‘Slaves and Slaveowners in Eighteenth-Century Scotland’

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On 20 November 2012, the Centre, in collaboration with the Andrew Hook Centre, was pleased to welcome Professor John Cairns who provided an enlightening and harrowing lecture on ‘Slaves and Slaveowners in Eighteenth-Century Scotland’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Slaves were a significant presence in 18th century Scotland, particularly from the 1740s onwards; Professor Cairns has identified between 90-100 individuals who can be definitively confirmed as slaves. The majority came from sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent, exceptions being one female Indonesian and one male Native American. It is likely there were many, many more but due to a lack of sources it is difficult to come by accurate statistics. But between 1740-70, the number of slaves in Scotland appears to double by decade.

Newspapers were a key source and accounted for around half of the confirmed individuals. There were frequent advertisements for the sale of slaves, or the promotion of runaway slaves with associated rewards. The vast majority of runaways were adolescent males, with only one confirmed female runaway. These newspapers would often contain descriptions of the slaves’ skills, along with details of their owner. As such, they are extremely valuable sources. Other sources include kirk session records, legal records and private correspondence.

Identification of slaves can be ambiguous and difficult due to the contemporary terminology that was utilised. A pejorative term such as ‘negro’ could describe either an Indian or an African, though exact identification of the latter could be made through the description of the hair on their head as ‘wool’. Prof. Cairns claimed that ‘negro’ was virtually synonymous with ‘slave’, although other terminology included ‘negro slave’, ‘Virginia-born slave’ and ‘Property of…’. Some portraits of landed families included depictions of slave servants; one features a young slave with a silver collar. Collars, brands and tattoos were well-known methods of denoting ownership. Slaves were often given Classical names, so Catos, Pompeys and Caesars, are often found. Additionally, traditional African names like Sambo are found. On occasion, Scottish names would be adopted but with the qualifier of ‘black’ or ‘negro’ placed before it: ‘black Tom’.

Slaves would be found virtually everywhere in Scotland, from Glasgow and Edinburgh to as far-flung as Rosshire. A Native American, named Bob, was found in Glasgow and regularly ran away. In newspaper descriptions, he is said to have no English but ‘a little French’. Later, when he ran away again, he is attested as having ‘some English’, suggesting a marginal integration with Scottish society. Slaves were often brought over as ‘gifts’ for landed elites or professionals, sometimes solicited from relatives in colonies across the globe. Others were bought from merchants, such as James Watt who was based in Glasgow. A slave named Frederick was bought from Watt and sent to James Brodie of Brodie Castle.

At the time, there was a moral question about whether one could legally own a slave in Scotland. Prof. Cairns intimated that there was nothing explicitly prevented slavery in legal tracts and the church was generally more concerned with repressing sin through baptism, than overturning slavery as an institution. Prominent philosophers like Adam Smith covered the slavery question in his writings but never directly referenced the contemporary situation in Scotland.

Leading from this, the relationship between master and slave does seem relatively contingent on individual experience. One possibly more positive experience (as far as that can be said) was a slave called Scipio Kennedy was a trusted retainer to the Kennedys of Cailean and lived into his eighties. More negatively, Hector Munro’s cook, Caesar from Bengal, was based in Rosshire and he ran away in 1772-3 when he was 26. He was clearly not a teenage runaway but even more clearly, he was not at all happy. A quote from William McDowall provides an insight into the mentality of the masters towards the slaves: “(if they prove poor servants)…we can only return them from where they come”. This obviously suggests utter indifference towards their welfare. Some slaves do seem to have become somewhat integrated into Scots society to a certain extent, with some adopting ‘broad Scotch’ and one slave took the name ‘Donald’ and wore Highland dress. Others respected enough by their masters to be placed in the family burial plot.

After the talk, an audience member enquired about the value placed on slaves. Prof. Cairns noted that he has found a range between £25-60, depending on the skills/trade of the slave.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Next Tuesday 27th November, the Centre seminar series continues with Matthew Hammond’s lecture on ‘The origins of earldom of Lennox’. Again, this will take place in Room 202 of 3 Uni Gardens at 5.30pm.

 On Monday 3rd December, we have the Seventh Annual Angus Matheson lecture for which we welcome Prof Joseph Falaky Nagy of UCLA, speaking on ‘Some Notable “Troublemakers” in Medieval Celtic Literature’ at 5.30pm in the Lecture Theatre, Sir Alexander Stone Building, 16 University Gardens.

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