The history of Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade is a complex and often overlooked aspect of the nation’s past. Between 1500 and 1860, Europeans enslaved over 12 million West Africans and forcibly deported them to the Americas. Britain was the second biggest slaving nation after Portugal, selling three million African people into slavery.
The Union of Scotland and England
In 1707, the Union of Scotland and England marked a turning point in Scotland’s participation in the slave trade.
After the Union, North East Scots eagerly claimed a share of the riches generated by slavery, particularly in the Caribbean. Before the Union, Scots could not share in the commercial opportunities enjoyed by the English in their expanding empire. However, after 1707, Scottish investment and employment overseas grew rapidly.
The American and Caribbean colonies were particularly attractive for Scots who had supported the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745-6, as people going there did not have to swear allegiance to the crown. In Asia, British commerce was controlled by the East India Company, which required that its employees support the British sovereign and belong to the established church.
The Atlantic Slave Trade
The three-part journey undertaken by British slaving ships in the ‘Triangular Trade’ involved first leaving European ports laden with goods for sale in West and Central Africa. In West Africa, the enslavers exchanged these goods for African war captives, whom they loaded onto their ships like cargo.
The second leg of the journey was the Middle Passage, during which the enslaved people were taken across the Atlantic to the Americas. This part of the voyage was a terrifying experience for the people crammed below decks, with thousands perishing due to disease, despair, or fighting for their freedom.
In the Americas, the enslavers sold their surviving captives to European planters as enslaved labourers. They then loaded up with plantation produce – sugar, rum, tobacco, coffee, and cotton – and sailed back to Europe on the final leg of their voyage.
Scots in the Caribbean
Many Scots went to the islands Britain conquered after 1750, such as Dominica, Grenada, Trinidad, and Tobago. They also went to Jamaica, which the English had taken from Spain in 1655. This large island still had plenty of uncultivated land in the north and west at the time of the Union, which is where Scottish investors established large and profitable sugar plantations.
During the 1830s, a disproportionate number of slave owners came from Scotland. Although constituting 10% of the British population, the region accounted for 15% of absentee slave owners with Scottish addresses. These individuals were scattered across various locations, including Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeenshire, Sutherland, Highlands, and borders. A significant number of Scottish slave owners were also present within the diaspora across England, Ireland and the Caribbean colonies.
The early 19th-century Scottish economy experienced substantial growth, with slavery playing a vital role in fueling its expansion and investment into industrial sectors like railways and finance. Several affluent and influential Glasgow merchants participated in West India trade which led to the formation of the Glasgow West India Association in 1807. This organisation served to safeguard their commercial interests while lobbying against slavery abolition efforts.
Scotland’s role in West Africa
Although slaving ships did not sail from Aberdeen and few enslaved Africans were sent to North East Scotland, North East merchants were responsible for forcibly deporting thousands of West Africans to the Americas.
One such venture involved Sir Alexander Grant of Dalvey, who bought an old slaving fort on Bance Island, at the mouth of the Sierra Leone River, in 1748. Along with Richard Oswald of Caithness and others, they repaired the fort, and between 1749 and 1784, their employees in Sierra Leone sold over 12,000 African men, women, and children to slave ships.
These merchants did not capture the people themselves; instead, they imported guns, alcohol, metal, and cloth to exchange with local kings who brought captives to sell at Bance Island.
Sir Alexander Grant of Dalvey
Alexander Grant (1705-1772) was a key figure in Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade, having made his fortune in Jamaica before moving on to the slaving venture at Bance Island.
Grant studied basic pharmacy at Aberdeen before sailing to Jamaica at age 17 to make his fortune. He initially worked as a doctor for enslaved people in sugar plantations owned by his cousins. Within ten years, he had bought his own plantation and opened a trading enterprise in Kingston.
In 1737, Grant married Elizabeth Cooke, daughter of a wealthy plantation owner from Bristol. They left Jamaica in 1739 and settled in London, where Grant continued to expand his business. In 1752, he bought the estate of Dalvey near Forres, Morayshire, and served as MP for Inverness Burghs from 1761 to 1768.
Slaving Forts in Africa
Fortified trading posts like Bance Island were built around the coast of West and Central Africa by various European traders.
These forts were not solely used for slave trading, as Europeans also bought gold, spices, ivory, wood, and palm oil in West Africa. However, the largest forts often included cells or dungeons where African captives were kept for months, awaiting sale to passing slave ships.
Many of the forts were large, solid structures armed with cannons to fight off attackers – both rival European traders arriving by sea and African forces attacking from inland.
West African kings and chiefs in the slave trade
Europeans relied heavily on African trading partners to bring captives to them for the slave trade, as they seldom travelled far inland in Africa.
Powerful kings and chiefs in Africa played a significant role in the slave trade. They sold criminals and debtors from their own people into slavery but most commonly waged wars against neighbouring countries to procure prisoners for sale to Europeans. They often conducted these wars with guns supplied to them by Europeans.
Some of the most notorious slave traders were the kings of Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin), who conducted relentless raids against their neighbours, making their port of Whydah one of the most important calling points for ships looking to buy slaves.
The legal status of slavery
It was legal for one person to own another as a piece of movable or transferable property in British colonies until 1834, when slavery was prohibited by parliament.
This legal right extended to Europeans and formerly enslaved people of African or African-European descent. In Britain itself, the situation was different. In 1772, Lord Mansfield ruled that an African American enslaved person who had escaped from his master while visiting England could not be compelled to return to America. This case, known as the Somersett vs Stewart case, undermined the notion that slavery was legal within England.
In Scotland, the justice system issued a more unambiguous ruling against local slavery in 1778 in Knight vs Wedderburn. Joseph Knight, an African-born man, was enslaved and brought from Jamaica to Scotland by enslaver John Wedderburn of Ballendean. The Court of Session in Edinburgh ruled emphatically that slavery was not recognised by Scots law and that Wedderburn could not compel Knight to stay with him.
Legacy and remembrance
Today, the early links between Scotland and the Caribbean have largely been forgotten. It is essential to remember and acknowledge this history to fully understand the impact that the slave trade had on both Scotland and the African continent. Through education and awareness, we can ensure that history is not forgotten and that future generations understand the consequences of this dark chapter in human history.