Britain has long had a complicated relationship with its historical links to the slave trade, wherein UK-owned businesses derived huge financial profits from slave plantations in its colonial outposts, such as the West Indies. In recent years this piece of our history has come under renewed scrutiny, and efforts are being made to understand, acknowledge and reconcile the myriad ways in which slavery shaped our industries, cities and culture.
Edinburgh in the eighteenth century was home to a significant number of traders and businessmen whose interests were drawn from overseas. Much of the New Town as we see it today grew from the fortunes amassed by people like Thomas Duncan, who owned 332 slaves on plantations in Grenada; Alexander Murchison, who had two estates in Jamaica where he kept 191 slaves; John McGlashan, who had 194 slaves on his land in Jamaica; and Sir John Sinclair, who owned over 600 slaves in St Vincent in the Caribbean.
These connections are still visible in street names across the city - see Jamaica Street and Antigua Street in the New Town, and Sugarhouse Close in the Old Town, site of a sugar refinery processing sugar from the Caribbean from the 1750s.
In all, Scots owned and operated around one third of all plantations in Jamaica, producing coffee and sugar - that's around 300,000 slaves. Perhaps ironically, we can put quite precise figures on the number of slaves involved in many of these businesses because when slavery was abolished compensation was paid to the slave owners, to recompense them for the property they were losing...
Here are some of Edinburgh's slave trade connections, where the legacy of slavery has left its mark upon the city.
Henry Dundas, the 1st Viscount Melville, was born in Edinburgh in 1742 and became one of the most powerful political figures of the late eighteenth century - the monument to him on St Andrew Square in the New Town is testament to his status as a public figure of the age.
He would become the last member of the British Houses of Parliament to be impeached, but his reputation in recent years has been largely defined instead by his role in the abolition (or not) of the slave trade in Britain and its colonies.
In 1792 Dundas proposed an amendment to William Wilberforce's law to abolish slavery in UK businesses. Whilst he supported the principle of abolition, Dundas's intervention introduced the word 'gradual' to the proposed bill, on the basis that outright abolition overnight would simply drive the slave trade underground, and that other countries would step into the gap left by British businesses - neither of which would be good for the enslaved people themselves.
His proposal was that children born to current slaves working for UK businesses would be freed once they reached adulthood, a suggestion opposed by the House of Lords, who wouldn't approve a bill to abolish UK slavery until 1807 - during which time an estimated half a million more people were born into slavery for British businesses.
By this process, Dundas is considered by some people to have been a supporter of abolition, whilst others argue that he acted to block or delay the end of slavery.
But arguably his more significant impact on slavery in Scotland predates his time as an MP.
Back in the 1770s he was an lawyer in Edinburgh, operating from premises on Advocate's Close in the Old Town, and defended a man named Joseph Knight, who had been sold as a slave to a Scottish trader in the West Indies and brought back to Scotland. After several years of service, Knight wanted to live with his wife (whom he had married in Scotland) and child. But his owner refused the request, and Knight felt no choice but to run away.
When his owner had Knight arrested, the case went all the way to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, the highest court in the land. There Dundas argued that, in Scotland, "no man is by nature the property of another," and that principles of slavery as they existed elsewhere were incompatible with Scottish law.
As a result of Dundas's successful legal representations, Knight and his family were freed from slavery, and thereafter any slaves brought to Scotland on trade ships were automatically freed on arrival in the country - it was now enshrined in Scottish law that no person on Scottish soil could be enslaved.
A commemorative plaque, dedicated to this 1778 ruling, was unveiled at the Court of Session in 2022.
TOBACCO AND BOYS
Even before the New Town was built on the profits of such businesses, huge quantities of slave-generated products were generating cash which then circulated in Edinburgh.
One major historical figure was James Gillespie, who operated a snuff and tobacco shop on the Royal Mile in the middle of the eighteenth century - a plaque at the site marks the location today. He was a well-known figure in the late eighteenth century, noted for his frugal lifestyle and miserly ways.
But the plantations which provided him with the product that he sold - and from which he amassed a significant fortune - were slave plantations, located in Virginia in the eastern United States.
On his death, the unmarried Gillespie left a significant estate of property in Edinburgh, and £12,000 in cash - nearly £2m in modern money - from which a quarter was set aside to establish a school for boys, which continues to operate (as James Gillespie's High School) today.
A STEP TOWARDS NATURALISM
When Charles Darwin studied at the University of Edinburgh in the 1820s he was learning medicine under the tutelage of Alexander Monro - a man he disliked (and possibly with good reason).
Darwin lived near to the Old College where he studied, at number 11 Lothian Street, where a plaque commemorates his time in Edinburgh. But he also came to know another of Lothian Street's residents, a freed slave named John Edmonstone. He had formerly been one of over 600 slaves owned by a Scottish trader named Charles Edmonstone (from whom he took his surname) who operated sugar plantations in Demerara, now part of Guyana.
John Edmonstone arrived in Scotland with the Edmonstone family in 1817, and on arrival became automatically a free man. He established himself in Edinburgh, where he lived at 37 Lothian Street and worked for the museum of Edinburgh Zoo, and taught taxidermy to university students.
Darwin is known to have taken private taxidermy lessons from John Edmonstone, for which he paid a guinea an hour, and it is this experience - as well as hearing Edmonstone's stories or the flora and fauna of the South American lands he had visited - that is partly credited with turning Darwin's interest away from human medicine and towards the naturalism for which he is now remembered.
(A plaque in John Edmonstone's name went missing after it was unveiled, and its current location is unknown.)
In St John's churchyard, at the west end of Lothian Road, you can find the only known grave in Edinburgh of a person born into slavery.
Malvina Wells had been born in Granada in 1804, her mother a slave and her father a plantation worked named John Wells.
As with John Edmonstone, Malvina Wells is thought to have travelled back to Scotland with her owner sometime in the early nineteenth century, receiving her freedom on arrival, and by 1851 is recorded as working as a ladies maid for the Macrae family. Thanks to the census records we can track her journey around the city over the next thirty years - she lived on Thistle Street in 1861, was working for the Gordon family on Randolph Crescent in 1871, and in 1881 was back working for the widow Macrae at Gloucester Place.
Malvina died at 14 Gloucester Place on 22 April 1887, at the age of 82. She was buried at St John's church, with a marble stone commissioned by the Macrae family.
A VOICE OF CHANGE
Despite slavery having been finally abolished in the UK (and its overseas territories) in 1833, slave ownership was still occurring across the southern United States, and people were being encouraged to speak out or support American abolitionist causes to secure freedom for the enslaved people across the Atlantic.
Frederick Douglass had been born into slavery in Maryland in 1818, but secured his freedom in 1838 and published his biography - Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave - in 1845. He travelled to Britain in 1846 to promote the book and to speak in support of the abolitionist cause, and between 1846 and 1847 lived in Edinburgh.
Douglass had taken his surname from a Walter Scott poem, The Lady of the Lake, and came to Scotland because of the popular imagery of the country that Scott had created. He visited Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and Kilmarnock to speak about his experiences and to draw attention to the Free Church of Scotland's acceptance of financial support from American slavers. Inciting crowds to chant 'Send back the money!' he was a popular speaker, even if his efforts to shame the Free Church authorities were unsuccessful.
Douglass spoke at venues including the Assembly Rooms on George Street, and at the Waterloo Rooms (now a restaurant) on Waterloo Place. He lived for a time at Gilmore Place where a plaque commemorates his stay, and a public mural of his face can be found on the side of a building.
AN AMERICAN MONUMENT
Douglass became a familiar and popular figure for his campaigning throughout the American Civil War, when he conferred directly with Abraham Lincoln (and later Andrew Johnson) on issues relating to the emancipation and suffrage of slaves.
On seeing the official Emancipation Memorial, unveiled in Washington in 1876, where he was the keynote speaker for the dedication ceremony, Douglass criticised the design which, he said, represented a freed slave which "though rising, is still on his knees and nude. ... What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man.”
Perhaps he might have approved more of the only American Civil War memorial outside of North America, which can be found in Edinburgh's Old Calton Burial Ground.
Topped with a statue of Lincoln - the first statue of an American president to be raised outside of America - the monument shows a figure representing the freed slaves rising, and holding in his left hand a book. This was a subtle (and forward-thinking) way of indicating that this is a man, educated, literate, with his own internal, intellectual world, and not merely an object of property.
It seems fitting for a city like Edinburgh, with such deep links to the horrors of the slave trade, to have a significant memorial to the US Civil War. But it's a minor gesture in the grand scheme of things, and the discussion about effective reparations continues to be ongoing, as well as the debate about how best to handle reminders of the past and the exploitation and suffering that was inflicted on so many, for the betterment of so few.
Some people and advocacy groups want to see monuments to those who profited from slavery to be removed, to have street names replaced. Edinburgh's position is to retain and explain: to keep the monuments and the names and the buildings and the features, but to ensure the stories are told and the history is made visible, so that people can better understand the experiences, effects and consequences of such historical acts and decisions.
It's not a solution which will suit everyone, but feels in keeping with the ethos of a city where history is never far from the surface, and where every detail tells us something of the people who have come before us.
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