Scotland and the Commonwealth: ‘Our Worthy Countrymen?: Highland Development and the West Indies, 1750-1850’

Published on: Author: CSCS 1 Comment

On 21 January 2014, the Centre was pleased to welcome Dr Karly Kehoe (Glasgow Caledonian University) to discuss ‘Our Worthy Countrymen?: Highland Development and the West Indies, 1750-1850’. This lecture continued the ‘Scotland and the Commonwealth’ series convened by Lizanne Henderson. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Dr Kehoe’s lecture focused on Highland development and the Caribbean during the second wave of colonisation between 1750-1850. Recently, Dr Kehoe worked with students from Inverness Royal Academy which was funded with profits from the slave trade. Many of the students were unaware of this connection and were duly shocked. By working with secondary schools as part of the project ‘Looking Back To Move Forward’, Dr Kehoe aims to imbue future generations with greater social conscience and raise awareness of past (and present) ethical dilemmas. In the wider academic field, Highland scholars have been acknowledged as leading the way with new research into this era of British history, which has often been suppressed–‘a can of worms’ that should not be opened.

The Seven Years’ War saw France cede control of several Caribbean colonies, including Grenanda, Carriacou, St. Vincent and Dominica. This was an unexpected opportunity for land ownership and labour for Highlanders who had missed out on the first wave of colonisation. Although some French settlers stayed on these islands following the cession, the wealth of the lands lay largely untapped. For example, Tobago had 50-60,000 acres of cultivable land, but within the first few years only c.4,600 acres had been sold. Unworked land would quickly fall into decay in the tropics, an unacceptable loss of revenue; this extra land desperately needed planters. The general view of British Imperialism dictated that the most suitable planters were the English, followed by Lowland Scots. Highland Scots were considered marginally more worthy than the Irish, yet both were regarded as ‘problem populations’ in their own right. Significantly, the Highland Clearances were contemporary with this phenomenon, and Dr Kehoe argued that this engagement with Empire provided a solution to the ‘problem’ of the Highlands through organic enterprise, as opposed to imposed legislation.

Although there was plenty of land up for grabs for the wealthy, all levels of Highland society were attracted by the prospects offered by these islands. Many Highlanders of the middling classes sought riches in the colonies, such as Thomas Fraser from Inverness, who left home to work on cotton plantations as a labourer. In the end, his gamble paid off, and some years later he owned 30 slaves and could afford to send his sons home to the Highlands to be schooled at the Inverness Royal Academy.

The general motivations of the Highlanders for travelling across the Atlantic are largely obvious. Most went for financial gain, or to embark on a great adventure, while others left to escape burdens at home; Dr Kehoe found several letters from sons who could not deal with the intense pressure of providing for their family.

In the colonies, the Highlanders were distinguished from Lowlanders and English settlers by their intense connection to home. Profits from the Empire were donated to schools in the Highlands, such as Fortrose Royal Academy (35% of money donated to this school between 1791-1824 came from Gaels in Grenada and Carriacou). The investment of this money into schooling kept the Imperialist wheels turning: they taught a new generation practical skills for implementation in the Empire, such as book-keeping, gunnery, fortification, or town-planning. Donations from Highlanders tended to be smaller but in vast quantities, suggesting there was a widespread interest in reinvestment, and potentially, a stronger sense of social conscience. Both in the colonies and at home, the goal was social advancement and improvement through the distribution of wealth. This noble intent was of course undermined by the ‘dirty money’ used in its implementation.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Our seminar series continues next week with Ross Crawford’s ‘The Massacre of Eigg in 1577’. This will be held in Room 202, 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm. All welcome.

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