Banner: Freedom for All
Slavery in the pastLegaciesSlavery nowWhat is onResourcesCampaign
About Us
Contact us

The 200th Anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade.


by Rev. Dr. Iain Whyte

"Although in the plantations they have laid hold of the poor blacks, and made slaves of them, yet I do not think that is agreeable to humanity, not to say to our Christian religion. Is a man a slave because he is black?  No. He is our brother; and he is a man, although not of our colour; he is in a land of liberty, with his wife and child, let him remain there."


The words of Lord Auchinleck, Judge of the Court of Session in 1788. Auchinleck was James Boswell's father and his vote was one of the majority who decided that Sir John Wedderburn of Ballindean could not force his slave Joseph Knight whom he had brought from Jamaica to remain in his service. Lord Mansfield, the Scottish Chief Justice of England in 1772 had ruled that another Scot, Charles Stuart, couldn't take his slave to Virginia against his will but he had not abolished slavery in England. The judges had done just that in Scotland. But it was to be another ten years before there were to be stirrings against the slave trade in the nation.

Joseph Knight case was the third slave to come before Scotland's highest court. In 1756 Jamie Montgomery ran away from his master in Ayrshire and was imprisoned in Edinburgh's Tolbooth jail, dying there while the Court of Session deliberated over his case. In 1769 David Spens a Fife slave from Grenada told his master that as a baptised member of  Wemyss Church he was no long prepared to be under 'his tyrannous power."  "By the Christian religion," he said "I am now liberate and set at freedom from my old yoke and bondage and by the laws of this Christian land there is no slavery nor vestige of slavery allowed." David was taken and imprisoned in Dysart jail but he had five lawyers assisting him, the local churches collected money for him, and the salters and miners, themselves just removed from slavery, contributed to his cause. In the end the master, Dr. David Dalrymple died and so David was free and probably went to work for John Henderson, a local farmer who had sheltered him. But the Spens case was the clearest evidence of solidarity across social divides on behalf of a courageous black slave's bid for freedom in Scotland.


It took a long time for the conscience of Scotland to be raised over slavery. Almost all the great figures of the Scottish Enlightenment taught that slavery was indefensible. William Robertson, historian and theologian, sent William Wilberforce his anti-slavery sermons, Adam Smith the economist wrote that slavery was uneconomic, whilst David Hume despite some racist views about inferiority poured scorn on such an uncivilised practise. But with very few exceptions the giants of Scottish civilisation did little about it. 

skating minister, rev Robert walkerOne of the earliest to act was the skating minister, Rev. Robert Walker of Canongate Church in Edinburgh, whose painting on Duddingston Loch has become an iconic symbol in Scotland. In February 1788 the Presbytery of Edinburgh met and considered the observance of the Lords Day. Robert Walker rose and asked the Presbytery not to be "less zealous in the great and generous cause of humanity" persuading them to petition parliament to end the slave trade. He took it to the General Assembly which simply declared their opposition to the trade as they did in 1792 when the celebrated former slave Oladuah Equiano attended the debate and offered, in a letter to the Edinburgh Evening Courant on 26 May "the warmest thanks of a heart glowing with gratitude on the unanimous decision of your debate this day …on behalf of myself and my oppressed countrymen."

But if the General Assembly did little, its ministers and elders were to the fore in the petitioning of parliament. About 40 Synods and Presbyteries petitioned in 1788 and 1792. One of the earliest was from the Chamber of Commerce in Edinburgh. Not perhaps the first body that might be expected to challenge a lucrative trade although it admits that the members did not believe the economic arguments to be compelling. But it went on to say that even if they were, "the feelings of your petitioners as men would overbear their opinions as merchants, and lead them to sacrifice somewhat of the convenience and profit of commerce to the rights and principles of humanity." The Chairman of the Chamber was the banker Sir William Forbes, a close friend of the Aberdeen philosopher James Beattie, whose anti-slavery lectures had long been famous. The Secretary, William Creech, publisher of Robert Burns' poems and one time Lord Provost of Edinburgh, was a committee member of the newly formed Edinburgh Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

In 1792 Scotland sent 185 petitions to parliament on the slave trade. They came from Caithness in Sutherland to Kirkcudbright in Galloway. There is no doubt that this amazing proportion of the British total (one third) was due to the indefatigable efforts of a London Scot. William Dickson was born and brought up in Moffet in the Scottish borders and had gone to Barbados to be secretary to the Governor there. On his return he offered his services to the London Abolition Committee and William Wilberforce's colleague Thomas Clarkston sent him back to Scotland in January 1792. Dickson carried with him copies of extracted evidence being put before parliament on the slave trade, believing that once people read the horrific details they would be moved to action. In just over two months of a Scottish winter he journeyed continually in all weathers and conditions, meeting local groups, interviewing church ministers who were the key to local leadership and putting the case for abolition before them.

William Dickson kept a diary. On 24 January in Paisley he tells of Rev.James Alice's ten year old grandson vowing not to eat slave grown sugar. On 13 February he shared a bottle of wine with Rev.William Stuart, Moderator of Turriff Presbytery in Aberdeenshire and declared that he had his support! In Dunfermline Dickson joined 4 Baillie's curling on the ice and they agreed to form a committee against the slave trade. But it was not all one way. Many ministers and others were concerned about revolution and disturbing the status quo. On 18 February he found Dr. Dougal in Keith "an honest man, hearty though full of doubts and crotchets infused into his thinking by West Indian planters. Removed all his scruples."

At Fochabers Dickson was pleased to find a Mr.Turnbull who originated from Hawick, had lived in the West Indies and "thinks our evidence quite just." He gave Mr. Turnbull "and his pretty young wife" cameos with the design of the kneeling slave made for the campaign by the potter Josiah Wedgewood, a strong supporter. But he visited a minister there who was more interested in playing at cards than listening to an account of the slave trade. "Sick of him," wrote Dickson, "he has no soul." On 22 February Dickson met Mr.Forbes at Laurencekirk and concluded that he was "the plainest not to say the weakest clergyman in Scotland." Forbes told him that the Presbytery would not petition and that the Moderator had publically "defended slavery from scripture."


This conscientisation of Scotland owed a great deal to William Dickson and the London Committee expressed their pleasure at the huge success of his efforts. But one of the key contributors to the evidence before parliament was another Scot, James Ramsay from Fraserburgh was an Episcopal priest with medical training who had been a surgeon in the navy until invalided out and settling in St. Kitts. His concern for the welfare of slaves forced him out of the West Indies and when he became vicar of Teston in Kent, Wilberforce relied on him for first hand accounts of the trade - as a ships surgeon he had been on a slave ship to treat an epidemic. Ramsey wrote extensively on slavery and his concern for the welfare of sailors was another reason for wanting to sea the transatlantic trade stopped. He was constantly under attack from the West Indian party in parliament and when he collapsed under the stress, James Molineaux, one of their leaders boasted "Ramsay is dead…I have killed him."

Another Scot with direct experience of the West Indies was Zachary Macaulay from Inverary. He was never happy with slavery there and loathed his job as a book-keeper or slave supervisor. Through his brother-in-law, Thomas Babington, Macaulay took a post in Sierra Leone, becoming Governor of the colony in 1794. Sierra Leone was founded by the abolitionists as a haven of freedom surrounded by slave stations. The governor had to steer a delicate path and needed help from some of those whose trade he hated. Macaulay never ceased to regret returning some slaves back to sea captains and gradually became committed to the active cause of abolition. He travelled to the West Indies gathering vital information on slave conditions and in the 1820s founded and edited the Anti-Slavery Monthly Reporter.  The London-based Reporter at the height of the campaign sold and distributed 20,000 copies throughout Britain. It became the powerhouse for anti-slavery pressure on Parliament with Wilberforce telling his colleagues to "look it up in Macaulay." Zachary Macaulay's technique was to say very little in the magazine but after combing the West Indian papers, court records, and other documents, he let the truth speak for itself. A notice for a slave sale included marks on the back and ears missing. Macaulay simply let the evidence stand. So effective was he,  that the planters' chief propaganda magazine John Bull continually poured scorn on him as "Zacharine" (a reference to the boycott of slave-grown sugar) "Saint Zachariah," keeping up the invective and forcing him into risky and  expensive legal action against them.

The abolition of the slave trade was the result of massive pressure from individuals and groups. It required careful drafting of legislation and much of that was achieved by James Stephen.  Born of Scottish parents and educated at Aberdeen University, Stephen sailed for St. Kitts to pursue a career in law. On the way he stopped in Barbados and witnessed a slave trial. What he saw there conflicted with every legal principle and made him determined never to own a slave. It was a Damascus road experience and when he returned from the West Indies and married Wilberforce's sister he was committed to a life's work against slavery. Stephen published extensively arguing for abolition of the trade on grounds of British commercial self interest, and drafting both the 1807 act and one in 1812 requiring registration of slaves in the Caribbean. His Slavery in the West Indies Delineated became an essential reference book for the campaigns and drew fury from slave owning interests. But far from being a dry analyist he frightened his brother in law by his passion. "You and Macaulay" said Wilberforce "are far too complacent about slave insurrections."


Most abolitionists thought that with the abolition of the trade in 1807 slave owners would have to treat slaves better and that with the supplies cut off slavery would gradually wither away. This proved to be a total illusion. New slaves were imported from other nations and with the plantations facing declining sugar prices and adverse weather conditions many planters simply worked their existing slaves even harder. In 1823 committees in Edinburgh and Glasgow were formed to campaign for the Mitigation and Eventual Abolition of Negro Slavery, the titles betraying the caution with which progress was to be sought. That year the British colonial secretary issued guidelines to the West Indian colonies on the treatment of slaves including a highly controversial proposal to stop the use of the whip on women. The colonial assemblies were outraged at such 'interference' and many of them tore up the documents. Throughout the 1820s petitions from abolitionists to parliament demonstrated a growing frustration at this lack of progress.

Dr Andrew ThomsonIn October 1830 two thousand people gathered in Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms to hear a call for speeding up of abolition and to declare that no children born after that year should be slaves. Dramatically Dr. Andrew Thomson, the leading evangelical minister in the Church of Scotland, opposed the resolutions. Thomson claimed that they did not go nearly far enough. At that meeting and a later packed gathering he developed his theme that there could be no property in human beings and that slavery was a sin, arguing that we could not choose a convenient time to stop sinning. Using ideas that were echoed by theologians such as Desmond Tutu and Allan Boesak in apartheid South Africa Thomson proclaimed that slavery was an evil fit not for reformation but simply for destruction. Any attempts at mitigation for him may have given some relief to the slaves but simply masked the "malignant work" of the institution. Slavery he said was "The very Upas tree of the moral world, beneath whose pestiverous shade all intellect languishes and all virtue dies." There was only one course of action. "The foul sepulchre must be taken away. The cup of oppression must be dashed to the ground. The pestiverous tree must be cut down and eradicated; it must be, root and branch of it, cast into the consuming fire and its ashes scattered to the four winds of heaven."

Historians see Thomson's work (he died suddenly the next year) as crucial in moving the pace of abolition. The speeches and a sermon were used by American abolitionists and he was vilified in the West Indies and in the Glasgow Courier. Abolition was achieved in 1833 but it was a hollow victory since the planters were given the staggering sum of £2 millions in compensation and allowed to keep their slaves as 'apprentices.' The slaves received not a penny. A new campaign to end apprenticeship was started in conjunction with pressure on the United States. The Glasgow Emancipation Society was the strongest of the Scottish groups and it was led by the well known Congregationalist minister Dr. Ralph Wardlaw, whose anti-slavery sermons were heard by a young man from Blantyre called David Livingstone. And so the torch was passed on.

Iain Whyte

ACTS logoActsbanner
© All rights reserved, Action of Churches Together in Scotland,