Shaun Kavanagh: Why the shadow of slavery hangs heavy over Greenock

Writer Shaun Kavanagh says Scotland must acknowledge its shameful past

BBC PRESENTER Neil Oliver recently fronted a programme on Scotland’s links to the Ku Klux Klan. 

It provided a fascinating insight into a chapter of Scotland’s murkier history. I was dismayed, however, reading the comments of a well-known independence-supporting online forum that Oliver’s programme, presented on the BBC, was part of a "unionist" slight towards Scotland.

It wasn’t. It happened. Recognise it, and learn from it. In a similar vein, we must go a step further.

Read more – The Scottish Slavery Map: Plotting out Scotland's past

Scotland must acknowledge its role in the slave trade. Across Europe, cities like Amsterdam and Nantes have formally acknowledged their roots in the slave trade; while in England memorials and museums in London, Liverpool and Bristol are testament to their slavery past.

Scotland, on the other hand, has nothing. No memorial, no museum, no university research centre, no school curriculum module that explores our country’s role in the appalling practice of slavery.

Incredibly, schoolchildren in the Netherlands today are currently being taught about slavery - using Scottish examples. This puts our failures in some perspective.

Traditionally regarded as peripheral, the Scottish factor in the slave trade has now been shown to be absolutely central to the narrative of Britain's dominant role in the northern Atlantic slave trade and the slave economies of the Americas.

I belong to Greenock. At one point the gateway to British Empire, Greenock was one of the most important ports in the North Atlantic in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Scottish factor in the slave trade has now been shown to be absolutely central to the narrative of Britain's dominant role in the northern Atlantic slave trade and the slave economies of the Americas.

In Greenock, we live in the shadow of slavery every day. At one time the sugar-producing capital of Europe, Greenock’s sugarhouses were financed through the trade of captured African slaves.

We revere our most famous son James Watt, yet ignore that his invention was financed by the money from a slave-trader. We ignore that his father was a prominent slaver with plantations in the West Indies. We learn at school that Watt’s invention invariably led to the industrial revolution, but we do not learn about the slave trade which financed and powered it. 

In Greenock today, Jamaica Street, Antigua Street and Tobago Street are just streets with exotic names, rather than legacies of a wicked business that lined the pockets of town merchants through capture, rapine and torture.

Greenock and the triangular trade

The triangular trade started in Britain was the first stage in the journey to West Africa to exchange goods for captured Africans. From there, captured Africans were transported across the Atlantic to the Americas to be sold as chattels.

Merchants would then return from the Americas with plantation-grown goods, bought from the profits of selling the Africans to the plantation owners.

The goods that created such high profits included sugar, rum and tobacco. Sugar was a very popular import into British ports, and the boom in refineries and grocers reflected the increasing importance of the staple in the British diet.

In Greenock, we live in the shadow of slavery every day. At one time the sugar-producing capital of Europe, Greenock’s sugarhouses were financed through the trade of captured African slaves.

The Royal African Company was formed to fully exploit and control the developing trade of enslaved people. The Royal African Company was issued with a Royal Charter in 1672. This gave it a monopoly in trading to Africa, including the slave trade.

The 1707 Act of Union with England admitted Scotland into the general trade of the British Empire, although access to the African trade was still limited. Slave ships sailed out from the Clyde; how many is not fully known as the port books before 1742 did not survive.

However, from the 1750s onwards ships did leave from Port Glasgow and Greenock for the triangular trade, often transporting enslaved Africans to Virginia as well as the Caribbean. 

After the American War of Independence, the slave trade was consolidated into the ports of London and Liverpool, and Scottish investors and merchants invested through those routes.

Both Greenock and Port Glasgow’s colonial trade was inescapably linked with the growing demand for slaves in the developing world. But although slaves were never auctioned in either of the two towns, or in Glasgow for that matter, many merchants with local connections owned slaves or trade directly in them.

We revere our most famous son James Watt, yet ignore that his invention was financed by the money from a slave-trader.

One notable example is that of James Watt senior, the father of the famous James Watt. It is shown in his own surviving papers that he actively bought and sold slaves in 1740-41 and 1762. In most of his papers the slaves appear mainly as mere commodities.

Another uncomfortable connection relates to Robert Wallace, the first MP for Greenock under the 1832 Great Reform Act and postal reformer. Wallace was MP for Greenock until 1845, and owned or co-mortgaged five plantations in Jamaica with a combined total of over 500 slaves.

Described in the eye witness accounts of Joseph Sturge and Thomas Harvey in The West Indies in 1837, Wallace’s plantations were: "Worse than any property in the parish ... we are strongly impressed with the conviction, that there are no estates more oppressively or even cruelly managed, than those of many liberal, humane and even religious proprietors resident in England."

Wallace lived in retirement at Seafield Cottage, Greenock. 

Such a prolonged period of evil has arguably desensitised, and continues to do so, many individuals to racist attitudes and ideology.

There are dominant architectural reminders of Scotland's importance in the trading of sugar produced by enslaved labour, such as giant sugar warehouses in Greenock. Leading up to 1813-1814, some of the largest sugar companies in the world operated from Greenock.

These warehouses signify the major role of Scottish plantation owners. By the early 19th century, Scots owned a third of the plantations in Jamaica, which was the largest producer of sugar in the Caribbean.

Legacy

The enduring racial tension in the United States and present-day underdevelopment of the Caribbean is a direct and lasting legacy of the slavery trade. 

Though whites in the Caribbean represent a minority, they own most of the wealth. Most of the largest businesses are owned by families who amassed huge fortunes from plantation slavery and, when slavery was abolished, from the compensation paid to them by the British government for the loss of their human property.

By contrast, not a single enslaved man, woman or child received even a penny for the gruelling toil they endured every day of their lives, or for the loss of mothers and fathers, children, siblings caused by the cruel separation of families. 

We Scots have begun to construct a comforting egalitarian narrative about ourselves: that we value above all else fairness, social progressiveness and equality.

There was no compensation for the malicious brutality exacted against them, or for the violent sexual assaults on enslaved women.

Such a prolonged period of evil has arguably desensitised, and continues to do so, many individuals to racist attitudes and ideology. Only by considering our racist past, are we better able to demonstrate to our children why racism, which dehumanises those whom we consider to be inferior, is inherently sinister.

We Scots have begun to construct a comforting egalitarian narrative about ourselves: that we value above all else fairness, social progressiveness and equality.

Yet the slave trade is relatively recent history, and the Scots had a firm role in its development - we must be vigilant in ensuring there can be no repeat.

This is where Greenock is crucial.

Yet the slave trade is relatively recent history, and the Scots had a firm role in its development - we must be vigilant in ensuring there can be no repeat.

Today the old sugar sheds in Greenock stand proud against the turbulent grey skyline hanging over the Firth of Clyde. The only link Greenock has with its past is through the absent voices of those who worked in the sugar trade.

At one time, 400 ships plied their trade between the islands of the West Indies, across the Atlantic to Greenock and back again.

Instead of hiding away from this uncomfortable legacy, civic leaders in Inverclyde must find the ambition to tell the story of Greenock and Port Glasgow’s links to the slave trade to ensure there is a deeper understanding of the part that slavery played in the development of the area. 

The conversion of the Sugar Sheds on the Harbour would be the ideal location for such an undertaking.

This is important for our understanding of the past; but also for the future. A museum of migration located on the Greenock waterfront would relate the narrative of how the town developed; from a small fishing village, rapidly industrialised by the 19th century, to become the global gateway in the imperial project, through in-migration and immigration.

What better way to address ways in tackling modern-day racism, xenophobia and slavery in Scotland than by establishing a centre of excellence in Greenock that would acknowledge its complex past?

Picture courtesy of Balathasan Sayanthan

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