Scotland will finally learn horror of Bunce Island
Merchants from Scotland grew rich in the 18th and 19th century from the slave trade but most of the public is unaware of the country’s role. Actor and film-maker David Hayman is now putting the focus on our forgotten part in human misery
BUNCE Island, just off the Sierra Leone coast in west Africa, stands as a symbol of Scotland’s forgotten role in the Atlantic slave trade. Few people in Scotland know of the island, but no-one in Sierra Leone is unaware of it. It looms in the national consciousness. In the 18th and 19th century, tens of thousands of Africans – ancestors to the men and women who now live in the capital of Freetown – were held captive there in appalling conditions by Scottish slavers, before being shipped across the sea to plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas.
Bunce Island was turned into a little oasis of all things Scottish by slavers. It had its own castle. It was leased from the local king who once a year would turn up to collect his commission dressed in a kilt. Isatu Smith, the head of museums and relics in Sierra Leone, describes how the Scottish slavers even built their own golf course on the island and dressed their slave caddies in tartan so they could be reminded of home. “They were serving Scottish masters, so they had to look the part,” Smith says. “We have a shared history. It is very important the Scottish people know about this – whether they accept it or not is another question.”
This week, Scotland will finally learn of the horrors of Bunce Island and be confronted by its forgotten role in the slave trade. David Hayman, the Scottish actor and director, has produced a new two-part documentary that begins on Tuesday night. In it, Hayman, through interviews with experts like Smith, lays bare just how central a role Scotland played in the slave trade. The country was “up to its armpits in slavery”, Hayman says, even though the nation has always presented itself not just as having little to do with the trade in human lives, but also a country that was a leading light when it came to abolition. It is a false history and one Hayman is hell-bent on correcting.
Scottish slavers ran Bunce Island from 1728 to 1807. They imported ice from Europe to keep food and wine cool in larders and enjoyed strolls in a private garden just metres away from pens where hundreds of human beings were kept like cattle before making the deadly Atlantic crossing. An estimated 50 per cent of slaves died on the journey. Eric Graham, a maritime historian, says the dead were thrown overboard every morning. “All slave ships were followed by sharks,” he says. “There was a dinner every day for the sharks.”
The Atlantic slave trade saw goods from Britain – pots and pans, beads, alcohol, pipes, guns, knives, and cloth – traded for human beings in Africa. These slaves were then sold in America. The American cash was used to buy tobacco, sugar, cotton, rum and indigo which were then brought back to Britain. It was a trade that made merchants into millionaires.
Scotland in the 18th century was built on slavery. Much of Glasgow city centre would not exist without the money that poured into the coffers of tobacco lords and cotton kings – who now have city streets named after them. These men were made rich beyond their wildest dreams by the profits of slavery. For the
human beings traded as slaves existence was a living hell. Rape, murder, torture, abuse, humiliation and degradation almost beyond imagination, were the stuff of daily life. At least 12 million slaves survived being shipped across the Atlantic – with about 3.5m bought and sold by British slavers, among whom Scots stood out as the most efficient and enterprising.
Celeste-Marie Bernier, professor of Black Studies at Edinburgh University, says: “Slavery bleeds in every building, in every brick, in every town across Scotland.”
According to Hayman: “Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade is a story of uncomfortable truths over how we see ourselves and perhaps that is why it has been forgotten. It challenges the notion that we are all Jock Tamson’s bairns. Scots were plantation owners, slave owners, merchant ship owners. The profits fired Scotland’s industrial growth and in every city in our nation you will find civic buildings and private homes built from the profits of slavery – bricks drenched in blood.”
There is now a growing campaign to, as Hayman puts it, “acknowledge our past” with an apology and reparations. There is also a campaign to establish a museum to slavery in Scotland, and for memorials and plaques to go up across the country on statues, streets and homes linked to slavery – such as the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, which was once the mansion of tobacco lord William Cunninghame, a man made rich on the backs of slaves in the Americas.
Slavery bleeds in every building, in every brick, in every town across Scotland
BACK across the sea in Ayrshire, the stately home of Auchincruive stands as a “colossal shrine to ill gotten wealth”, says Hayman. The house was built by Richard Oswald, a merchant slave trader who was an investor in Bunce Island. Oswald owned four plantations in the Caribbean and left a fortune worth £40 million.
In Clarkston, on the outskirts of Glasgow, stands another National Trust of Scotland jewel, Greenbank Gardens, once owned by Robert Allason. He and his two brothers had the slave trade sown up. Goods would go from Robert in Glasgow to a brother in Africa to be exchanged for slaves, and then another brother with a plantation in Virginia would pick up the slaves and send tobacco back to Scotland. It was a money machine, with human lives oiling the engines.
One of Scotland’s most powerful slavers was John Gladstone of Leith – the father of William Gladstone, who became one of Britain’s most famous prime ministers. When Britain finally abolished slavery in 1833, slave owners received millions in compensation that they went on to invest in industries such as banking, mills, mining, and railways. John Gladstone had 2,508 slaves, for which he was paid a sum worth £83m in today’s money.
Jean Francois Manicom, curator of Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum, tells a story of an anonymous donor from Edinburgh, whom he describes as a Scottish superhero. Once every fortnight the donor posts a Scottish £10 note to the museum with an apology on behalf of the nation. “This is very symbolic,” says Manicom, “a very powerful story of reparation.”
Another Liverpool historian, Laurence Westgaph, himself a descendant of slaves and slave traders, believes the racism that blights the UK today has its roots in the slave trade. “Racism comes down to the idea that some people are less human than others and slavery helped codify that. What I see today is that anti-black racism has its origins in the slave trade.’” Confronting the past helps draw the poison.
The Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, above, was once the mansion of William Cunninghame, who became rich by profiting from slavery, while Greenbank Gardens, left, was once owned by Robert Allason, another slave trader
Slavery: Scotland’s hidden shame begins at 9pm on BBC 2 on Tuesday, November 6