Scotland and the art of slavery
Scotland’s long and deep involvement in slavery often found expression in works of art. Dr David Alston explores the ways that Scottish artists and artworks handled this relationship
Scotland's long and deep involvement with slavery often found expression in works of art. Dr David Alston explores the ways that Scottish artists and artworks handled this relationship, either by depicting slaveholders, plantation life, or enslaved people themselves
In Glasgow in 2007 a Black figure re-appeared during the cleaning and conservation of Archibald McLaughlan’s portrait of the tobacco merchant John Glassford and his family.The figure of the young enslaved servant had not been painted out – as was sometimes suggested – but had been obscured by centuries of dirt. It is an apt metaphor for Scotland’s lost awareness of its historical connections with slavery and a reminder of the need for a more general process of ‘cleaning and conservation’ of our heritage.
It is more than 20 years since David Dabydeen drew attention to the presence of Black people in 18th-century English art, particularly the complex place of these figures in more than two dozen of William Hogarth’s paintings.There are also Black figures in Scottish art and other ways in which Scottish art is entwined with Scotland’s extensive involvement with the slave-trade and the slave plantations of the Caribbean.
From the mid-1600s, the possession of a domestic slave was a symbol of wealth and status, and until the early 1700s was mainly associated with the aristocracy and the royal court. The restoration of Charles II in 1660 increased contacts between the English court and courts abroad. As a result, Black grooms and page boys became more fashionable.
It is sometimes important to use the contemporary language of ownership to remind ourselves that these human beings were regarded not as employees but as property; and in this period they were exotic ‘luxury goods’. In 1662, for example, Samuel Pepys noted in his diary that the earl of Sandwich had brought back for his daughters ‘a little Turk and a negro’ along with ‘many birds and other pretty novelties’. Three years later, Pepys was entertained by Sir Robert Vyner, a rich banker and goldsmith who was then lord mayor of London. He was shown ‘a black boy that he had that died of a consumption; and being dead, [Vyner] caused him to be dried in an Oven, and [he] lies there, entire in a box’. The lord mayor might have lost a servant, but he had kept an exotic curiosity.
Across both kingdoms the figures of Black servants began to appear in portraits of the aristocracy, often wearing a locked, silver neckcollar – a symbol of both wealth and control.The fashion spread to the Scottish nobility and when the Flemish artist John Baptiste de Medina settled in Edinburgh about 1690, with a virtual monopoly
on portrait painting for the upper classes, he included a young Black boy in his portrait of James Drummond (1673-1720), the son of the 4th earl of Perth. It was probably painted about 1700, after James had returned from his studies in Paris, and the enslaved boy may have been acquired there. James was a Jacobite to the core and joined the 1689 rising in Ireland, a plot to invade Scotland in 1708 (for which he was briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London), and the rising of 1715.This led to the forfeiture of his estates and titles, and exile on the continent.
George Keith and Mocho
In 1733 another prominent Scottish Jacobite lord had his portrait painted with a Black servant, a young groom holding the bridle of his horse. George Keith (1692/31778) was the tenth and last of the earls marischal of Scotland. He forfeited the title – and his estates – for taking part in the Jacobite rising of 1715, in which he fought alongside James Drummond at the battle of Sheriffmuir.
Then in 1719 Keith commanded the 300-strong Spanish force which landed on the island of Lewis in support of a further attempt to place ‘James VIII’ (the ‘Old Pretender’) on the throne. Keith was seriously wounded at the battle of Glenshiel in Wester Ross and fled to Valencia in Spain. He remained a Jacobite but came to detest James’s heir, Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’), and took no part in the Jacobite rising of 1745. It was c.1733 that he had this portrait – an oil on copper – painted by the Italian artist Placido Costanzi. Although it shows his family seat Dunnottar Castle (Stonehaven) in the background, the portrait was made on the continent and the earl did not return to Scotland until the 1760s, and then only briefly, after receiving a pardon. Remarkably we can discover a considerable amount of detail of the life of the enslaved boy in the portrait.
He was Mocho, also rendered as Motcho and Motchô. Was this his own name rather than an imposed slave-name? Mocho was given to the earl marischal by a fellow officer in Spanish military service, the Chevalier Blaise-Marie d’Aydie. In the portrait he wears silver earrings, a silver collar on his neck, and fine clothes, and his gaze is fixed on his master. If he was, say, ten years old, he would have been born c.1722. George Keith also had a Turkish slave called Ibrahim and they were joined in his household by a young prisoner of war – Stepan, a Kalmyk from the north Caucuses. Kalmyks were the only Buddhists in Europe and Stepan was said to be related to the Dalai Lama. Keith, nominally a Scottish Episcopalian but in fact a sceptic, made no attempt to convert any of his servants to Christianity and referred to the Buddhist Stepan as his ‘chief chaplain’. Later a Turkish girl, Emet Ullah, joined them. It was a remarkable and unusual household. The earl would later describe Emet Ullah as his daughter, Ibrahim as his illegitimate son, and Stepan and Mocho as his bastards – but none of this was literally true. He also called the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who he helped and protected, ‘his son’ and Rousseau addressed Emet Ullah as ‘my sister’.
By 1736 Mocho had become the valet to the earl’s younger brother, James Francis Edward Keith (1696-1758), who had also fought in the ’15 and the ’19 risings and had gone into exile. James Keith went on to a distinguished career as a soldier in Spanish, Russian and Prussian service. As a postscript to a letter written in June 1736 by George (in Avignon) to his brother James (now in the Russian army), there is a playful note to Mocho, written in Spanish:
Mr Mocho, You are a very big scamp, not to send me or Stepan a word.Try to take a Tartar man for me, and a Tartar lady for Stepan, and every time my brother writes to me, you must write to me too; if not I will go and pull your ears. Stepan shaves me like the best of barbers; you know how to shave, to eat, to drink. Good bye.
Stepan, the Kalmyk, added his own note: ‘Friend Mocho, – place me at the feet of your master.Try to treat him well, for he deserves it, and send me your news’.
Mocho served James ‘faithfully through all his campaigns’. This included James’s participation in the coup d’état of 1741 which brought the Empress Elizabeth to power in Russia, a short time as de facto viceroy of Finland, and then in Prussian service under Frederick the Great as a field marshal commanding the siege of Prague and the defence of Leipzig in the Seven Years War.
After James Keith’s death in battle at Hochkirk in 1758, Mocho rejoined the household of the earl marischal, then serving as Prussian ambassador in Neuchâtel (an independent canton now part of Switzerland). He continued to live there, provided with a pension, after the earl’s death in 1778. Although Mocho never set foot in Scotland and never saw Dunottar Castle – unless he accompanied the earl marischal to Edinburgh and the north-east in 1763-4 – he lived his life in two important Scottish households in Europe. He was part of what another Jacobite lord called the earl marischal’s ‘ménagerie of young heathen’, which was known not only to Rousseau but to the French philosopher Voltaire and the Scottish philosopher David Hume.
With the growth of English and Scottish involvement in the slave-trade – from Africa and
It would be surprising if there were not more family portraits, perhaps still in private collections, which include Black servants in Scotland
within the Caribbean and North America – and the increase in slaveholding, the possession of a Black enslaved domestic servant in Britain became a more common and more affordable luxury, no longer the sole preserve of the old aristocracy around the royal courts.
After the decision of the court of session in 1778, in the case of Joseph Knight, it was clear that under Scots law no-one could be held as a slave in Scotland – neither could they be legally forced back to slavery in the Caribbean. But many domestic slaves in the Caribbean were still brought to Scotland as house servants, and some returned to become slaves once more. It would be surprising if there were not more family portraits, perhaps still in private collections, which include Black servants in Scotland.
Art as PR in the Caribbean
At the end of the Seven Years War the peace treaty of 1763, known as the treaty of Paris, gave Britain new colonies in the south-east Caribbean, with France handing over (ceding) the islands of Dominica, Tobago, St Vincent and, most importantly, Grenada, with the scatter of small islands to the east called the Grenadines − afterwards collectively known as the Ceded Islands. Eyes were now on the prospects victory had brought.There were 26 British colonies in the Americas and although the thirteen colonies in North America would later declare their independence, this was not something foreseen in the early 1760s. Instead the developing British empire appeared to be strong and united, offering opportunities to adventurous investors both from the home countries and from within the network of colonies − and the greatest wealth, or potential wealth, lay in the colonies of the Caribbean. It was an opportunity seized by many Scots, who came to dominate many of these new colonies, especially Tobago and Carriacou, one of the Grenadines.
The task of promoting and overseeing the sale of these lands was given to a commission presided over by William Young (1724/5–88), the son of a DrYoung who had fled from Scotland to Antigua following the defeat of the Jacobite rising of 1715. Young, an experienced planter, was to spend nine years away from home, enthusiastically pursuing this mission as well as acquiring estates himself, and he also served as lieutenant
governor (1768) and then governor (1770) of Dominica.Young proved to be a skilled publicist, writing his own promotional book and employing the Anglo-Italian artist Agostino Brunias to provide British patrons with an idealised view of the life of slaves in the Ceded Islands. Brunias had moved from Rome to London to work for the Scottish architect Robert Adam.Working forYoung in the Caribbean, his paintings soothed the consciences of investors, suggesting that better treatment of slaves could create a tropical Garden of Eden characterised by abundance and the contented harmony of its diverse inhabitants – enslaved Africans, native Carib, free people of colour, and white French and British planters and their employees. And again and again Brunias displayed the charms of the islands’ free women of colour, at this date mostly Frenchspeaking:
Brunias’s mulâtresses provoke the fantasy of possessing a body that both is and is not white, bearing the marks of refined whiteness and the promise of savage sexual pleasure so closely associated with blackness.
Yet Brunias’s paintings, whatever Young’s intentions, allowed other interpretations. In the 1790s the revolutionary leader in Haiti,Toussaint Louverture, disseminated prints of these works as a celebration of a possible and desired multicultural society and Louverture himself wore a waistcoat with eighteen buttons decorated with reproductions of the paintings.
Although Brunias’s work had its genesis in Scottish involvement in the slave plantations of the Caribbean, as far as I know no Scottish public institution holds any examples.
Towards the end of the 1700s, as Scots became more and more involved in the plantations – and fortunes, sometimes vast fortunes, continued to be made in sugar and cotton – more portraits were commissioned. Black servants were no longer the ‘fashion accessory’ they had been and we need to dig deeper to see the links to slavery.
The Caribbean, particularly the southern Caribbean, was a dangerous place for white settlers, especially as yellow fever spread in the 1790s. Some portraits were of the young Scotsmen who went there – and might not return. Others were of those who had made their fortunes and could afford to bask in their success. The pre-eminent Scottish portrait painter of the time was Henry Raeburn and the involvement in slavery by the subjects of his portraits would be a study in itself.
These connections are surely something which should be acknowledged when these portraits are displayed to the public. Take one example.The Frick Collection in NewYork has two fine Raeburns, portraits of Mr and Mrs James Cruikshank.Their catalogue describes Cruikshank as ‘a business man who made a large fortune from sugar plantations in the British West Indies’ – and avoids any mention of slavery. Cruikshank and his brothers, from Gorton near Grantown-on-Spey, became slave-holders in St Vincent and profited not only from the labour of enslaved Africans but from what can be accurately called the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Black Caribs of the island.The Caribs survived and are now known as the Garifuna. One of their largest populations is – ironically – in New
Although Mocho never set foot in Scotland and never saw Dunottar Castle – unless he accompanied the earl marischal to Edinburgh and the north-east in 1763-64 – he lived his life in two important Scottish households in Europe
York. In Scotland, two magnificent mansions, Stracathro House (near Brechin) and Langley Park (near Montrose), remain as visible legacies of the fortunes made by the Cruikshanks of Gorton.
Among Raeburn’s portraits of young men on their way to the plantations is that of Edward Fraser of Reelig, painted in 1803 before he left for Berbice, now part of Guyana on the north coast of South America. Edward was only sixteen or seventeen, a sensitive boy who thought slavery was wrong, but felt compelled to go to the family’s cotton plantation to play his part in restoring their fortunes and saving their highland home. In Raeburn’s portrait he is dressed in his finery, a tartan jacket and a white cravat, but looking in his eyes I think we see a frightened teenager putting a brave face on things.
In Raeburn’s portraits there is one sitter who was a woman of colour – although you would never guess this from her appearance, at least as presented by Raeburn. She was Nancy Graham, the Jamaicanborn daughter of Miss Eliza Jackson and Francis Graham, a plantation attorney – that is, the agent for a plantation owner – who at one point was responsible for 10,000 enslaved people on the island. Nancy came to Scotland c.1810, aged about eight, before her father’s marriage to a Scottish woman, and it must have been about then that he commissioned her portrait. She came to Cromarty to live with her guardian, the former physician general of Jamaica, and here she married and lived until her death in 1883.The portrait once hung in
Nancy’s house – about 100m from where I am writing this today – but is now held by the Louvre in Paris. It is their only Raeburn. At some point it was given the title ‘Innocence’.
Nancy was a few generations from her enslaved African ancestors but was the portrait a ‘white wash’? Did Raeburn deliberately paint her in a manner which might further her acceptance in a society which was becoming increasingly hostile to anyone with African ancestry?
We will probably never know.
Born and brought up in the highlands of Scotland, Dr David Alston is a freelance historian who has spent 20 years researching the role of highland Scots in the slave-worked plantations of the Caribbean, especially Guyana. He was among the first Scottish historians to address the issue of Scotland’s involvement with slavery.
In Raeburn’s portrait Edward is dressed in his finery, a tartan jacket and a white cravat, but looking into his eyes I think we see a frightened teenager putting a brave face on things