BBC History Magazine
THE SLAVE TRADE
CHRISTIENNA FRYAR on an exploration of one family’s links to the slave trade, which adds new facets to the wider story
“Renton joins a growing group of historians charting Scotland’s role in Caribbean slavery” Christienna Fryar rates a look at one family’s involvement in the slave trade •
Journalist Alex Renton’s Blood Legacy is a timely intervention into recent debates about Britain’s history as a slavery nation. From the 1760s until the 19th century, the Fergussons, a Scottish aristocratic family and Renton’s ancestors, owned plantations and enslaved people in the Caribbean. Blood Legacy is the story of their failed coffee and indigo plantation in Tobago and the moderately successful Rozelle sugar estate in Jamaica.
Renton tells this story using the Fergussons’ family papers, especially the records of family patriarch Sir Adam, an absentee planter who appears to never have travelled to the Caribbean. Although Renton’s grandfather, a former keeper of the records at the National Archives of Scotland, carefully catalogued the Fergusson papers, the plantations and their horrors had been left out of family lore. The Fergussons’ squeamishness about this PODCAST history mirrors that both of wider Scotland and the UK.
Indeed, that this is a Scottish story is important, as Renton joins a growing group of historians charting Scotland’s involvement in Caribbean slavery.
Blood Legacy is a well-told narrative of a British family’s involvement in slavery, but the book is essential reading for another reason. Hidden in the Fergusson papers, Renton found the dictated testimony of Augustus Thomson (known from birth as “Caesar”). An enslaved doctor and veterinarian, Thomson had fled the Rozelle plantation before travelling to London to appeal directly to the Fergussons. Such testimony is precious, as Renton realises, because there are very few direct testimonies or narratives from enslaved people in the Caribbean, and even fewer for the 18th century – and this is the first time that Thomson’s letter has been published. One wonders how many enslaved people’s testimonies may well be lurking in other families’ papers, in both archives and private collections.