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‘The Skating Minister, a bottle of wine, and an African parrot – some aspects of Scotland’s part in the abolition of the slave trade.”

On 27 February 1788 the Church of Scotland’s Presbytery photo: Skating Ministerof Edinburgh solemnly debated the observance of the Sabbath and not surprisingly declared themselves in favour of it.  Rev. Robert Walker of Canongate, who has become one of Scotland’s iconic figures since his skating on Duddingston Loch was captured in oils, rose to his feet. He wanted to call Presbytery’s attention to another subject which he was confident would   generate equal support. They all must have noticed with pleasure, he said, ‘that God had put in into the heart of several communities both in this and the neighbouring kingdom (of England) to supplicate Parliament for the abolition of the slave trade.’ Walker did not think that it was necessary to describe what he called ‘the execrable nature of this traffic’ but he believed that ‘as guardians of religion and virtue it must excite their particular abhorrence.’ He proposed that the Presbytery should send a petition to Parliament calling for the abolition of the African slave trade.

Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of the British legislation that banned the slave trade, though it would be some years before this was enacted throughout Europe and more than a quarter of a century until slavery was abolished in the British Empire. What we take as self evident now was far from that in the mid seventeenth century. Glasgow’s commercial wealth was based on tobacco, sugar and cotton. Ships left Scottish ports taking goods in the ‘triangular trade’ that forcibly transported millions of human beings from Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas to work and to die young on the plantations. Merchants such as Richard Oswald from Caithness who ran a slave station on the Sierra Leone river and supplied fellow merchants in Charleston, South Carolina, made fortunes out of the slave trade. A particularly bizarre aspect of Oswald’s Bance Island station was the two hole golf course to entertain visiting sea captains with the slave caddies dressed in kilts supplied by suppliers of tartan in Bannockburn. The irony of this was presumably lost on Oswald who incorporated a black slave in his coat of arms, thus flaunting the source of his wealth.

The month before Walker’s speech to the Presbytery of Edinburgh, an Aberdeen professor received an anonymous letter. James Beattie was a celebrated philosopher who had lectured on the evils of slavery from the early eighteenth century. The writer, who used  a pseudonym ‘Africanus’ for fear his business interests in the West Indies, urged Beattie and ‘some other eminent men in your church and universities’ to take up the campaign against the slave trade and suggested that petitions might be organised in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Paisley in addition to Aberdeen. ‘Petitioners from Scotland will be the more necessary,’ claimed Africanus, ‘as counter petitions in favour of the slave trade are hatching at Liverpool, Lancaster, Bristol and Pool[e].’

Robert Walker persuaded the Presbytery of Edinburgh to send one of the first messages to the House of Commons calling for the end of the trade. He was less successful in the General Assembly of the Kirk, which declined to petition anyone and contented itself with declaring its opposition and including that message in the annual loyal address to the King. One of the most surprising petitions came from Edinburgh’s Chamber of Commerce. The power of the commercial lobby was strong and the Glasgow West India Association was one of the strongest organisations in Britain defending the trade. But the Chairman of Edinburgh’s Chamber, Sir William Forbes, was a banker and a close friend of Beattie and the Secretary was William Creech, the celebrated publisher of Robert Burn’s poems and a member of the capital’s newly formed Committee for Abolition. The Chamber’s petition denied that the slave trade was as commercially valuable as was claimed but ended: ‘that even if this was not the case the feelings of your petitioners as men would overbear their opinion as merchants would lead them to sacrifice somewhat of the convenience and profit of commerce to the rights and principles of humanity.’

1788 saw a trickle of petitions to Parliament from Scotland. Four years later that trickle became a flood. 185 were sent out of a British total of 571. This remarkable proportion from a small nation in which communication was often difficult was the result of a journey of one man between the winter months of January and March. William Dickson from Moffat had served as Secretary to the Governor of Barbados and on his return to Britain offered his services to William Wilberforce and the London Abolition Committee. Dickson had written a book on slavery based on his experiences in the West Indies but it was clearly too radical for the cautious campaigners. However Thomas Clarkson sent him back to his native Scotland armed with copies of a summary of damning evidence being presented to Parliament on the horrific conditions endured by African slaves on the transatlantic voyages. The West Indian party in Parliament accused abolitionists of whipping up petitions, so Dickson was told not to mention these, but to meet community leaders and committees, confront them with the facts and leave them to make up their own minds. He travelled from his native Borders to Aberdeenshire and Inverness, visiting every city and most major towns in between and arguing the case with magistrates, ministers and merchants.  Dickson signed up the Magistrates of Dunfermline when they were curling on the ice but didn’t say whether or not he took their shoe as hostages! In Paisley he heard the 10 year old grandson of a Secessionist minister vow not to eat any sugar from the West Indies and in Dundee he turned the Provost’s ‘violent’ defence of the slave trade round to support for abolition.

Wine at dinner became useful catalyst in the cause. Dickson’s diary records that in Whitburn he proposed a toast ‘to immediate abolition of the slave trade’ countering one that simply called for a gradual approach. In Turriff, Aberdeenshire, he visited the Moderator of Presbytery, Rev. William Stuart. Shocked by the fact that the minister had never heard of the abstract of evidence on the slave trade Dickson gave him two copies, shared a vintage bottle with him and by the end of the evening pronounced that he was ‘hearty,’ a reference more to his warmth for the cause than the effects of the alcohol, though no doubt the lubrication helped along the way.           
Sierra Leone was a colony founded at the instigation of early abolitionists to provide a free settlement of former slaves who had come to British territories in the wake of the American War of Independence. From the start it was fraught with difficulties not least because those who wished to rid London of its burgeoning black population saw it as a convenient repository for racial deportation. But above all its situation as an eighteenth century West Berlin or Hong Kong, surrounded as it was by a powerful slaving industry,  meant that it was a very hot potato to handle. When Zachary Macaulay became Governor of Sierra Leone he was only 24 years of age. Macaulay was born in the manse of Inverary in Argyll and along with many other young Scots had been sent to the colonies to make his way in life. He became a ‘book keeper’ on a Jamaica estate in charge of slaves, an experience which he later recalled with horror. When he was in the West Indies Macaulay’s sister Jean had married Thomas Babbington, a close associate of William Wilberforce, and on Zachary’s return the abolitionists took him under their wing and sent him to Sierra Leone. On leave from the colony in 1797 this repressed and shy young Scot fell in love with Selina Mills, the daughter of a Quaker merchant in Bristol. They became engaged as he was about to board ship for West Africa.

Selina became his confident as Zachary tried to make sense of his life and of the tensions surrounding him in the heart of the slave trade enterprise. It was to her that he confessed the guilt he had felt when pragmatism made him return two escapees to a slave trader. She was the first person who had really cared for him and she unlocked untapped  passionate feelings in him that were to be later harnessed to the campaign first of all against the slave trade and then against slavery itself. To prove his love, the young Scot wrote in February 1797 that he had bought a parrot locally and was trying to teach it to express his love for Selina in English. Sadly the parrot died before he could ship it to Bristol. Selina and Zachary were married for over 30 years and had  nine  children, the oldest of whom was Lord Macaulay the historian. Zachary, inspired by his family, became a giant of the abolition movement and his bust in Westminster Abbey bears witness to this.    

Iain Whyte

Rev. Dr. Iain Whyte is the author of ‘Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery 1756-1838’ published by Edinburgh University Press 

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