While Scotland’s elite and middle classes were soon to share in the tainted wealth of the slave trade, she was not a founding or defining member 80 years before Britain existed

80 years before Britain existed

I’m a big fan of David Olusoga’s work.

In the series Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners and, in particular, in The Establishment and the Barbados Slave Code, I was moved to deep sadness, horror and some kind of shame, as he, deeply moved himself,  introduced us to the instruments of torture used to ‘discipline’ some slaves, including children. I say shame because I know Robertson’s were part of those horrors. I know that, just as Campbells, Smiths and others do, because of the many British Afro-Caribbeans, we meet or hear of, carrying the names of their ancestral owners.

Olusoga has moved me to deep sadness several times before. Hearing him describe once his own experience as a small child, hearing racist calls for his family’s eviction and stones hurled against their home, I felt a deep and hurtful ache in my heart. I hope, even as a ‘white’ man, I can empathise with that enough to be haunted by the image, to this day and forever now.

I’ve heard him describe, clearly deeply moved, three Bristol sisters who lost all three of their husbands in the bloody mud of WWI battles. I felt a kind of shame in that too. Perhaps, too hard on myself here, I remember my discovery that the man responsible for Britain’s ‘strategy’ of beating the Germans by absorbing more death that they could and sending our working-classes over the top, to walk, to the skirl of our pipes, into the mincing machine of machine gun fire, was the work of the less well-known, Field Marshall William Robertson.

I’ve seen him standing in graveyards, saddened almost beyond words, recounting the tragic lives of children used and abused by Britain’s brutal industrial systems.

Why then do I care about the issue my headline alludes to? Maybe, I’m being a bit OCD or pedantic but Olusoga makes a mistake many ‘English’ historians make, using ‘Britain’ when it should be ‘England’. Others have done it the other way around. I think it reveals an Anglo-Saxon mindset even in those not very Anglo-Saxon.

Ten minutes in, the story takes us to Barbados in 1627, exactly 80 years before Britain existed, but we hear straightaway of ‘50 British settlers’ arriving in Barbados. The term ‘British’ is used again, five times, before a local historian links the code used to articulate the slave system, written in 1660s, and describes it as originating in England:

He goes on to say:

The English arrive in the Caribbean already with a fully formed racist and racial view about other people, especially African peoples.

Now I am not excusing, in any way, the later greedy collusion of elite and middle-class Scots but in the 1660s and for another 100 years many thousands here were to die or be exiled, in borderline genocidal actions and ethnic cleansing perpetrated by England’s elites and their armies, from Cromwellian atrocities at the same time as the Barbados experiment to the Hanoverian destruction of Highland culture and occupation of all Scotland, in 1746.

England’s predatory actions toward Wales, Scotland and Ireland from the 13th to the early 20th Century were often justified by a racist conception of their ‘inferior’ and ‘Celtic’ neighbours and a sense of their own racial superiority.

As Scotland seeks to leave the Empire behind, clearly racist abuse directed at Scots, is becoming common in the English Parliament and in parts of the media. Social media, of course, is awash with angry insults aimed at the ‘ungrateful’ Jocks.

I hope David Olusoga, as an historian, will agree that accuracy is important.

Footnote: Were Irish people beneficiaries of slavery? I hear nothing of that.





11 thoughts on “While Scotland’s elite and middle classes were soon to share in the tainted wealth of the slave trade, she was not a founding or defining member 80 years before Britain existed

  1. Many will remember the “discovery” of a “British” connection between standing stones in Orkney and in Stohehenge by BBC TV and NO.

    These extracts are from a piece in The Island Review by Kenneth Brophy, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at Glasgow Uni. (I think Olusoga a wonderful historian and person)

    “It goes back to the start. Stonehenge and Orkney, as Neil Oliver helpfully notes, are “500 miles” apart. However, in the show they are continually connected culturally. The conceit of the documentary is essentially that the stone circle idea and other associated cultural traits emerged in Orkney in the middle of the fourth millennium BC, at the beginning of a rather sinister sounding 1000-year-long “golden era”. These cultural traits – monuments, material culture, house layouts, maybe other things not specified in the show – were then disseminated across the rest of Britain. This resulted in the emergence of “Britain’s first common culture”, in the form of a “cult that swept Britain and culminated in Stonehenge”. This amazing revelation was all the more remarkable because Orkney is so remote and on the “edge of the world”. All of this is summed up in the nonsensical title for the show Britain’s Ancient Capital, which makes no sense in a Neolithic context, a time when there was no Britain, no Scotland, no England; the concept ‘cultural capital’ misunderstands the nature of social organisation in the fourth millennium BC, how society worked back then and how people perceived their world. Perhaps most disappointing of all in this narrative is that, not only does it simply rehash one of the more tired old clichés of British prehistory, it casts Orkney not as a spectacular place in its own right, but merely the appetiser in the run up to the emergence of the main course, the “supremacy of Stonehenge”. This should be all about Orkney – but it was not. Why?…..

    …..There was much to interest and admire in Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney and it is a shame that the makers of the programme chose to cast Orkney as warm up act for Stonehenge, rather than celebrate the strange and wonderful uniqueness of the archipelago. Viewers were left with the impression of a uniform Neolithic culture across Britain, radiating out from Orkney and reaching its apex in Stonehenge. This is a real shame as the spaces in between – everything else in the British Neolithic in other words – were never considered. The atypical was celebrated as the norm, when it could and should have been celebrated as, well, atypical. Because Orkney’s exceptional qualities are what make it different, not the same, as everywhere else, today and in the Neolithic. “

    Liked by 7 people

  2. “Londoners had a notorious reputation for xenophobia. This article examines general causes of xenophobia as well as particular reasons for its increase after the 1580s. It also looks at the responses of national and city governments and of the immigrants. It concludes that many immigrants became greatly disillusioned, particularly in the 1590s, as a result of incessant threats of violence, molestation, complaints and expulsion attempts, and more seriously, of a lack of opportunities for acquiring citizenship. With the encouragement from Dutch towns, many decided to uproot again.”


    Liked by 2 people

  3. Excellent article, frankly needed saying. 2 points I would add. That the proliferation if Scots and Irish names is as likely to originate with the cohabitation of African slaves with Scots and Irish Slaves. That much of the trade in slaves from Africa originates from African traders, either by war or raids and selling on to Arab and European buyers. Slave Ships didn’t have the manpower to mount raids on villages, they bought the slaves. Doesn’t excuse the trade in any way and slavery has existed since the start of what’s laughingly referred to as civilization, it exists today.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I think this is an important subject to say the least. The whole terrible, cruel and barbaric slave trade was just horrendous. Obviously the elite of Scotland’s part in that was truly dreadful as well.

    Scotland is tarred with the same brush as England, simply by being in the UK, when the English elites decide to war on other countries. Right now, the EngGov, the ‘UK’, are playing a major part in the sanctioning of Venezuela in order to allow the US install a right wing government. England as oppressor or at war, =UK oppression and at war.

    During discussions with friends about the indy ref in 2014, and bringing up how Scotland had been greatly oppressed by the the English in the past, the subject of the Scots siding with the English in oppressing the Irish came up, I can’t remenber the dates but I am sure people here will know about that in detail. I had looked it up and yes the Scots ‘helped’ the English violently attack Ireland at one point, but the scary thing is, that my friends, one is Irish, seemed really to be saying, that the oppression of the Scots by the English was somehow then justified.

    It’s the usual ‘Scotland is just as bad and no different’. Somehow, uniquely, that seems to justify and lay the blame on the Scots for their own violent oppression at the hands of the English. That is akin to saying that if England decided to invade Norway now, violently oppressing them, or Italy, it would serve them right for invading these Islands all those centuries ago.

    There are good people, and bad people, everywhere. The English in particular though, don’t go to war on a country as England, it’s the ‘UK’, even when Scotland’s people and indeed government vociferously opposes it. The UK is a burden to Scotland, imo, for that reason alone, not to mention (England’s) Trident and selling arms to rogue states.

    Great article, need more history lessons.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Useful timeline on how slavery in the UK developed. Here is the first and last. Mean and greedy to the last. Very good website for those interested.


    “1555: A group of Africans (from present day Ghana) are brought to England by John Lok, a London merchant, to learn English so that they can act as interpreters in their homelands. They are to help the English break the monopoly that the Portuguese have over the African trade in gold, ivory and pepper. A written account speaks of “taule and strong men”, who “coulde well agree with our meates and drynkes….

    …..1833: Slavery Abolition Act is passed in Parliament, taking effect in 1834. This act gives all slaves in the Caribbean their freedom although some other British territories have to wait longer. However, ex-slaves in the Caribbean are forced to undertake a period of ‘apprenticeship’ (working for former masters for a low wage) which means that slavery is not fully abolished in practice until 1838.”


  6. The thing that really surprises me is the that the “British” have not destroyed all the evidence about the slave trade.I believe there is a website that has been set up so you can search all about it.
    A great program and I have recorded it so the young G/K will be able to see it,its just a pity it was not shown on prime time TV.
    PS I see like Cummings that Boris’s old man has broken the rules,barstewards.


  7. A great number of Irish males have, according to Mallory (whose book on the subject I have but can’t find) a gene that originates in the Steppes. This suggests large scale immigration (or people carried in by a slave trade???). What of Scotland?


    “These ancient Irish genomes each show unequivocal evidence for massive migration. The early farmer has a majority ancestry originating ultimately in the Middle East, where agriculture was invented. The Bronze Age genomes are different again with about a third of their ancestry coming from ancient sources in the Pontic Steppe.

    “There was a great wave of genome change that swept into Europe from above the Black Sea into Bronze Age Europe and we now know it washed all the way to the shores of its most westerly island,” said Professor of Population Genetics in Trinity College Dublin, Dan Bradley, who led the study, “and this degree of genetic change invites the possibility of other associated changes, perhaps even the introduction of language ancestral to western Celtic tongues.””


  8. John, Richard Murphy posted this interview with a leading American anti-racism campaigner that you might like to watch:


    The main point of interest is that he makes the distinction between being anti-racist and non-racist (the first is open minded and an attempt to change, the second is unlikely). It makes me feel better about getting involved in any racism debate – instead of being scared about ‘saying something wrong’ , I can feel sure that I’m willing to see another point of view on anything I say that might be dodgy.

    I made a comment there with regards to the British Empire and the horrors it inflicted on the world – I have more to say about that in a more Scottish context – just as you have done, taking ‘ownership’ of our history and accepting we aren’t exempt from blame as a nation – but also moving on, and not taking the blame for the English creation and instigation of the horrors. It wasn’t just Scotland either, plenty of other colonies were deeply involved in the Imperial Project (again that should not dilute our part, but on the grand scale of things, it was not a large part). The use of British to try and disperse responsibility of what was/is effectively an English project is so common that we often accept it without thinking – it is tangling up history, and makes it more difficult for us to leave the Imperial behind – but we must remember we were and are victims of it as well as participants.

    I was surprised when doing an online course about the British Empire years ago the number of people that just outright denied any of the unsavoury things the course touched on – and it didn’t get into genocide, torture or concentration camps – I have since learnt that this is the usual reaction of mainly English people – outright denial that the British Empire was anything but some benign charity organisation saving nations from themselves. Utterly perplexing. Until people realise and accept the history of it we will never move past the insidious racism that is a routine part of our cultures. Slavery was enabled by dehumanising other cultures and peoples, and racism dehumanises other peoples and cultures.

    The partial dehumanising of Scots by the English (British Imperialism) needs a different word than racism – it’s our automatic relegation to being second-class rather than not human, our perpetual inferiority in social and intellectual standing because of our place of birth. It’s so ingrained, they don’t know they do it, and we don’t realise we do it to ourselves too.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. IMHO many Scots are fully aware of these historical inaccuracies and use that knowledge to disassociate themselves from actions that should otherwise genuinely cause them to feel shame or disgust. Consequently, accuracy in recounting the narrative is essential and not just nit-picking or worse still avoidance of guilt.
      Regrettably BBC documentaries are peppered with flip flopping between England / UK; English British. For instance I couldn’t keep up with the narrative in Ian Hislop’s stiff upper lip (part1) broadcast this week because of shouting corrections at the TV.
      I fully agree we need a different word to describe the British Imperialist attitude to Scotland because ‘racism’ has now been appropriated in common understanding/usage to be largely a skin tone based.
      [Anti-racist aspiring to be non-racist but with a long way to go before achieving it]

      Liked by 3 people

  9. I loved this series too and learned a lot, hardly surprising mostly English history…..
    I hope Glasgow gets the finger out soon to establish a Scottish slavery museum like the one in Liverpool. Black lives matter very much in Scotland, precisely because BAME people are a small minority. I gained an (should have been obvious) insight talking to a muslim person about indy – the muslim ‘community’ are very diverse, but because they are few in number they do stick together, against racism.
    Our makar Jackie Kay was subjected to racism at Stirling University in the late 1970’s when I was there, and her decision to move to Manchester was because there were more bame people there. I never noticed what happened to her. It wasnt my experience so wasnt on my radar. I hope if one thing comes out of BLM in Scotland racist abuse will be on people’s radar now and we will call it out, in the same way most switched on women automatically look out for other women in potentially vulnerable situations.
    And on Celtic races, Scottish clearances absolutely tick boxes for genocide. Donald McLeod (Strathnaver) refers to his people as aborigines which of course they were.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.