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Volume No. 2 Issue No. 50 - Monday August 11, 2008
The Scottish slavemasters of the Caribbean
The Sunday Times

tom devine
Historian Tom Devine in the parliament hall, Edinburgh .
We Scots much prefer the role of victim to that of oppressor. But some aspects of our imperial past tell a different story, particularly in the Caribbean.

Scots dominated the West Indies when slavery was practised throughout the British Empire, and in the Caribbean the regime was especially harsh. It was reckoned in the 1750s that a quarter of all slaves died within three years of arrival there: on the Codrington plantations in Barbados between 1741 and 1746, the figure was 43% of all Africans.

Partly this was based on an inhumane calculation. Plantation owners believed it was cheaper to buy “salt-water” slaves straight off the ships than encouraging the reproduction of the existing “stock”. Thus it was common practice for plantations to buy slaves at crop time and set them to work with little or no time spent on acclimatisation, or “seasoning”. Force and intimidation were especially extreme in the Caribbean: the vastly outnumbered British planters had a paranoid fear of slave rebellion, so work was done under the threat of severe punishment or death.

Slave gangs on the sugar estates toiled from dawn to dusk in land preparation, harvesting the canes and sugar boiling. About 90% of Caribbean slaves worked on these tasks. The arduous toil helps to explain why about half of British West Indian slave women bore no children in the mid-18th century. On the American mainland there was never the same intensity of work on a single crop.

Cultivating tobacco, tending farms, cutting timber and domestic service were just some of the tasks undertaken. Recent work by nutritionists and anthropologists on slave skeletal remains in burial grounds on Barbados points unambiguously to acute malnutrition as a major cause of high death rates.

The Scottish role in the Caribbean slave economies became apparent only recently. Scots ran the entire system in Jamaica and the Leeward Islands. They were there as colonial governors, plantation owners, soldiers, merchants, attorneys, doctors and overseers. Estimates put Scottish emigration to the West Indies from the 1750s to 1800 at between 14,000 and 20,000.

When the islands of Dominica, Saint Vincent, Grenada and Tobago were acquired by Great Britain under the 1763 Treaty of Paris, they were mainly settled by Scots. Of the members of the Antigua planter and merchant elite established between 1707 and 1775, 11 had Scottish origins. In Jamaica, more than a third of Europeans were Scots.

The letters and journals of the Scottish woman Janet Schaw give considerable insight into life on the islands. Schaw sailed with her brother Alexander and other family members on the Jamaica Packet from Burntisland on the Firth of Forth bound for Antigua in October 1774. Alexander was going to the West Indies to take up an appointment as a customs official in St Kitts. Brother and sister were from a gentleman farming family near Edinburgh.

From first seeing Antigua from the deck of her ship, Schaw was impressed. “The beauty of the Island rises every moment as we advance from the bay,” she wrote. The social life of island whites was busy: feasts, balls and continual visiting left the party almost exhausted before they left for St Kitts.

A constant theme running through her journals and letters was the Scottishness of Antigua. She landed “at a wharf belonging to a Scottish gentleman” and thereafter met many Duncans, Blairs, Bairds, Hallidays, Mackinnons and Malcolms. There were also “many Scotch names” on the churchyard graves.

In St Kitts, Janet was shown “several fine plantations belonging to Scotch people who do not reside in them”. One evening, she was entertained to tea by “a whole company of Scotch people, our language, my manners, our circle of friends and connections, all the same”.

Schaw recorded the human cost this paradise placed on the slaves. Four out of five did not survive the first year. The single men who predominated as estate managers and overseers habitually forced themselves on the younger slave women under their control. Chattel slavery meant that ownership of women slaves ensured possession of their bodies as well as their labour — rape was not a legal offence because the rights of an owner to a slave’s body were enshrined in colonial law.

This behaviour was not confined to plantation workers. Schaw found her old friend Lady Isabella Hamilton keeping a mulatto (mixed-race) girl as a “pet”. She was probably the child of her husband by a slave.

When Dr Jonathan Troup, one of the many Scots physicians in the islands, arrived in Dominica in 1789, he discovered two of his new medical colleagues, both Scots, had six mulatto children each. It was not long before Troup himself had “mistresses”. The other Caribbean vice of white men, heavy drinking, contributed to the debauchery. Gonorrhoea was rife. Dr Troup was infected but wrote in his journal that he continued to “make love to a number of girls in [his] drunkenness”.

The coercive nature of Antiguan society is obvious from Schaw’s writing, although she noted the tradition that “the crack of the inhuman whip must not be heard” at Christmas. But the sense of insecurity felt by the small white minority meant the militia was especially alert at these times: “It is necessary to keep a look out during this season of unbounded freedom; every man on the island is in arms and patrols go all round the different plantations.”

Later, in St Kitts, she visited a plantation and saw the system of slave labour for herself. Every 10 slaves had a “driver”, who walked behind them, holding in his hand a short and long whip. Because both men and women were naked “down to the girdle” she could easily see the marks of the lash on their bodies.

Scotland’s intimate links with the slave societies of the West Indies and American colonies had faded from popular memory by the Victorian era. Only in the last few years have a few scholars rediscovered what has either been suppressed or long forgotten.

Tom Devine is Sir William Fraser Professor of Scottish History and Palaeography and director of the new Scottish Centre for Diaspora Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He will be speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at 8pm on Monday, August 18, in the RBS Main Theatre on the topic Did Slavery Make Scotland Great? E-mail to a friend

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