Reckoning with our historical connections to slavery

Henry Dundas's statue stands on the Melville Monument in the centre of Edinburgh. Discussion have been ongoing since 2018 about a new plaque being put up, now they are talking about removing the statue altogether. Photograph: BBC

Want to read more?

We value our content and access to our full site is only available with a  subscription. Your subscription entitles you to 7-day-a-week access to our website, plus a full digital copy of that week’s paper to read on your pc/mac or mobile device.  In addition, your subscription includes access to digital archive copies from 2006 onwards.

Just want to read one issue? No problem you can subscribe for just one week (or longer if you wish).

Already a subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Across Scotland, people have begun considering the ways that our history is intricately tied to that of slavery and racial oppression.

It’s easy to regard the past as irrelevant to us today, to think of history as a  faraway thing confined to textbooks, read and taught in schools, capable of giving a ‘correct’ recollection of history; celebrating the British Empire, treating the commonwealth as anything but a legacy of brutal colonialism, and having voluntary amnesia over British links to slavery. Yet history is not stuck in the past, it weighs heavy on our present, having fundamentally shaped the places where we live and our own lives and relations with one another. What’s more, history can also teach us about power and how in the UK this is intricately linked to the legacy of racial and ethnic oppression and exploitation, whose after effects still continue.

The truth is that there are few places in Scotland we can go without being near the legacy of slavery. While Scotland is primarily known for its contribution to its abolition, the nation was also deeply complicit in its trades and practices, which greatly benefited several powerful Scottish families and helped shape the Scottish industrial era.

For instance, during industrialisation, Scotland was engaged in three of the main trades associated with slavery (tobacco, cotton and sugar), all of which were carried out through the exploitation and oppression of people taken by force from their homelands. In fact, Scotland was the biggest hub for the tobacco trade in all of Western Europe, with Oban one of its trading ports.

Beyond trading connections, a disproportionate amount of British-owned plantations (and hence slaves) in the Caribbean were owned by Scots. Economic and political influence stretched across the Atlantic. An example is Malcolm 12th of Poltalloch who made his wealth owning sugar plantations in the Caribbean, and through his expansive lands in Argyll and Bute also further entrenched inequalities within land relations still existing today.

Several Scottish slave and plantation owners also held investments in infrastructure development and businesses back home, turning it into an economic question which apparently trumped moral concerns. The consequence of this was that prominent Scottish politicians pushed back against abolition, including Scottish Tory Henry Dundas whose influence is marked by a statue in St Andrew Square in Edinburgh. Shockingly, at the end of British slavery government reparations were made not to the enslaved peoples, but to slave owners for their “lost property” through a loan that the UK government didn’t pay off until 2015, through the help of taxpayers’ money. Following abolition, several slave owners reinvested these funds across Scotland, for instance making the expansion of the railway lines possible, railway lines we still use today.

Oban, as a town that’s been shaped by overseas trade and by its accessibility via sea and rail, has a history deeply entangled with that of slavery and racial oppression. We hope that by seeing this, we can gain a more nuanced and inclusive understanding of our own histories and present, and let it inform our dreams for the future world we want to see and work towards. It also helps illuminate the legacy of power that emerged from systems of racism, oppression, exploitation and capital, and may help us grapple with this legacy moving forward.