Scotland and the Commonwealth: ‘Scotland’s Forgotten Imperial Legacy: The War Against Islam in the Late Nineteenth Century’

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On 9 October, the Centre was pleased to welcome Professor Richard Finlay from the University of Strathclyde who discussed ‘Scotland’s Forgotten Imperial Legacy: The War Against Islam in the Late Nineteenth Century’. This presentation began the seminar mini-series ‘Scotland and the Commonwealth’, convened by Dr. Lizanne Henderson, which will run throughout the year. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Professor Finlay’s lecture focused on the activities of Scottish private companies in central and eastern Africa, as part of the Imperialist ‘scramble’ to capitalise on the supposedly massive commercial potential of the continent. Initially, the goal was to exploit this untapped wealth which necessitated the removal of slavery supported by the Islamic Africans (whom they called ‘Arabs’) already present in the region. Slavery was regarded as stymieing economic development. Yet as time wore on and the money failed to flow, the philanthropic side of the endeavour was increasingly emphasised.

During the 1870s, a time of economic depression, the desire to make Africa a new market–the last great continent to be opened up to commerce–was potent in Scotland (and Britain). However, foreign investment was regarded as potentially hazardous and timing was crucial. Go in too early and it was too risky. Wait too long and it would not be lucrative enough.

The African Lakes Company, set up in Glasgow in the late 19th century, was the main focus of Professor Finlay’s discussion.Trusting in advanced technology to overawe their local rivals, the expensive and impressive steamboats of the Scots proved wholly impractical for small, acidic rivers of the area. The company was associated with the Free Church, yet any philanthropic motivations played second-fiddle to economic exploitation of Malawi and other regions in eastern Africa. 

They sought to deal only in ‘legitimate trade’, i.e. ‘no booze or guns’, however, the company became quickly embroiled in local rivalries which led to a sharp escalation in warfare. Massacres and other atrocities were apparently the norm during these conflicts, and were recounted with shocking frankness by some contemporaries. The Scots also employed child soldiers in these conflicts, and have the dubious distinction of being the first to employ European mercenaries in Africa. These wars were a significant drain on the resources of the Company and for the first 18 years it failed to turn a profit.

The association of the Free Church with the company lent a shred of legitimacy to these actions for contemporaries. The private war was framed as a necessary step in the abolition of slavery. A mad dash for money became a crusade against injustice; slavery had become a marketing tool. This precipitated a wave of anti-Islamic sentiment which had already been gaining momentum throughout this period. Ironically, for all the anti-slavery rhetoric of the Scots, they actually encouraged the growth of the foul practice due to their demand for lucrative ivory–it could only feasibly be transported in such large quantities by slaves. Despite the many horrors of this period, many of the stories emanating from the region sounded like ‘plucky, boy’s own adventures’.

Professor Finlay reflected that the Islamic element in Africa at this time has been largely ignored in history, in favour of a European VS European, or European VS Native African narrative.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Our seminar series continues next week, Tuesday 15 October, with Dr. Andrew MacKillop (University of Aberdeen) ‘Before the Commonwealth: Scotland as an Imperial Nation’. This seminar will continue the ‘Scotland and the Commonwealth’ mini-series convened by Dr. Lizanne Henderson. This will be held in Room 202 of 3 University Gardens. All welcome.

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