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Slaves and Highlanders

David Alston

(Edinburgh University Press, 2021)


Review by Bashabi Fraser


I read David Alston’s Slaves and Highlanders on the judges’ panel for the Saltire Society 2022 literary awards, when we unanimously declared it the Best Book of the Year. The word ‘silenced’ in the title refers to the often-ignored experiences of the victims of the obnoxious slave trade and of slavery itself, which are recovered by Alston in this meticulously researched account with compelling case studies. He establishes the extensive involvement and complicity of Scottish Highlanders who participated in the  Atlantic slave trade and profited from wealth generated by plantations producing sugar, cotton, tobacco, coffee, indigo and cocoa, which thrived on slave labour and accounted for the prosperity that marked economic growth in Scotland in the eighteenth century. Alston shows how Highland family connections created an intricate network of beneficiaries in a system that relied on reducing human beings captured from Africa to chattels alongside the profits made from their backbreaking labour on plantations.

Alston addresses an existing distortion in the historiography of slavery and of abolition, in which the fate of millions of Africans forced into slavery in North and South America and the Caribbean has been considered unimportant in comparison to accounts which document the achievement of Scots in the Empire1. He shows how nationalist sentiment in recent times has covered over the uncomfortable facts of Scotland’s deep association with slavery by projecting Scotland as ‘a colony of England’. Alston’s revisionist narrative challenges any claim to a Scottish exceptionalism which pictures Scotland as a comparatively compassionate, tolerant and humanitarian nation.

The book is divided into four parts followed by lengthy references in the notes (pp.325-365). The Foreword, ‘Jumbies’, opens in Alston’s hometown, Cromarty, in 1818 when a fifteen-year-old white schoolboy knifes a black seventeen-year-old fellow student in a fight. The assailant, Hugh Miller, is not apprehended for the crime but is later rusticated for another act of violence. He went on to become a stonemason’s apprentice, a journalist, a geologist, a writer and a leading churchman who played a significant role in the Free Church of Scotland movement. In short, Hugh Miller was a much respected ‘gentleman’ in society. The identity and fate of the black student remain undisclosed in the records, which led Alston to question the erasure of black lives from Scottish history. Interestingly, a plantation in Berbice in Guyana is also called Cromarty, and Scottish place names abound in the Caribbean, as do Scottish surnames of slaves and their descendants, both strong indicators of the Scottish connection.

In Part One: ‘The African Slave Trade, the English ‘Sugar Islands’ and Scots in the Expanding Empire’, Alston gives a detailed account of the wealth generated by plantations in Jamaica and the islands of Grenada, St Vincent, Tobago and Dominica.

In Part Two: ‘Northern Scots in Guyana on the ‘Last Frontier’ of Empire’, we hear the voices of the enslaved and of the ‘Freed Coloured’ people in Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice. The shocking reality of how a small white population controlled a very large slave population through the ‘centrality of terror’ in their management is revealed in unflinching detail. Nevertheless, rebellions and insurgencies did interrupt the smooth running of plantations. Rebels fortunate enough not to be recaptured went on to build their own settlements on the edges of the Caribbean, showing how the subaltern retained a voice and could not be silenced and subdued forever.  

Part Three: ‘Entangled Histories – The Legacies of Slavery in the North of Scotland’ traces the stories of slaves who reclaimed their freedom, and of domestic servants and children of mixed race brought to Britain who had to negotiate the complex social prejudices of race and class. A binary narrative of white domination and black subservience was overturned by black women and women of colour entering the marketplace, some owning slaves and travelling to Scotland to join their Highlander husband/partner and, when compelled to travel back, not losing their independence.

In the final part, ‘Reckonings’, Alston raises questions about what the Scottish nation’s responsibility and response may be, including possible reparations for past actions. He asks whether there can be any ‘moral relationship’. And Alston quotes the great-grandmother of the Guyana-born writer Jan Carew in his memoir, Potaro Dreams: My Youth in Guyana (Hansib, 2014), channeling what Carew himself says: ‘the ghosts are always there talking … you have got to listen well and search out the kindest.’ The ghost of the assaulted teenager who was Hugh Miller’s victim in 1818 is a voice that we need to recall. As are the many voices which Alston has reasserted in a history that he has researched for twenty years and written in a style that is both scholarly and accessible, doing what good historians do, that is, telling the ‘truth’.

Note: The National Archives records 3.1 million people traded by Britain between 1640 and 1807, of which 2.7 arrived.