This week, The on Sunday invited the nation’s leading historian Sir Tom Devine and the nation’s first black professor Sir Geoff Palmer to debate Scotland’s legacy of slavery. Their explosive exchange shows just how far we have to go as a country before we truly come to terms with our past. Writer at Large Neil Mackay reports
IF evidence were needed of Scotland’s bitter, unresolved legacy of slavery, then proof is to be found in the tense and at times acrimonious relationship between two of Scotland’s most distinguished academics when it comes to the truth about our nation’s past.
Sir Tom Devine is Scotland’s most distinguished historian, and the man who quite literally wrote the book on the nation’s role in empire and slavery. Sir Geoff Palmer is Scotland’s first black professor, and a champion of the Black Lives Matter movement. This week, The on Sunday hosted the pair in a private online debate about Scotland, slavery and the legacy of history.
Fittingly, the debate occurred on Burns Night. The legacy of Scotland’s national poet is now under reassessment itself given he once considered taking up an overseer position on a slave plantation.
To say the discussion was fraught is an understatement. At the heart of the two academics’ differences is the way Scotland should view Sir Henry Dundas – an Edinburgh aristocrat who became one of the most powerful men in the British empire during the late 1700s. Dundas, known as “the Uncrowned King of Scotland”, was right-hand man to Prime Minister William Pitt.
He was at the heart of the wars against revolutionary France and British expansion in India. Victorians saw him as a towering symbol of the Enlightenment. A statute of him stands in Edinburgh. However, today he is infamous for his role in slavery.
In 1792, the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce put a motion before parliament calling for slavery to be abolished. Although Dundas claimed he opposed slavery, he tabled an amendment calling for “gradual” abolition and for the slave trade to be ended “by moderate measures”. It wasn’t until 1807, therefore, that the slave trade was eventually outlawed – although it took until 1833 for a full ban on the owning of slaves to be enforced. Campaigners see Dundas as guilty of continuing one of the most dreadful crimes in world history.
As a result, amid the Black Lives Matter protests last year, a plaque was erected at Dundas’s statue denouncing him as instrumental in preventing the abolition of slavery, and so responsible for continuing atrocities across the Caribbean.
Palmer played a central role in ensuring the plaque went up. Devine takes issue not only with how Dundas’s role in the continuation of slavery is perceived, but also with the way in which the plaque was erected. Their differences strike right at the heart of how Scotland deals with its legacy of slavery.
What is clear, though, is that both men hold slavery in utter contempt and detest modern racism. Nevertheless, their dispute over the interpretation of the past is rancorous.
Devine begins by noting that Scotland has only recently started coming to terms with its history of slavery. The study of “slavery and Scotland” as a subject “was only really born about 20 years ago” whereas England has been debating the issue since the post-war period.
“To some extent, the passions in the south have already been exhausted whereas in Scotland so much of this material is new and challenging,” he says.
Over the last decade or so, it has become clear, says Devine, “that Scotland was implicated deeply in the reality and the legacy of slavery … Every nook and cranny of Scottish life had direct or indirect connections to slave-based economies across the Atlantic in the 18th century”.
He adds: “Despite the fact that Scotland had collective amnesia over this issue for centuries … Scotland was actually more dependent on these slave-based economic systems than England.” Much of Scotland’s wealth and industrial revolution was dependent on slavery. Palmer says that when he has given lectures around the country many people have been completely unaware of Scotland’s role in slavery. “The consistent response from the audience has been ‘why hasn’t anyone told us this before?’.” He pointedly adds that people have walked past the Dundas statue for generations, and the many landmarks in Glasgow linked to slavery, and “they hadn’t a clue”.
Neither Palmer nor Devine want statues of men like Dundas taken down – both see them as important historical artefacts, which teach us about the past. However, when Palmer became involved in moves to erect a plaque at the Dundas statue, he was taken aback by claims that the man was a “gradual abolitionist”. He denounces such statements as “humbug” and says “Dundas was guilty of villainy and rotten to the core”.
Forces of history
Where the pair differ, says Devine, relates to “the controversy over the Dundas [statue]and the role of Henry Dundas, and whether or not he prolonged the slave trade led to many thousands of other African people being transported across the Atlantic”.
Devine notes he finds it ironic that he is “defending – at least on a specific issue – this long dead man, because if you look at his role in history, and leave aside slavery, Dundas was an autocrat, unrelentingly opposed to political reform … an utter reactionary, and as far as I can tell not a very pleasant human being”.
However, Devine says that as a historian he must judge historical figures on “evidence, much of it inevitably ambiguous … without fear or favour or whether I can’t stand the man or not”. Devine says that studying the evidence leads him to the opinion that “the jury is still out on [Dundas’s] personal role … Personally, I’ve not come across what I’d describe as entirely convincing evidence to convict [Dundas] one way or another of postponing or trying to postpone the end of the slave trade”.
Devine adds that “even if Dundas had never existed as an individual or high-ranking politician”, slavery would not have been abolished in the 1790s because “forces political, economic and military were so potent that there was no way a British government would want to get abolition over the line”.
Among those key forces were Britain’s war with France, the fact that the Caribbean was central to the economy of Empire, and slave rebellions in the French colony Saint-Domingue – now Haiti. Britain, Devine says, “was fighting in a titanic struggle with France, not only for its very existence but the future control of Empire across the Atlantic”.
Slave rebellions “sent tremors right through the whole of the British Caribbean and the corridors of power in Westminster – the feeling was that if the British gave an inch too quickly it might trigger the same kind of horror in the British Caribbean islands”.
The House of Lords, “which had to agree to abolition, was constantly and adamantly opposed … as was the King [George III] who had to sign any legislation off”.
Palmer questions Devine’s position and produces a statement included in the book Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past, edited by Devine and published in 2015. It says that Dundas’s “parliamentary intervention … arguing for gradual abolition … effectively killed off reform for a generation”. What has changed Devine’s opinion of Dundas between 2015 and today, Palmer wants to know.
Devine admits that his view of Dundas has changed. “The point about my discipline is that it moves on … I believed that in 2015, I no longer believe it because I look at the totality of the period … My position has moved from an individual critique … to seeing the thing in terms of these very potent historical developments and forces which ensured [abolition]couldn’t happen.”
“Tom,” Palmer pointedly says, “has changed his mind.” Palmer says as a scientist he would never come to “conclusions without evidence”.
DUNDAS, Palmer says, “gave money which facilitated the debt that some of these slavers had gone into … notorious slavers who didn’t want abolition”. He points to James Baillie, a notorious Scottish slaver in the West Indies, descended from William Wallace, as one of those Dundas supported.
How history views Dundas, says Palmer, is critical “in terms of the general public”. He worries that those who describe Dundas as a “gradual abolitionist” pave the way for him eventually becoming “an abolitionist” in the public mind. Palmer says he was quite clearly a supporter of slavery.
Palmer goes on to point out that in a 1796 letter, Dundas speaks of opposing abolition. Dundas also, Palmer says, facilitated that “black slaves should be enlisted into the British army to fight the French”, and ordered action against fugitive slaves in Jamaica. “That’s gradual abolition?” Palmer asks.
Palmer says that in the Caribbean part of Dundas’s strategy was “bringing in young slaves … so that in the end you could be self-producing your own slaves”. He won’t countenance any suggestion that Dundas was not guilty of continuing the slave trade.
Any claims by Dundas at the time that he was a gradualist, says Palmer, simply chime with other misleading statements by similar politicians in the late 1700s, who were all guilty of “this awful hypocrisy … saying one thing and doing the other”. He adds: “Dundas’s gradualism is like gradual murder.”
Dundas, Palmer goes on, “wanted to develop slave plantations in Jamaica”. When the word “gradual” is used in connection with Dundas, Palmer says, we should take it to mean that he was “refusing to act until a thousand favourable circumstances united – that really means never … he was playing the game … he was involved in delaying abolition”.
Palmer adds it is curious that when Dundas was impeached in 1806, the “slave trade was abolished in 1807”.
DEVINE responds by saying: “Geoff presents [Dundas] as a kind of superman, a titan who single-handedly managed to produce this extraordinary historical result of postponing abolition. The only reason Dundas was able to achieve this end wasn’t because of personal skills … [but]because the forces of history, unfortunately for a period, were in favour of people like the postponers – aka him – or people who were root and branch opposed to abolition … We must move from the role, for good or ill – probably for ill – of one individual and see this as an international process, based especially on war, which confounded the abolitionists until the early-19th century.”
At this stage of the debate, the conversation degenerates into the two men talking over each other and general bickering. “I just think he was irrelevant,” says Devine. “He was the minister of war and the home secretary,” Palmer responds.
He was just “one influential man”, Devine adds. “Are you saying the ‘Uncrowned King of Scotland’ was the stooge of a whole lot of other people … that he’d no power?” Palmer asks.
THE on Sunday brings the debate to order and moves on to asking both men why the legacy of Dundas matters today. “We’ve a situation of false national pride,” says Palmer. That’s “a deception”, he adds. When an Edinburgh City Council committee – on which Palmer sat – debated putting up the plaque at the Dundas statue, claims were made that Dundas was an abolitionist, Palmer says. “The public needs clarification on that,” he adds.
Devine disagrees with “the way, and the outcome of the way, the plaque was revised”. He says the issue should have been debated with “dispassionate impartiality”.
He adds: “What’s said on that plaque needs to combine, in addition to the condemnation of Dundas … the context of the time which allowed the postponement of abolition to take place … This is such a fundamental part of our history … it must be debated.”
He questions why no “trained historian” was part of the discussion around the Dundas statue. “Edinburgh council should hang its head in shame,” Devine says. He cites a similar discussion ongoing in Toronto about the city possibly renaming its Dundas Street, which he sees as the right process to follow. There have been public discussions, and the city will present options to ranging from scraping the street name to doing nothing.
Devine says Edinburgh acted “in a moment of panic”. The Edinburgh judgment was made by a “kangaroo court”, he says – the ruling was a “diktat”.
“I don’t want Dundas forgiven or applauded – what I want is for the historical record to be taken into account,” he says. Devine adds that by 1800 “the number of people in Scotland who would have supported abolition would have been very small indeed”. He says it took the majority of Scottish people a long time to come to opposition “as they realised the extent to which the ramparts of their economic system depended on [slavery’s] wickedness”.
Palmer adds: “The majority is not always right – at one time the majority thought the Earth was flat.” The conversation starts to get fractious again. Palmer says Devine’s complaint about no historian on the Dundas panel is “like saying “Shakespeare didn’t do a course in playwriting so what does he know?’.” Palmer says people have dismissed his comments on black history because of his background as a scientist rather than an historian, adding: “That’s dangerous as what it’s saying is that my view of history isn’t acceptable.”
He raises the fact that Dundas’s statue stood for nearly 200 years “and that was perfectly okay to historians – they didn’t complain about it … they had 200 years to write about it in detail … they didn’t”.
Palmer adds: “The council did what it thought was right and as far as the narrative on the plaque, I agree with it – and as far as I’m concerned that’s it.”
Palmer says amending the plaque’s text would be “like saying Hitler isn’t responsible because he was just one man and had lots of other people around him”.
On claims that there is new evidence to consider about Dundas, Palmer adds: “I can’t see the new evidence, there isn’t any.”
After another spat, the conversation calms down and debate resumes. Devine says: “I’m totally committed to the racial equality agenda, it’s extraordinary it’s taken so long to reach this point [but]if we don’t get this right in terms of the reckoning with the past it will continue to be an open sore and there won’t be any closure.”
Palmer sees a continuum between men like Dundas, the actions and words of politicians like Enoch Powell in the 20th century, and white supremacy today, which resulted in deaths like that of George Floyd. “We cannot change the past, but we can change the consequences of the past – such as racism – for the better,” he adds.
With the debate becoming bogged down, Devine says he is unlikely to speak out again on such issues. He believes discussion has “been hijacked by activists, controversialists and polemicists … [who]will withstand the cold logic of any conclusion you present. You’ve lost … before you begin … I think I’m hitting my head against a brick wall and it’s becoming increasingly painful”.
Palmer responds: “You can write what you think is true, nobody can stop you writing, the point is that now people are being much more critical.”
DESPITE the acrimony, the debate begins to close on a point of agreement. Both Devine and Palmer say the key to understanding the past – and therefore building a better future – is education. “The Scottish people weren’t informed,” says Palmer. “There were misconceptions like the Scots abolished slavery.”
Devine adds: “As far as the future is concerned, the only long-term way around this in terms of understanding [is]… it must be at the heart of the school curriculum.” The “horrors of racism” in the 21st century “should also loom large – the past doesn’t change, history changes.”
Just as the conversation is about to wind down, the pair rev up again for another tetchy exchange – and, after two hours, The draws the debate to a close.
Both men are passionate, well-intentioned, and care about society and fairness – but on the matter of one of Scotland’s most controversial historical figures and his role in slavery, they will never agree.
Perhaps the heat of their debate shows just how much this country has changed for the better, though. Twenty years ago, such a discussion would never have taken place.