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Scots in the West Indies

Sir Tom Devine




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In March 2010, professor Tom Devine spoke out about Scotland’s connections to slavery in the final lecture of his 40-year career at Edinburgh University. His controversial thesis, Did Slavery Make Scotland Great? suggested Scotland has focused too much on its own “colonisation” by England during the Highland Clearances and confronts the role of Scots in one of the darkest episodes of world history.

This issue is discussed in this excerpt from the BBC program Making History which explores ordinary people's links with the past and was initiated by listener Rod Younger contacting the program from his home in Spain.

Whilst researching his family tree he has discovered that three brothers all emigrated from Scotland to Jamaica in the mid-eighteenth century and went on to carve out good lives for themselves. Rod was interested in the reason why these three left Scotland but the program producers were as interested in their destination of choice.

Why? Well, there’s a new strand in the history of the Scottish Diaspora that’s only recently been aired and it revolves around the country’s role in slavery.

Making History consulted the writer and historian David Alston, an expert on the history of the Highlands and with an interest in both the ‘clearances’ and slavery, and Professor Tom Devine the author of Scotland’s Empire 1600 – 1815 and Director of the Scottish Centre of Diaspora Studies.

Whatever the reason for the Younger brothers moving across the Atlantic to the West Indies their life would then have been closely linked to slavery – actively or otherwise – as this was the main social and economic driver on the islands.

Both guests argued that Scots were heavily involved in slavery and that this has been downplayed by historians who have been more interested in telling a story of oppression – a ‘victim culture’ as Professor Devine has it.

David Alston reminded listeners that when compensation was made available to slave owners by the British government in the 1820s, a disproportionate amount of the £20 million went to Scots.

Professor Devine admitted that in his younger years as an academic he had ‘missed’ the link between Scotland and slavery and produced a book on Glasgow’s tobacco trade in the 1970’s which didn’t have one reference in the index to slavery.