The Branded Hand
Strange things are happening following the government’s defeat over Syria. Political commentators wring their hands, agonising over whether Britain has lost influence in the world or whether the ‘special relationship’ has been put in jeopardy. Meanwhile David Cameron desperately spends the G20 summit trying to convince people that the United Kingdom is still a major force in the world.
He has the air of a schoolboy moping around on the first day of term, only just realising that there was a load of homework that he was supposed to do over the summer. Alas for him he has form with this sort of thing – anyone remember the photos of him dining out in Italy while London burned?
This time round though it’s not the British public that he has to make apologies to – it’s his own classmates. He attempts to convince them that he’s still one of the gang by singing the praises of this ‘small island’ (apologies to Northern Ireland, Shetland, Orkney and all the rest). Let’s hope the History teacher isn’t listening, or else he can expect to land himself an F-.
Apparently Britain ‘helped to clear the continent of Fascism and was resolute in doing that throughout World War II’. Really? Better not tell the Spanish that then. They continued to suffer under a Fascist dictatorship right the way up until 1975, though of course that didn’t stop the country becoming a popular destination for British holidaymakers.
But it was Cameron’s remarks on slavery that really made me marvel. I’m not quite sure how he managed to turn that fact that Britain was one of the largest slave-trading nations of all time into a virtue, but somehow he did. It seems as though the fact that the UK finally decided to stop trading in slaves after almost 300 years is enough to completely absolve us of any responsibility for the fact that the transatlantic slave trade ever existed.
This peculiar historical revisionism was backed up the following day by a tweet from Fraser Nelson saying:
On Newsnight, Bidisha claims Britain “spread slavery around the globe”. As if. Slavery was a worldwide institution, which Britain confronted. Fraser Nelson (@frasernelson) September 6, 2013
This deliberate whitewashing of history reminded me of a conversation that I had back in 2007, shortly after the SNP’s election victory. I was out having a drink with a friend from work and we got on to talking about the subject of independence. I was interested to find out how she saw things, as she was Indian but had spent much of her life living and growing up in Lancashire. I asked her how people in India viewed the UK (if they really thought about it at all). Her answer has always stuck firmly in my mind.
She told me that if you were to ask people in India what they associated with England then they would probably talk about Cricket, city gents in bowler hats, the royal family – all of the kind of things that John Major eulogised in his “warm beer and old maids on bicycles” vision of England. If you were to ask them about English values then they would talk about “the stiff upper lip” and a culture of incredible politeness, underpinned by a passionate sense of fair play.
Likewise if you were to ask them what they associated with Scotland they would probably talk about kilts and bagpipes, Whiskey and Haggis, romantic castles and stunning scenery. If you were to ask them about Scottish values they would talk about people who were fiercely proud, filled with a plucky underdog spirit and good with money (bear in mind that this was still 2007). Again these were all things that, from our point of view, might be classic clichés but which are all nonetheless broadly positive.
Then she came to talk about the UK and her answer was short and simple. “If you ask people in India what they associate with the UK then the only two things that they’ll mention are slavery and empire”.
This is not a coincidence. The whole reason why people associate the UK with slavery and empire is because the pursuit of those things was the entire reason why the UK was created in the first place. And before those of who advocate for Scottish independence get too smug we need to remind ourselves that Scotland and Scots were a full and equal partner in this venture.
In the aftermath of the Darien venture the Union of the Parliaments supposedly removed the potential for any further cross-border conflict within Great Britain, thus helping secure the UK against any threats of foreign invasion. Freed from having to worry about warfare at home Scotland and England could set aside their international trade competition and join forces to build an Empire the likes of which the world had scarcely seen.
The first gold rush of European empire building had already come with the discovery of the new world. From 1492 onwards Spain, England, Portugal, France and Holland raced to establish colonies across the Americas. Scotland may have been slower off the mark, but it was no exception.
Our first great westward migration began with the Plantation of Ulster under James VI in 1609. Even though the Union of the Parliaments was still a century away this was consciously developed as the first ever “British” enterprise, with just over half of the colonists being drawn from Scotland and the rest coming from England.
Following William of Orange’s War in Ireland in 1690 the balance of power in the province shifted from Scottish Presbyterianism to Anglicanism, and Presbyterians found themselves increasingly marginalised. This sparked a mass emigration of Scottish colonists from Ulster to the Americas, where over time they increasingly began describing themselves as Scots-Irish as a means of differentiating themselves from Irish Catholics.
From 1621 onwards the still-independent Scotland made its own first attempts at colonising America. Our attempts at colonisation started with Nova Scotia, followed by the establishment of the colonies of East New Jersey and Stuart’s Town in Carolina. Of course this early phase of independent Scottish empire building all came to an end with the failure of the Scots colony of Darien in modern-day Panama. The resulting collapse of the Company of Scotland led to the bankruptcy of the entire nation and within 7 years the Act of Union had come into force.
The Union settlement adequately compensated those who had lost money in the Darien venture (principally the landed gentry), and Scottish traders set about making the most of the new markets that they were able to access. The greatest mercantile venture that emerged from the Union was, of course, the Glasgow tobacco trade. To this day Buchanan Street, Glassford Street, Speir’s Wharf and many other locations in the city carry the names of leading tobacco barons.
Bold commercial innovators, the Scottish tobacco merchants were able to gain a huge competitive advantage over London simply by changing the way they ran their business model. The English tobacco trade was built around merchants acting as agents for the plantation owners, taking consignment of their crops and then attempting to negotiate the best price possible. But this model only really worked for large, established plantations. The fact that agents were focussed on trying to find the best price for any given crop meant that cargoes could be sitting in storage for months before a suitable buyer could be found. There could be anything up to a two-year gap between a consignment of tobacco leaving America and the plantation owner receiving the final payment for it.
In comparison the Scottish model was based on a two-way trade. The Scottish merchants established a huge network of trading posts in the Americas, where they sold all of the tools and supplies that were necessary to run a plantation. In return the plantation owners were able to sell their crop directly to the merchants, who shipped it back to the UK and sold it on as quickly as possible, often undercutting other sellers in order to achieve a fast sale. This competitive low-price / high-turnover model encouraged rapid growth, both for the merchant houses themselves and for the plantation owners. The fact that growers were able to make an immediate sale as soon as the crop was harvested meant that it was much easier for new small-scale plantations to be set up and to expand rapidly as the money came rolling in.
But the Glasgow tobacco trade also had another advantage that worked in its favour – one that resulted purely as an accident of geography. Any ship travelling from the Americas to the western ports of England first had to navigate its way around Ireland and across the Irish Sea. Since Glasgow was situated just off the North coast of Ireland this meant that ships could cut between a week and two weeks off of their journey time in bringing goods to market.
This suited the tobacco merchants just fine, but it has had a long-term effect on how modern-day Scotland has come to see its relationship to the colonial era in general and to the slave trade in particular.
The same quirk of geography that placed Glasgow closer to the American trade routes also meant that it was located further away from the African trade routes. A slave ship travelling from West Africa to Glasgow would have to bypass the ports of Bristol and Liverpool, driving up the cost of the human cargo. The fact that less direct trading of slaves took place on the Broomielaw had almost nothing to do with any lack of enthusiasm for the slave trade, but everything to do with simple cost efficiencies.
Through a process of reification we have become distanced from Scotland’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. For all that we might attempt to distance ourselves from the dirty reality the fact remains that Glasgow, and consequently much of the industrial development across the West of Scotland, was financed from the profits generated by slave labour.
The tobacco barons make up a phase of our history that we like to think we are familiar with, however they make up only half the story of Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade. The story of slavery that we are far less familiar with is the image of the Caribbean slave trade – a chapter of history that is virtually unsurpassed in terms of it’s sheer inhuman barbarity, and in which Scots played a central role.
Even prior to 1707 there was a widespread and established Scottish presence throughout the English colonies in the Caribbean. This came about partly through voluntary emigration, but also through thousands of people being shipped to the Caribbean as prisoners of war under Cromwell or as exiled Covenanters under Charles II.
For European colonists the risks of settling in the Caribbean were high, as tropical diseases took a serious toll. As a result most colonists were determined to try and make their fortunes as quickly as possible so that they could return safely home. There was a high rate of absentee landlordism, with investors and owners remaining the UK and delegating responsibility for running the estates to managers and factors on the ground. As a result short-term profits were paramount and absolutely no thought was given to the welfare of slaves.
On the contrary slaves in the Caribbean were viewed as an expendable resource. By the 1750s it was reckoned that around a quarter of slaves died within just three years of arrival. So-called ‘salt water slaves’ (those that had just come straight of the slave ships) were highly prized, as far more work could be gotten out of someone who had not already been broken by years of disease, punishment beatings and backbreaking toil.
Punishments for insurrection included being nailed to the ground and burned from head to foot with torches. ‘Lesser’ offences could be punished by castration or chopping off half of a foot with an axe. Some plantation made running away a capital offence, and there are examples of slaves being beheaded and having their heads stuck on spikes as a warning to others.
Nowadays whenever people try and tell me that Scotland only had a minor role in the slave trade I simply point out to them that there is a reason why probably the majority of my black friends all have Scottish surnames – and it is not because they grew up in Fife. Scots were virtually a dominant force in much of the Caribbean. They made up a disproportionate percentage of the European population on many islands and at one stage every colonial governor in the Caribbean was Scottish.
As Ernst Renan famously pointed out every nation relies on its ability to forget its own history. At the moment the dominant myth of Scots culture revolves around the idea of Scotland as an egalitarian left-wing country, welcoming to all. But that is a narrative that largely relies on denying the role that we had as full and equal partners in the British Empire. On too many occasions in the last few years I have heard people talking about Scotland’s role in the colonial era as if it had nothing to do with us.
It is not good enough for us to look back over our involvement in the British Empire and to continue to behave as if a big boy did it and ran away. As long as Scotland continues to remain part of the UK there will always be a temptation to try and avoid responsibility for the atrocities of the past. If we really want to build the diverse and equal society that we aspire to then we are going to have to come to terms with our Imperial legacy. Otherwise new Scots will forever be in a position where their own histories and experiences are marginalised, downplayed or ignored.
The whole reason why I support independence is because I believe that we will only be able to properly come to terms with our Imperial history once we have put the military and strategic alliance that is the UK behind us once and for all.
A tree is best measured once it is down.