abolitionists or enslavers…

A recent piece by Yvonne Singh in The Guardian challenges the way that Scotland has positioned itself within an abolitionist history by taking up Scottish involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, looking in particular at Scottish slave and plantation ownership in Guyana.

Singh quotes the words of historian David Alston, whom she meets in a town called Cromarty:

Alston explains that there are 13 different sites in this tiny place that have connections to slave plantations – mostly in Guyana. He says: “If you lived in the Highlands in the 1800s, you would know about Demerara and Berbice [in Guyana]; people would talk about coming back ‘as rich as a Demerary man’.”

This history is not only visible in Guyana, it’s also visible in neighbouring Suriname (it’s worth noting that some regions of Guyana were under both Dutch and British rule at various points in their history, so it can all get a bit tangly). According to Alston, Scottish enslavers received fully 9% of the compensation paid out to Suriname-based slave owners at abolition in 1863.

We might look specifically at the Coronie region, where my ancestors were enslaved. The Coronie district was home to many plantations whose names show evidence of Scottish involvement: Inverness, Clyde, Burnside, and Hamilton, for example, all recall Scottish places.

More than this, however, are the names of plantation investors, owners, and administrators. Thus, for example, for a period Clyde was owned by a man named Alexander Cameron.  By 1837, according to the Almanac, ownership had passed on to his inheritors, but the plantation was managed by one W. Mackintosh. According to Alston, Mackintosh was his sister’s son. Friendship plantation, meanwhile, also along the coast in Coronie, saw a number of owners, among them Reece, Robertson, and later, James Campbell. Investors included John and Colin Campbell.

Looking at the slave registers for Sarah plantation reveals further Scottish influence: among the more than 300 enslaved there, we find Munroe, Carlisle, Robertson,  Caledonia, and two named Glasford, among others.

As Yvonne Singh writes:

Scotland’s role in empire does not belong in the margins or footnotes: Highland Scots had a huge role to play in the large-scale trafficking of human beings for profit. I believe that however unpalatable this history is, it is a shared one, and contributes to our understanding of race and how the movements of people from long ago fits with our story now. To obscure these facts is to rob individuals of their stories all over again, and to deny them any sense of belonging or place in the world.”

As uncomfortable and unpalatable as it is, that story should also include other Scottish involvement in other Caribbean countries, including Suriname.


(c) Sonja Boon, 2019.


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