Some names to remember

This month, Hamish MacPherson has had an interesting series of articles in The National about Scotland and the slave trade.  I’d heard before about the importance of Joseph Knight in our history but I’d been only vaguely  aware of the involvement in his story of man-of-the-moment Henry Dundas.

Joseph Knight wasn’t the first Scottish-based slave to go to court to argue for his freedom, but he was the first to be successful.  Jamie Montgomery’s case got to the Court of Session in 1756 but he died in the Edinburgh Tolbooth before it was concluded.  Mr Montgomery had been on the run from his Ayrshire owner who was planning to send him to work in Virginia but he was captured and imprisoned.  His lawyers however were arguing that there was no law in Scotland which made slavery legal.

Thirteen years later, David Spens’ case was being heard at the Court of Session.  He had been bought in the Caribbean for £30 and brought to Methil but then his owner wanted to sell him on back in the Caribbean for £60.  Mr Spens scarpered but was captured and taken to jail.  He had his supporters though: an anti-slavery campaigner, two lawyers and financial help from local churches along with miners and salters – some of these last two groups were themselves suffering under a form of enslavement in Fife as they worked for nothing to pay off family debts.  No final judgment was given in this case either as Mr Spens’ owner died in 1770 so he was then a free man.  I understand he went to work for a farmer who had been one of his supporters.

Joseph Knight is better remembered because he ultimately won his case but the gumption of Jamie Montgomery and David Spens helped to pave his way.  What their birth names were or where they came from originally or how long Mr Spens lived as a free man are all unknown.  If Edinburgh’s looking to re-name some of its streets, there’s two names for starters.  

Not all the names of other enslaved people living in Scotland have come down to us – for example who was the boy at the left hand edge of the painting of Tobacco Lord John Glassford and family?  Who was the boy advertised for sale by William Reid, ironmonger, in the Edinburgh Advertiser of January 1769?  Or the woman known only as Peggy who was brought to Scotland from South Carolina and advertised as “an exceeding good housewench”?  Peggy, aged about 19, had a child who “will be disposed of with the mother”.

In 2018, the University of Glasgow launched a new resource Runaway Slaves in Britain which contains about 800 adverts from 18th century newspapers in England and Scotland appealing for help to apprehend slaves who had absconded.  I cannot currently lay hands on my copy of Mary Edward’s Who belongs to Glasgow? but it contains illustrations of some of these ‘small ads’.

Joseph Knight was captured as a boy in West Africa and bought in Jamaica around 1762 by Sir John Wedderburn, one of the many Scots-born plantation owners there.  Sir John’s father, a Jacobite, had been hung, drawn and quartered in London in 1746 for treason and his estate was confiscated.  From having nothing at all when he left Scotland, the young Sir John ended up owning 17,000 acres planted with sugarcane and despite his father’s fate, he was clearly not siding with the oppressed in Jamaica.  Young Joseph was trained as a house servant; Wedderburn taught him to read and write and – very importantly as it turned out – later had him baptised as a Christian.

In 1769, Joseph Knight accompanied his owner when Wedderburn returned to Scotland, to Perthshire.  There, he married another Wedderburn servant – Ann Thompson – and they had a child.  In 1774, he asked for permission to go to Dundee to find work; Wedderburn refused this and backed it up by sacking Ann Thompson.  Like his predecessors, Mr Knight did not lack smeddum and he left Wedderburn’s estate; however he was quickly found and arrested.  The first case was heard by Justices of the Peace in Perth who found unsurprisingly for Sir John Wedderburn but Mr Knight then appealed to the Sheriff Court.  It’s thought that he had heard about a ruling from a case in England in 1772 and its finding that slavery was illegal in England  –  the same argument that Jamie Montgomery’s lawyers had been making about Scotland in 1756.

Sheriff John Swinton came down on Joseph Knight’s side, famously declaring : “That the state of slavery is not recognised by the laws of this kingdom, and is inconsistent with the principles thereof …….. the regulations in Jamaica, concerning slaves, do not extend to this kingdom.”

It was 1777 when Wedderburn appealed this decision in the Court of Session, supported by those who had a vested interest in the slave trade.  Mr Knight’s supporters included the writer James Boswell and one of his lawyers was the aforementioned Henry Dundas; he also had some Church of Scotland ministers on his side who, according to one of Hamish MacPherson’s articles, “were particularly incensed that a Christian should be enslaved.”

That same article has some lengthy quotes from Mr Knight’s lawyers: “The means by which those who carried this child from his own country got him into their hands, cannot be known; because the law of Jamaica makes no inquiry into that circumstance.  But, whether he was ensnared, or bought from his parents, the iniquity is the same.  ………..  That a state of slavery has been admitted of in many nations, does not render it less unjust.  ………….  Neither can the advantages procured to this country, by the slavery of the negroes, be hearkened to, as any argument in this question, as to the justice of it.  Oppression and iniquity are not palliated by the gain and advantage acquired to the authors of them.”

Finally, the judges voted 8 – 4 in favour of Joseph Knight.  One of them, Lord Auchinleck (father of James Boswell) had these words recorded: “Although, in the plantations, they have laid hold of the poor blacks, and made slaves of them, yet I do not think that that is agreeable to humanity, not to say to the Christian religion.  Is a man a slave because he is black?  No.  He is our brother; and he is a man, although not our colour; he is in a land of liberty, with his wife and his child; let him remain there.”  Lord Kames said: “We sit here to enforce right, not to enforce wrong.”   This verdict had no effect on enslaved people held by Scots in other countries and nor did it help those who still suffered as bonded workers in Scotland.  Mr Knight was however a free man and at this point, it is believed he disappeared from recorded history.  I wonder if he stayed in the area and I wonder if parish records have been searched for any details of the birth or baptism of further children, or of his own death or that of Ann Thompson or of their children.

Henry Dundas though is still very much part of our history with a live debate taking place on whether he did or didn’t deliberately set out to delay the abolition of slavery within the British colonies and whether or not his statue should remain in St Andrew’s Square, Edinburgh.  Dundas was first Home Secretary and then Secretary of State for War in the late 18th century British Government.  In 1792, he challenged William Wilberforce by inserting the word “gradual” into the Abolition Bill and this amendment passed; it was 1807 before abolition happened and in these 15 years, a further 530,000 people were enslaved.

BBC Scotland showed a programme recently “Scotland, Slavery & Statues” which will be on the iPlayer for the next 11 months.  Dundas’s descendants argued strongly that their ancestor was being maligned and that it was their “duty” to defend him against false accusations.  They believe that he was being pragmatic: had Dundas not amended the wording in 1792, the Bill “would have been shot down”.  The other side was led by Sir Geoff Palmer, a scientist originally from Jamaica and Scotland’s first black professor, who is not arguing for the statue’s removal but for a plaque to be attached which outlines the truth of the matter.   Surely, I thought naively, this could be done!

Historians Michael Fry and Sir Tom Devine were interviewed and both pronounced Dundas to be innocent.  Meetings were held over recent years with Edinburgh City Council to try to agree on wording for a plaque and you can follow the ins and outs of all this on the programme.  Inevitably, folk started commenting on social media and sadly, it all got quite vicious. 

After the programme was shown, Sir Tom Devine had an article in the Herald on Sunday (25 October?) in which he made clear his opposition to the “scapegoating” of Henry Dundas; he described the programme as “a miserable failure” and the wording for the plaque as “bad history”.  He gave 4 reasons why slavery could not have been abolished in 1792: fear of further slave uprisings after the one in Haiti, the then war with France, the economic benefits of slavery for Britain and the lack of political will at that time to end slavery.  I’m no historian but I didn’t care for the slightly disrespectful way he referred to Sir Geoff Palmer in this article  –  not using his Professor title and at another point just calling him Palmer.

(I found out a bit more about these economic benefits from a Paul Murton Grand Tours of Scottish Lochs Series 3 programme.  I’ve often looked over at Isle Martin near Ullapool, but had no idea that in the 18th century, it had a fish processing plant, producing dried and salted red herrings for export to the Caribbean as food for slaves.)

I’m going to stop here or Black History Month will be over before I finish this offering.  I will come back to the abolitionists, I promise!






4 thoughts on “Some names to remember

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