and Scottish, I'd taken comfort in the notion that Scotland was not nearly as implicated in the horrors of the slave trade as England. I once heard a Scottish woman proudly say: "We don't have racism up here, that's an English thing, that's down south."

I belong to Glasgow, dear old Glasgow town, but there is something the matter with Glasgow that's going round and round. Glasgow does not readily admit its history in the way that other cities in the United Kingdom have done - Bristol, Liverpool, London. Other cities are holding major events to commemorate the abolition. What's happening in Glasgow? - in the Gallery of Modern Art, for instance, which was originally Cunninghame Mansion, built in 1778, the splendid townhouse of William Cunningham, a tobacco baron? Or in Buchanan Street, the great shopping street, named after Andrew Buchanan, another tobacco lord, or in Jamaica Street, Tobago Street, the Kingston Bridge?

At school, I was taught about the industrial revolution, but not about the slave trade which financed and powered it. I was taught about the suffragettes, but not about the women abolitionists who came before them, and who went on to become them. Jane Smeal set up the Glasgow Ladies Emancipation Society in the 1830s. And as early as 1792, 13,000 Glasgow residents put their name to a petition to abolish slavery. I never learnt, for instance, that the movement to end slavery in the British Empire in the 18th century is probably the first human rights campaign in history.

What else? I was taught about James Watt's steam engine. In Balmuildy Primary School, I was in the house group Watt. I was proud of Watt's steam engine, but I was not taught that money from a slave trader financed his invention. I was taught my times tables the old-fashioned way by rote, but was not taught about the triangular slave trade.

At school, I learnt that Glasgow was a great merchant city. I learnt about the shipping industry, but not about the slave ship Neptune that arrived in Carlisle Bay, Barbados, on May 22 1731, after leaving Port Glasgow months earlier, carrying 144 enslaved Africans, half of whom were children. When they arrived they were "polished" - meaning a layer of skin was removed with fierce scrubbing - and wadding rammed up the rectum of those who had dysentery, and then put up for sale.

I learnt about the French revolution, the Russian revolution, but not about the Demerara rebellions, the St Kitts uprising. I learnt about clans and clan names and kilts and the differing tartans and the Highland clearances, but not that in Jamaica in 1770 there were 100 African people called MacDonald, or that a quarter of the island's people were Scottish. There was a network of Argyll Campbells at least 100 strong in Jamaica too, concentrated on the west of the island, where the place names were nostalgic: Argyle, Glen Islay.

Yet Scotland never acknowledges the Scottish plantation owner who was often as cruel as his English. It almost seems anti-Scottish to imagine all those MacDonalds out there in Jamaica stuffing their faces on mutton broth, roast mutton, stewed mudfish, roast goose and paw-paw, stewed giblets, fine lettuce, crabs, cheese, mush melon. Or knocking back punch, porter, ale, cider, Madeira wine and brandy - this from a true account of a plantation owner's meal in 1775 - while the enslaved Africans got whipped for sucking a sugar cane.

Marking the abolition is also marking the missing faces: the people buried at sea, the deaths in the tobacco and sugar fields. It's a common misperception that March 25 2007, is "celebrating" the abolition of slavery. It isn't. It is marking the abolition of the slave trade. Slavery itself wasn't abolished by this country until 1838.

Imagine waiting a further 31 years, after most decent people had decided that the slave trade was intolerable. Here's Pitt's speech to the house, way back on April 2 1792: "We may now consider that this trade as having received its condemnation; that its sentence is sealed; that this curse of mankind is seen by the House in its true light; and that the greatest stigma on our national character which ever yet existed is about to be removed."

If someone asks me to write something to mark the abolition of slavery in 2038, I'll be 76. Imagine the frustration of being an enslaved African in 1807, knowing the trade was supposed to have stopped because people in Britain had decided it was evil, and still being subjected to endless beatings and whippings, and still not getting a sniff of free air for another 31 years.

It's time that Scotland included the history of the plantations alongside the history of the Highland clearances. A people being cleared off their land, and taken from the Slave Coast, the Ivory Coast, the Guinea Coast to a new land. Forced to board a ship and taken on a nightmare journey from Hell.

One third of African people did not survive the journey on the ship where they were packed more tightly than in a coffin. One African woman in three did not survive the first three years in her new country. The death toll is inconceivable, the great black missing population thrown to the sharks at sea. They said the sharks followed the slave ships for the pickings. John Newton, a slave ship captain, better known for writing "Amazing Grace", wrote a log of the deaths: "Captain's Log, 23 May 1709: Buried a man slave No. 84, Wednesday 29 May. Buried a boy slave No 86. Buried a woman slave no 47 ..."

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