2007 - 2021

The Branded Hand


The Branded Hand, c.1845 (daguerreotype) by Southworth, Albert S. (1811-1894) & Hawes, Josiah (1808-1901)


Strange things are happening following the government’s defeat over Syria. Political commentators wring their hands, agonising over whether Britain has lost influence in the world or whether the ‘special relationship’ has been put in jeopardy. Meanwhile David Cameron desperately spends the G20 summit trying to convince people that the United Kingdom is still a major force in the world.

He has the air of a schoolboy moping around on the first day of term, only just realising that there was a load of homework that he was supposed to do over the summer. Alas for him he has form with this sort of thing – anyone remember the photos of him dining out in Italy while London burned?

This time round though it’s not the British public that he has to make apologies to – it’s his own classmates. He attempts to convince them that he’s still one of the gang by singing the praises of this ‘small island’ (apologies to Northern Ireland, Shetland, Orkney and all the rest). Let’s hope the History teacher isn’t listening, or else he can expect to land himself an F-.

Apparently Britain ‘helped to clear the continent of Fascism and was resolute in doing that throughout World War II’. Really? Better not tell the Spanish that then. They continued to suffer under a Fascist dictatorship right the way up until 1975, though of course that didn’t stop the country becoming a popular destination for British holidaymakers.

But it was Cameron’s remarks on slavery that really made me marvel. I’m not quite sure how he managed to turn that fact that Britain was one of the largest slave-trading nations of all time into a virtue, but somehow he did. It seems as though the fact that the UK finally decided to stop trading in slaves after almost 300 years is enough to completely absolve us of any responsibility for the fact that the transatlantic slave trade ever existed.

This peculiar historical revisionism was backed up the following day by a tweet from Fraser Nelson saying:

On Newsnight, Bidisha claims Britain “spread slavery around the globe”. As if. Slavery was a worldwide institution, which Britain confronted. Fraser Nelson (@frasernelson) September 6, 2013

This deliberate whitewashing of history reminded me of a conversation that I had back in 2007, shortly after the SNP’s election victory. I was out having a drink with a friend from work and we got on to talking about the subject of independence. I was interested to find out how she saw things, as she was Indian but had spent much of her life living and growing up in Lancashire. I asked her how people in India viewed the UK (if they really thought about it at all). Her answer has always stuck firmly in my mind.

She told me that if you were to ask people in India what they associated with England then they would probably talk about Cricket, city gents in bowler hats, the royal family – all of the kind of things that John Major eulogised in his “warm beer and old maids on bicycles” vision of England. If you were to ask them about English values then they would talk about “the stiff upper lip” and a culture of incredible politeness, underpinned by a passionate sense of fair play.

Likewise if you were to ask them what they associated with Scotland they would probably talk about kilts and bagpipes, Whiskey and Haggis, romantic castles and stunning scenery. If you were to ask them about Scottish values they would talk about people who were fiercely proud, filled with a plucky underdog spirit and good with money (bear in mind that this was still 2007). Again these were all things that, from our point of view, might be classic clichés but which are all nonetheless broadly positive.

Then she came to talk about the UK and her answer was short and simple. “If you ask people in India what they associate with the UK then the only two things that they’ll mention are slavery and empire”.

This is not a coincidence. The whole reason why people associate the UK with slavery and empire is because the pursuit of those things was the entire reason why the UK was created in the first place. And before those of who advocate for Scottish independence get too smug we need to remind ourselves that Scotland and Scots were a full and equal partner in this venture.

In the aftermath of the Darien venture the Union of the Parliaments supposedly removed the potential for any further cross-border conflict within Great Britain, thus helping secure the UK against any threats of foreign invasion. Freed from having to worry about warfare at home Scotland and England could set aside their international trade competition and join forces to build an Empire the likes of which the world had scarcely seen.

The first gold rush of European empire building had already come with the discovery of the new world. From 1492 onwards Spain, England, Portugal, France and Holland raced to establish colonies across the Americas. Scotland may have been slower off the mark, but it was no exception.

Our first great westward migration began with the Plantation of Ulster under James VI in 1609. Even though the Union of the Parliaments was still a century away this was consciously developed as the first ever “British” enterprise, with just over half of the colonists being drawn from Scotland and the rest coming from England.

Following William of Orange’s War in Ireland in 1690 the balance of power in the province shifted from Scottish Presbyterianism to Anglicanism, and Presbyterians found themselves increasingly marginalised. This sparked a mass emigration of Scottish colonists from Ulster to the Americas, where over time they increasingly began describing themselves as Scots-Irish as a means of differentiating themselves from Irish Catholics.

From 1621 onwards the still-independent Scotland made its own first attempts at colonising America. Our attempts at colonisation started with Nova Scotia, followed by the establishment of the colonies of East New Jersey and Stuart’s Town in Carolina. Of course this early phase of independent Scottish empire building all came to an end with the failure of the Scots colony of Darien in modern-day Panama. The resulting collapse of the Company of Scotland led to the bankruptcy of the entire nation and within 7 years the Act of Union had come into force.

The Union settlement adequately compensated those who had lost money in the Darien venture (principally the landed gentry), and Scottish traders set about making the most of the new markets that they were able to access. The greatest mercantile venture that emerged from the Union was, of course, the Glasgow tobacco trade. To this day Buchanan Street, Glassford Street, Speir’s Wharf and many other locations in the city carry the names of leading tobacco barons.

Bold commercial innovators, the Scottish tobacco merchants were able to gain a huge competitive advantage over London simply by changing the way they ran their business model. The English tobacco trade was built around merchants acting as agents for the plantation owners, taking consignment of their crops and then attempting to negotiate the best price possible. But this model only really worked for large, established plantations. The fact that agents were focussed on trying to find the best price for any given crop meant that cargoes could be sitting in storage for months before a suitable buyer could be found. There could be anything up to a two-year gap between a consignment of tobacco leaving America and the plantation owner receiving the final payment for it.

In comparison the Scottish model was based on a two-way trade. The Scottish merchants established a huge network of trading posts in the Americas, where they sold all of the tools and supplies that were necessary to run a plantation. In return the plantation owners were able to sell their crop directly to the merchants, who shipped it back to the UK and sold it on as quickly as possible, often undercutting other sellers in order to achieve a fast sale. This competitive low-price / high-turnover model encouraged rapid growth, both for the merchant houses themselves and for the plantation owners. The fact that growers were able to make an immediate sale as soon as the crop was harvested meant that it was much easier for new small-scale plantations to be set up and to expand rapidly as the money came rolling in.

But the Glasgow tobacco trade also had another advantage that worked in its favour – one that resulted purely as an accident of geography. Any ship travelling from the Americas to the western ports of England first had to navigate its way around Ireland and across the Irish Sea. Since Glasgow was situated just off the North coast of Ireland this meant that ships could cut between a week and two weeks off of their journey time in bringing goods to market.

This suited the tobacco merchants just fine, but it has had a long-term effect on how modern-day Scotland has come to see its relationship to the colonial era in general and to the slave trade in particular.

The same quirk of geography that placed Glasgow closer to the American trade routes also meant that it was located further away from the African trade routes. A slave ship travelling from West Africa to Glasgow would have to bypass the ports of Bristol and Liverpool, driving up the cost of the human cargo. The fact that less direct trading of slaves took place on the Broomielaw had almost nothing to do with any lack of enthusiasm for the slave trade, but everything to do with simple cost efficiencies.

Through a process of reification we have become distanced from Scotland’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. For all that we might attempt to distance ourselves from the dirty reality the fact remains that Glasgow, and consequently much of the industrial development across the West of Scotland, was financed from the profits generated by slave labour.

The tobacco barons make up a phase of our history that we like to think we are familiar with, however they make up only half the story of Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade. The story of slavery that we are far less familiar with is the image of the Caribbean slave trade – a chapter of history that is virtually unsurpassed in terms of it’s sheer inhuman barbarity, and in which Scots played a central role.

Even prior to 1707 there was a widespread and established Scottish presence throughout the English colonies in the Caribbean. This came about partly through voluntary emigration, but also through thousands of people being shipped to the Caribbean as prisoners of war under Cromwell or as exiled Covenanters under Charles II.

For European colonists the risks of settling in the Caribbean were high, as tropical diseases took a serious toll. As a result most colonists were determined to try and make their fortunes as quickly as possible so that they could return safely home. There was a high rate of absentee landlordism, with investors and owners remaining the UK and delegating responsibility for running the estates to managers and factors on the ground. As a result short-term profits were paramount and absolutely no thought was given to the welfare of slaves.

On the contrary slaves in the Caribbean were viewed as an expendable resource. By the 1750s it was reckoned that around a quarter of slaves died within just three years of arrival. So-called ‘salt water slaves’ (those that had just come straight of the slave ships) were highly prized, as far more work could be gotten out of someone who had not already been broken by years of disease, punishment beatings and backbreaking toil.

Punishments for insurrection included being nailed to the ground and burned from head to foot with torches. ‘Lesser’ offences could be punished by castration or chopping off half of a foot with an axe. Some plantation made running away a capital offence, and there are examples of slaves being beheaded and having their heads stuck on spikes as a warning to others.

Nowadays whenever people try and tell me that Scotland only had a minor role in the slave trade I simply point out to them that there is a reason why probably the majority of my black friends all have Scottish surnames – and it is not because they grew up in Fife. Scots were virtually a dominant force in much of the Caribbean. They made up a disproportionate percentage of the European population on many islands and at one stage every colonial governor in the Caribbean was Scottish.

As Ernst Renan famously pointed out every nation relies on its ability to forget its own history. At the moment the dominant myth of Scots culture revolves around the idea of Scotland as an egalitarian left-wing country, welcoming to all. But that is a narrative that largely relies on denying the role that we had as full and equal partners in the British Empire. On too many occasions in the last few years I have heard people talking about Scotland’s role in the colonial era as if it had nothing to do with us.

It is not good enough for us to look back over our involvement in the British Empire and to continue to behave as if a big boy did it and ran away. As long as Scotland continues to remain part of the UK there will always be a temptation to try and avoid responsibility for the atrocities of the past. If we really want to build the diverse and equal society that we aspire to then we are going to have to come to terms with our Imperial legacy. Otherwise new Scots will forever be in a position where their own histories and experiences are marginalised, downplayed or ignored.

The whole reason why I support independence is because I believe that we will only be able to properly come to terms with our Imperial history once we have put the military and strategic alliance that is the UK behind us once and for all.

A tree is best measured once it is down.


See also ‘Scotland and the Slave Trade: 2007 Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act’.


Comments (42)

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  1. Dave Coull says:

    Very interesting article. Much of it I already knew, but then, when I went to university as a very mature student in my late 50s one of the history courses I studied was “Scotland and the Americas”. Of course a lot of this will be news to most folk. One point worth noting, re the trading posts which Scots merchants set up in Virginia, to provide supplies to tobacco growers, was that, unlike other traders, they let the tobacco growers have CREDIT. So the tobacco growers could end up in an “I owe my soul to the company store” sort of situation, where much of the crop was already owed to the Scots traders. And so far as the Glasgow merchants were concerned, they said it was okay for the Scots trader in Virginia to extend credit, because it was cousin Jimmy, and they’d sent him out there, and they knew they could trust cousin Jimmy.

    When I was a young laddie, there was a picturesque ruined castle, set in grounds with overgrown rhodedendron bushes, within walking distance of where we lived. My parents would take us on Sunday walks to Rossie Castle. I thought it was really ancient. It was only much later that I discovered it had only been built in 1800, by a local man returning after many years in the West Indies, rich from the profits of slavery. That castle was demolished in the 1960s. Rossie Castle was a nice place for us kids to go on Sunday walks, but knowing it was built on slavery, blowing it up was probably the best thing to do.

    Completely agree about the geographical reasons why Bristol and Liverpool had more direct connections with slavery. Completely agree about facing the truth of our history. And completely agree about creating an independent country which rejects what the British Empire stood for.

    1. David Morgan says:

      Cheers Dave. The story of Rossie Castle also reminds me of the incredible story of <a href=James Matheson – the Scottish merchant whose firm Jardine, Matheson & Co almost single-handled provoked the First Opium War with China.

      Having made his fortune from the Opium Trade Matheson returned home to Scotland, bought himself the entire island of Lewis and built Lews Castle. He had a huge influence over shaping the development of Lewis – not least in assisting more than 1,700 islanders to emigrate.

  2. Slavery is bad and no excuses can be allowed,there are some buts though.During highland clearances,the people were also sold the people into slavery,we had in this country and in Ireland an indenter-ship (hope spelling and correct word used if not please tell me) and those who were sold into this form of slavery were just as much a slave as any other,the last of these that I know about was in the 1920,s. Over 40 years ago I spoke to an elderly woman who had been indentured and when the farm had lifted the crop and she no longer needed she was sold on and was at the age of 12 used for sex by “officers” at a barracks in Northern Ireland (thats as gentle as I can write it) she had been indentured for a year and they got a full year out of her,the sum was £10. her family were tenant farmers and they could not get a fair price for their crop,and so had to allow their daughter to “work” for the big farm to pay the years rent.There is one more point I heard on a T.V. documentary that there are more slaves in the world today than at any other time.The Jewish Torah The Christian bible the Muslim Koran,all have slavery enshrined in their teachings,you can say this was over a 1,000. years ago but they do still follow the books!! Today I would say that there is financial slavery and it is a more insidious way of enslaving the people,taught to be greedy shown the things you cant have unless you take out credit and that is the hook.Told you must own a house! why,told that the majority of a country is owned by a few families loads of questions there,men went to war what for? so that they could have a piece of the land? no so that the same families,who never went war they stayed safe elsewhere, could still own that land and you can have the privilege of working for them to increase their wealth,this too is slavery.

    1. David Morgan says:

      I’m glad you brought that up – indentured servitude is an aspect of slavery that I think we have very little knowledge or understanding of. During the period we’re talking about most coal miners in Scotland were serfs (and therefore considered the property of the company) right up until just a few years before the abolition of the slave trade.

      There’s an incredible documentary from a few years back called ‘Barbado’ed: Scotland’s Sugar Slaves’ that explores the history of indentured servitude in the Caribbean, specifically looking at the Redleg communities of Barbados. Type it into a search engine and you should be able to find a full-length recording easily enough.

  3. Thanks David – A really powerful and thoughtful piece. Especially your point that, paradoxically, independence and self-determination involves understanding and facing up to the past rather than trying to escape it.

  4. Abulhaq says:

    Never had a problem with the exploitative rôle of Scots in the BritEmpire. It was new territory ripe for conquest and capitalization and many of our citizens were rather good at the job. Crying after the event over the evils of colonialism is wasted tears. Nevertheless, however “well” individuals might have done under that system the nation itself was degraded. Millions left the country, cultural Anglicization accelerated and social and religious divisions deepened making us easy prey to “divide and rule”. Having sold out to the Union Scotland as a cultural idea began to die. Residual elements do survive but much is either missing or irrecoverably lost. Recreating, renewing, rebuilding a nation requires skills and insights well beyond the remit of the political class. In this respect we do resemble an ex-imperial colony. We have a colonial legacy to shed. Sadly some among us believe that has authenticity; the military tattoo, massed pipe bands syndrome. Rejecting what the BritEmpire stood/stands for begins with getting rid of the baggage it has bequeathed us. As in any house clearance the desire to hang on to stuff is stronger than that to ditch.

    1. barakabe says:

      These were people who claimed to be Christians- and yes we now know how far Victorian hypocrisy went pre-Freudian psychoanalytic recognition of denial, repression etc- but they were fully aware of what they were doing and how wrong it was: how can you be aware of Christ’s teachings and still be ignorant of the moral requirements of the categorical imperative?
      It was old fashioned greed, unregulated desire, hypocrisy, Imperial conceit and racial arrogance that drove them to commit such ‘crimes’- there is nothing commendable or meritorious about any of it. Where do you draw the line? The Nazi’s didn’t know what they were doing or the Soviets with the serfs- how far do we take rationalization until it becomes a posterior form of sanctuary or an excuse for belated remorse during the performance of our crimes?
      Many people spoke out against the crimes of Empire and colonialism but like now, they were largely ignored, by those who gain from institutional malfeasance and legalised crime- to say you have “no problem” with exploitation is just bizarre.

      1. Abulhaq says:

        i have no problem with it because i was not involved. i do not believe in hand-wringing guilt trips. i do not believe in collective responsibility or the notion of retrospective apologies for things you were not connected with, whether that be the crusades, the mongol invasions, spanish in s.america, british imperium, the japanese in china or even the nasty nazis. hugo boss made uniforms for the reichswehr but i don’t think NAZI!! going into one of their shops. i am by no means indifferent I believe that countering, if possible, the errors of the past is more important than eternally dissecting them. the errors, horrors, evils cannot be undone but the mess left behind can be cleared and, assuming the political will, the cultural damage rectified.

    2. barakabe says:

      I feel you’re deliberately trying to misunderstand me and I’m finding it difficult to understand the point your making- I think you could express yourself a little clearer. Nonetheless I can detect a cynical tone, a certain casualness surrounding a serious issue that borders on the obdurate. That’s just my impression. I can’t agree with you in saying we have a “colonial legacy to shed” as we were as much part of the Empire as England. As for the fetishism of martial prowess: this has been part of the collective machismo of the Scottish psyche long before the Union- one only has to look to the brutal banditry of the Borders Reivers or the honour code of the warring Highland clan system.
      As with all identity development what we’ve been ( no matter how undesirable) is part of us and must be fully confronted, processed, assimilated and translated in the present if its to fully transcended in the future.

      1. Abulhaq says:

        That sounds like just plain psychobabble. The empire is kaput! Like the Reich, the French and Russian empires the their memory now transfers to the pages of history books. Because the actors are now dead it ceases to be actual and “real”. It is “another country”. The consequences may still be extant. If necessary try to repair the damage, if any. However breast beating and doing penance accomplishes zilch. Spilt milk will not go back in the bottle. Wipe it up and move on. Exactly what the new Scotland must do. Btw the militarism isnt especially Scottish. There is no Scots exception here. India, all dynasties, had a warrior tradition that the Brits successfully exploited in their “conquest” of the sub-continent. I do not think you will find many contemporary Indians intellectually excoriating themselves because of that. It appears to suit your argument and that of the old order to present the Scots militarism as “archetypal”. Much of that border reiver and clan stuff, brigandry and cattle-raiding mostly, is romanticized crap. Like clan tartan and the kilt the imagination of Scott, the entrepreneurial skills of a certain Yorkshire manufacturer, the needs of the tourist industry and the delusions of expats have filled the void once occupied by a living authentic culture. A reconnexion with the latter is what independence ought to bring. House clearance of the liberated property cannot begin soon enough so that we can make a start to find where we left that living culture. The future we can shape, the past we can only, endlessly ad nauseam, reinterpret.

    3. barakabe says:

      You seem determined to project some ridiculous notion of collective guilt upon my suggestions- as though we should travel to Jamaica to apologise to its Black citizens for our ancestors actions, real or otherwise. These sorts of symbolic liberal gestures are just stupid and self-defeating. The plain and simple acknowledgment of wrongdoing in order to define where the moral line is drawn- that we might have something we can commonly agree upon is something else entirely. Why is this so difficult for you to understand? I think you’re confusing yourself by trying to come across as smarter than you really are. You cannot “counter” the errors of the past if you’re not aware of them in the first place.

      1. Abulhaq says:

        i am prostrate before your superior intellect……o master of smartness who does not appear to understand nuance or irony or metaphore or consistency! so enough and move on.

  5. barakabe says:

    A pro-unionist will denounce you as nothing more than a heretic for possessing the effrontery to share such a critique of the British Empire- the Daily Mail, Telegraph and Sun readers will be apoplectic- ‘British’ revisionists brook no examination of Imperialism, no matter how casual. At least that’s my experience. The Irish Famine, The First Opium War, the suppression of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 are all a mere misunderstandings by the aboriginals over the benign intentions of all round good eggs. The British panhandlers, panjandrums, mountebanks and martinets colonized these feral lands with the promulgation of civilization, the rights of free press, free markets, high tea, cricket and the abolition of slavery as their sole purpose. It had nothing to do with resource exploitation. The problem was that high ideals of the benevolent Empire didn’t translate into the local vernacular- it was the fault of the colonized. But make no bones about it, the British were not to be crossed: the malevolent resourcefulness that invented Afrikaner concentration camps, the Iraqi atrocities of the 1920’s, treatment of the Mau-Mau in the 50s, clearly demonstrate the ruthless efficiency of the British war machine.
    But the apologists will say this is the high price to be payed in civilizing the benighted natives, of moral and material progress, and constitutes the white mans burden- “why don’t you just go and live somewhere else if Britains so bad?” they will ask, grudgingly.
    It’s funny how the lovers of Empire invariably possess antiquated predilections for large starched collars, corduroy, khaki savannah wear, outworn tweed jackets so old they can’t be carbon dated- they combine an unmistakable bucolic ruddiness with a postorbital Victorian value system, ie: Niall Ferguson or David Sharkey.
    But then we’re regressing back to Victorian levels of inequality, and so our full circle swing back to Dickensian squalor will probably make squares like Niall and David a la mode visionaries(? )

  6. Juteman says:

    Sorry, but as soon as I read ‘The resulting collapse of the Company of Scotland led to the bankruptcy of the entire nation’, I stopped reading.

  7. It always pisses me off when folk like the author of this piece haver on about Scotland’s role in the British Empire. Scotland didn’t have a role in the British Empire. Individual Scots certainly did, and Scottish based companies and institutions did, but Scotland as a nation certainly didn’t because Scotland as a nation had no power. Juteman’s point above is just one example in this piece that’s frankly wrong. As for “Whiskey”? Really?

    1. David Morgan says:

      I’ll give you the point about ‘Whiskey’ – I’m blaming autocorrect for that one 🙂

    2. David Morgan says:

      As for the rest I just find that a bit spurious – Scotland had no role because as a nation it had no power? Nations don’t exist to start with – they are simply made up of communities of people and are therefore defined by the actions of those people.

      1. Abulhaq says:

        Think you are confusing patria and civitas with natio and gens.

      2. Braco says:

        And you say you find pictishbeastie’s point spurious?

        pictishbeastie has already stated that individual Scots, as people, personally through maneuvering themselves into the power elite of the UK, had a very lucrative and influential role in the creation and running of the UK empire.

        This was the UK (in fact greater England, from an English and UK power elite point of view) Empire, which Scotland as a Nation had no role, other than as a colony. On very good comparative terms with other UK colonies, but a subservient colony non the less.

        Official law of the Empire, English Law not Scots. Hence the mix up to this day by the English, that English law is somehow British Law. There is no such thing as a single UK law, there is a single UK Empire Law however.

        Official Language of the Empire, English not Scots, Gaelic, Welsh etc..

        Official Religion of the Empire, Anglican not Church of Scotland.

        Can you spot a pattern here?

        In my view, the popular belief among Scots of Scotland as equal partner in the formation of the UK with England through the acts of Union (though legally true), has in practice been a myth.

        This myth has however been used within Scottish society over the last 300 years of ‘Union’ as a bulwark against it’s complete assimilation, and as such has self evidently been very effective. By always denying our (true in practice) colony status within the UK, we managed to keep alive our self image and ultimate truth of Nationhood. This is still very important.

        In clinging to this myth through out our period of empire, it has been essential therefor to accept equal blame for Empire as the Nation of Scotland. This was simply the lesser of two evils as regards damage done to our National psyche. Take equal blame for Empire which implicitly reaffirms equal status within the UK with England, or Deny Scottish National responsibility for UK Empire and expose ourselves to the unvarnished truth of our colony status within the UK.

        For psychological, National self esteem and National survival reasons, we have over the last 300 odd years chosen equal responsibility for Empire in return for full use of the myth of our equal partnership status in the Union.

        This is changing now though, and we are in fact slowly regaining the true facts and powers of Nationhood. With these powers we no longer need the myth and so we are slowly moving away from it and starting to accept the true unvarnished nature of our historic position within this Union.

        Of course with that new perception of our historic position comes a reassessment of our true culpability (as a Nation, not just certain individuals from Scotland) in the criminalities of Empire. That’s only natural.

        The writer of this piece seems to be struggling with this process, hence the lively thread.

        I think the truth of a lot of this can be seen today in the seeming willingness with which the new Scots political representatives are eager to ‘move on’ from Empire (forget it even) while England’s (UK) still seem trapped in a self image of world imperial Superpower.

        Could this be a reflection and simple acknowledgement of the true historic division of emotional ownership/responsibility for empire felt between the two Nations?

      3. David Morgan says:

        Now I think we’re really getting to the nub of things here – the whole issue of the ‘colonisation’ of Scotland.

        To respond directly to some of Braco’s points:

        “Official law of the Empire, English Law not Scots. Hence the mix up to this day by the English, that English law is somehow British Law. There is no such thing as a single UK law, there is a single UK Empire Law however.”

        Isn’t that just an oxymoronic statement? If there was such a thing as a single UK Empire Law then Scotland, as part of the Empire (a colony if you will), would have been subject to it. It wasn’t subject to it because Scotland wasn’t a colony.

        “Official Religion of the Empire, Anglican not Church of Scotland.”

        You might want to let the people of Malawi know that because to this day the majority of them are still Presbyterians, worshipping in a church founded directly on the Scottish Presbyterian model (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Central_Africa,_Presbyterian).

        “The writer of this piece seems to be struggling with this process, hence the lively thread.”

        Well of course I’d naturally take the opposite view. I’m not struggling to come to terms with anything – I’ve long since reconciled myself to Scotland’s role as a partner in the British Empire. The reason why I wrote this article in the first place is because I’ve become increasing aware of a trend within the discourse of the independence debate, whereby too many supporters of independence are in a state of complete and utter denial about this subject.

        You claim that the myth being perpetrated here is that Scotland was a full and equal partner in Empire and that those who subscribe to that view are struggling to come to terms with the reality that Scotland was a colony.

        I’ll grant you that Scotland may have been junior partner in the relationship (due solely to it’s smaller population) but it was still a full partner nevertheless. The very existence of our separate religious, legal and education systems is clear proof that Scotland was not, and is not, a colony.

        We can also add to that the fact that a central feature of the Act of Union was that Scotland had the right to send it’s own MPs and Lords to Westminster (and in far greater number than any proportion based on population size would have warranted).

        Compare that to the position of the US, Canada, the various states of the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, India, Burma, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Cameroon, Sierra Leone and the numerous other countries that made up the former British Empire. In total how many MPs did they have representing them at the heart of Empire?


        At a certain point along our journey on the path to independence it became useful for us to start comparing the example of Scotland with the example of other countries that had re-established their own independence after the age of Empire. In order to broaden our understanding it became useful to think about how Scotland might be like a colonised nation.

        But at some point along the way too many of us have begun to mistake the metaphor for a simile. We stopped talking about how Scotland was like a colonised nation and started talking as though Scotland actually is a colonised nation.

        And that is a major problem, because that assertion simply has no grounding in fact. You might as well claim that Scotland was colonised by the French or the Swiss or the Dutch or the Germans, because people from each of those countries have had as great, if not a greater, impact on creating the Scotland that we live in today than the English have ever had.

        What I’m seeing coming out through this thread is that maintaining the myth that Scotland is a colonised nation relies heavily on denying not just the role that we had in Empire, but also the numerous cultural differences that have existed within Scotland during the course of it’s history.

        Modern day Scotland has been shaped, not by a simplistic us-and-them binary relationship with England, but by a complex and chaotic network of relationships around class interests, political interests, religious interests and individual loyalty or disloyalty to whichever line of monarchs happened to be on the throne at a particular point. To pretend otherwise is to completely deny our own history and to lose sight of the very thing that makes the whole idea of Scotland possible.

        My view is that the myth that Scotland is a colonised country is no more than a desperate attempt to anoint ourselves with victim status. In attempting to claim some sort of moral high ground we lumber ourselves with a disabling mindset that denies both the power of our own agency, and the need for Scotland to change.

        Independence is not a magic wand that will cure all of our problems just because we are no longer ‘colonised’. On day one of an independent Scotland we will still be faced with the issues of poverty, low life expectancy, sectarianism, petty corruption, inequitable land ownership and the fact that the entire nation is ruled by a single person.

        And it will be entirely down to us to solve them. We’ll no longer be able to shift the blame onto someone else. If we had what it takes to build to Empire then we also have what it takes to transform our own country.

      4. Braco says:

        Hi David, thanks for the reply.

        I would say that the discussion that we are having (and is reflected in the thrust of the thread) is about our understanding of the practicalities of power in relation to National self determination and how that determination is divined and acted upon.

        Our disagreement is rooted in the genius of ambiguity created by the UK ‘state builders’ from the very beginning of Union. That is Union between Scotland and England (plus her territories of Wales and Ireland) that I am speaking of by the way.

        The bribery and purchasing wholesale of the Scottish National Leadership mechanism by England against the will of the Scots population and it’s subsequent use to officially abolish itself, was simply a different method to Empire building by the UK elite.

        This ‘political method’ coupled with the confused religious and aristocratic loyalties felt at the time by the population to the dominant Scottish institutions at the heart of the treachery, has always allowed the fig leaf to Scottish national pride and civic society of having never succumbed militarily to English expansionism, but instead somehow becoming ‘partners’ in a new (fictional in practice) country called the UK.

        From the beginning we can see the two countries carrying on, telling themselves two very different stories of what Union meant. We still do today for heavens sake!

        England and Scotland’s representatives sent to Westminster (England’s historic Parliament, In the capital of England), along with all the other ‘UK’ Institutions and elites have always understood Union as a form of Greater England and historically, always made it very clear (just look through old literature, history books, Maps and political speeches).

        Union of equal partner countries (as specified in the acts of Union) is only a myth sold by Scotland’s representatives of Union to Scotland, within Scotland. Hence the differing Union Flag design within Scotland in the early years. Or Elizabeth the 2nd rather than the 1st, or ‘England expects’, or ‘England this sceptered Isle’, etc etc..

        This is at the heart of (ex UK Foreign Secretary) Douglas Hurd’s admission on STV’s documentary, ‘Road to Referendum’. In it he states that Blair wanted to back out of devolution but couldn’t. ‘He understood that the time had come when the English system… the English machine had to move, but I don’t think his heart was in it’. All said in the most matter of fact way.

        Another recent example of the reality of the ‘national’ political power structures in action within the UK (as greater England) was (ex Chancellor of the Exchequor) Ken Clarke referring to the lending of British tax payer’s money to Holyrood as, ‘Holyrood being given English money’. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHdx03YE1Ho (Please do watch it to understand fully the historic constitutional implication)

        These are the slips of the tongue of retired, or soon to be retired heavy weight ‘big beasts’ of the UK establishment, who free of the political pressures to peddle the myth, revert to speaking in language that reflects the true expression behind the UK’s consistent ‘national’ political reality.

        This is the private language of power within the UK but as recently as the sixties this form of language and understanding of the UK as greater England was very public. (Union Flag as English flag in 1966 as a high profile and painful example). It is now private but no less important as the true signifier of how the UK (both English and Scots) power elite still view the UK.

        These are the very same class of person who in the past ran the Empire, understood it and shaped the various contradictions necessary and inherent in the binding together of disparate Nations, Continents and Cultures into one coherent entity for the benefit of the central elite. British Empire.

        Scotland was just the first experiment in the long successful art of ‘UK as greater England’ statecraft, only later to be perfected, hence the reason for the survival of all our added benefits as a Colony (law, church, education, token representation etc). Very similar to the first plantations of the British Empire in Ulster. Experimental learning processes in divide and rule.

        So that is my case. I don’t think we will agree, but it’s been interesting discussing it.

        Just to add that Malawi being Church of Scotland, is of as little proof that the Church of Scotland was an official religion of the Empire, as saying that Islam was an official religion of the Empire because it held sway in states of India’s British Empire usually inhabited by Hindus (or vice versa). This is a basic technique of Empire building, and of creating a hierarchy among the colonised.

        It also shows the UK (English) Empire’s genius at using personal motivators of ambition and percieved world changing influence, among it’s colonised citizenry, to unlock and unleash further expansionism in the forms of capitalism, administration, science, engineering, medicine, the military and in this case (David Livingstone’s) Religion. All of course to the long term strategic advantage of the center.

        Just like the Roman’s in fact, along with most every other successful, large, long lasting, profit making Empire in human history.

        I think it’s this, the personal ambition and success of the colonised individual, that you are mistaking for ‘equal participation in Empire’ of the Colony they happen to hail from.

        The individual opportunities The UK, as a ‘World Power’, offers the citisen’s of poor wee Scotland is still being passed off as a benefit and positive case for the Union to this day, for goodness sake!

      5. Braco says:

        P.S. I have just ignored the points that I considered strawmen, such as implying I or others making this argument on this thread somehow desire ‘victim status’ for Scotland, or that we are just wanting to shift the blame on to the big bad English. This is simply insulting David and not really worthy of what I think has been a very interesting discussion.

        I fully accept the sincerity of your YES vote, but within the context of this discussion and your argument, do you not find it worrying, how so many of your strawmen seem to match those of the standard Unionist’s? Even down to how we, as a Nation, have always (uniquely?) been totally divided amongst ourselves (‘hardly a Nation at all really, speaking historically’).

        As you put it,
        ‘but by a complex and chaotic network of relationships around class interests, political interests, religious interests and individual loyalty or disloyalty to whichever line of monarchs happened to be on the throne at a particular point. To pretend otherwise is to completely deny our own history and to lose sight of the very thing that makes the whole idea of Scotland possible.’ Who has denied this? This is called history and every country ‘suffers’ from it, not just Scotland.

        Also, just out of interest, do you consider Ireland or Wales to have been a colony of England and subsequently, post 1707, the UK?

        I do. Yet both these places returned MP’s and Aristos to Westminster. Could that be because they were, like Scotland, in on ‘the ground floor’ of Empire and already considered established ‘Nations’ at the time of their colonisation. While the ‘rules’ and techniques of empire construction were still in their infancy and being worked through?

  8. Abulhaq, I’m in complete agreement with you. We should all learn from history but generations later no one can or should be held responsible for actions taken by their forebears.

    Germans today can no more be held responsible for the Nazis than we can for our Imperialist past. Both Scotland and England need to move on.

    1. David Morgan says:

      That’s as maybe, but I think you’ll find that there are few Germans today who’d attempt to claim that the holocaust never happened or that their predecessors carried no responsibility for it (see above). Historical denialism is what the article is really all about – pity that so much of it seems to be coming out through the comments.

      1. Abulhaq says:

        Holocaust denial is a serious crime in Germany as is the use of Nazi symbols. The desire to progress beyond the constrictions (perversely self-imposed?) of history does not signify denial of that history. Scotland is not Germany but we too need to leap free of the bonds that tie our citizens to a past they did not create; other peoples’ baggage.

  9. I recently researched for short book on the spirituality of Lewis and Harris the backgrounds of the Seaforth Mackenzies, who were handed the whole of Lewis by James VI after his Fife Adventurers had failed to colonise it, just as Cromwell’s men also failed. Col Francis Humberston MacKenzie was rewarded for having raised (by press-ganging on Lewis in the late 18th c.) the regiment that became the Seaforth Highlanders. A grateful British state rewarded him with the governorship of the Barbados. From there he ordered the first clearances of Lewis to help cover his gambling debts. His daughter, Mary Elizabeth Frederica, while there married Admiral Sir Samuel Hood who later came to command the British fleet in the East Indies. He died and she, widowed, returned and within 2 years married James Alexander Stewart of Glasserton – henceforth Stewart-Mackenzie – and he and his wife used their power of patronage to introduce hardline evangelical preachers to Lewis. He in due course was given governorship of Ceylon, where his evangelicalism apparently rubbed the Buddhists up the wrong way. He later became governor of Greece and I’ve had conflicting reports on that – one source suggesting he was quite appreciated, but another saying he was fired from the post partly for trouble caused by his evangelising. In short, a fascinating mix of hardline imperialism and hardline religion imposed from the upper classes, with the people getting brutally caught in the crossfire and very often, the oppressed becoming the oppressor.

    Thank you for this fascinating article. I presume you’re aware of the Rev Iain Whyte’s book “Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery” and his more recent one on the Send Back the Money campaign. At least it’s good to see Presbyterian clergy (such as Iain is) challenging the blind spots of Presbyterianism – something that the binary division of the world into the Damned and Elect, implicit in the doctrine of double predestination, encourages.

    1. David Morgan says:

      Thanks for that Alastair – I’ll check that out

  10. Juteman says:

    I wasn’t trying to be ‘funny’ with my comment, David, but I try to look at history from the viewpoint of the ordinary person.
    Did ‘Darien’ really bankrupt the whole country? There are differing opinions on this.
    Modern accounts seem to lean towards the aristocracy losing their shirts, but the whole country?
    I would think your average labourer had no funds to lose.

    1. David Morgan says:

      No worries – I’ll grant you that there’s a bit of hyperbole going on in that statement. Nevertheless I’d still maintain that a country losing an estimated 25% of it’s liquid capital is going to have serious repercussions for all of it’s inhabitants, whether they had a direct investment in the venture or not. Your average labourer might not have had funds to lose, but they would certainly have had employment and homes that they could have lost. I think very few working people would consider themselves responsible for the banking crash of 2007, but that doesn’t mean that ordinary people weren’t affected by it.

      The fact also remains that whilst the upper and middle classes benefitted the most from land ownership and the slave trade in the Caribbean the whole system still required the use of plenty of working class Scots to manage and oversee the estates. Even in cases where Scots themselves were bound in conditions of servitude or serfdom that didn’t necessarily make them natural allies of the Black slaves.

      The reference to ‘Barbado’ed’ that I posted above is well worth checking out in this regard. The argument there is that when slavery came to an end the White Scottish indentured servants chose to prioritise race loyalties over class loyalties, and thus wound up falling to the very bottom of the social order in Barbados – a choice that still determines the lives and opportunities of their descendants today.

      1. Juteman says:

        I don’t think you can compare the effect on ordinary folk of the recent banking crash, and the effect of Darien on ordinary folk at that time.
        The majority of folk at the time of Darien lived in the countryside, and probably never left their native glen. The clan chief measured his wealth in cattle, not shares.

      2. David Morgan says:

        I suspect we may have to wind up agreeing to disagree on this one, but I’m afraid the contention that clan chiefs had no investment in Darien is just demonstrably false. Investors included the Duke of Argyll, the Duke of Montrose, the 2nd Duke of Queensberry, the Marquesses of Annandale and Atholl, the Earl of Leven – the list goes on.

        One thing I’m sure that we can agree on though is the fact that people were as much an asset to those landowners as cattle, both before and after the union. The convention of man-rent meant that lairds were able to make both a figurative and a literal killing from their ability to raise regiments for the wars of imperial expansion and European competition. Just one of many ways in which the failure of Darien and the coming of the Union completely reshaped the lives and communities of the Highlands.

  11. Mind you, David, when I hear fancy feudal titles like Duke, Marquess and Earl, I hear a tale of men far gone long removed from what clan chieftainship as “the highest apple” in the family tree – the protector figure – originally (and at its best) meant. Consider the work of Ronald Black on this, or Michael Newton’s outstanding works, especially his A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World and more recently, Warriors of the Word (both landmark studies). There is a need to distinguish what an indigenous people held in their worldview and hearts, and what was already being corrupted by the twistings of self-interested power from outside. I’ve just read James Hogg’s A Tour of the Highands in 1803 (he, the Ettrick Shepherd), and it shocked me to see how he wove his way all the way up to Lewis, persuading minor chiefs/tacksmen that they could get three, four, even five times the rental off their land if they brought in Lowland shepherds (and by implication, effected clearances), than if they relied on the humble rents of peasants who only had a cow, a scattering of sheep and maybe a few hens.

  12. Braco says:

    Darien did not bankrupt Scotland. It potentially bankrupted individual wealthy, influential and titled Scots. The comparison with the banking crisis is an interesting one.

    If we see the banks as the wealthy and titled Scots who, through enormously poor and rash investment decisions, bankrupted themselves chasing a dream of unearned, sure fire riches. Then at the point of their crash the UK state (in the case of the banks) and Scotland (in the case of the Darien investors) actually had no necessity to take responsibility for those private losses.

    That is, Gordon Brown could have refused to use UK funds to bail out the banks and instead allowed them to face the music and fail.(capitalism)

    Similarly, in Scotland at the time of Darien, the Royal Burghs and trading Market towns and Cities that made up Scotland (as an ‘economic state’) were still very profitable and Scotland, unlike England, had no National debt as such.

    Again, Scotland had no necessity or moral duty to take on the debts of these failed private investors and could have simply let them face the music and go bankrupt. (capitalism)

    In both incidents, through political maneuvering and decision making for and by the elites facing the bankruptcy, massive transfers of public monies from the ‘State’ coffers to the elites coffers were engineered in order to insulate them from their own laws of Capitalism.

    In the case of the banking crisis this was simple enough, as Gordon Brown was head of a well established and powerful centralised financial state and so could simply legally underwrite all the debt. Promising the tax payers wealth to the Banks in return for shares in a bankrupt business. (All helped with quantitative easing etc etc..). Bankers and private investors continue with their bonuses and barely tolerable champagne lifestyles. Job done.

    Not so simple in the days of Darien though. There simply wasn’t the centralised mechanism to transfer the wealth of Scotland (from the localised Trading Royal Burghs etc) into the hands of the elite Individuals facing personal ruin through their rash investments and the early capitalistic group think that was Darien. They were in fact not going to be ‘helped’ by Scotland and would indeed have been ruined. (Yipee!)

    So, how was their unlikely redemption from financial ruin achieved?

    Simple. England offered to pay each of them for their individual losses incurred through Darien and their own stupidity, in return for passing the act of Union in the Scottish Parliament.

    In this way England secured it’s northern border, expanded ‘it’s’ territory and gained the taxation and revenue stream of the still very profitable Scottish trading Royal Burghs, Cities,Market towns and Ports etc . The bail out of the Darien ‘Scottish’ elite was a tiny fraction of the wealth stream which flowed from Scottish trade and taxation. (300 years later and what has changed?).

    All for the simple expediency of a name change from England to the UK. (notional to the English, even at the time.)

    The Darien ‘Scottish’ elite avoided ruin, gained access to funds they would have been denied by ‘Scotland’ without Union and were embedded further into the elite of their new, larger, more powerful, world shaping Nation/Empire. (is this sounding familiar?)

    And all for the simple expediency of a name change from Scotland to the UK (notional to the English, if not the Scots, even at the time)

    So, there we have it. Yes I think the two episodes have some very interesting parallels considering the 300year odd passage of time and the social, financial and cultural differences that inevitably involves.

    This post has been cobbled together from my own private reading and general interest in the whole ‘bought and sold’ nature of the founding Treaty in the formation of ‘our’, soon to be defunct, glorious UK. So any (all) inaccuracies that are pointed out will be very gratefully received, considered and then incorporated in a bigger, better and more complex revised cobbling. Thanks (wink)

    1. Abulhaq says:

      I have read that it was those aristos who invested in Darien who went bust not the country. As they were what passed for the government their interests superseded those of the country. Hence the parcel of rogues flogging their homeland off cheap. Les aristos à la lanterne! Ça ira, ça ira!

  13. Braco says:

    Yes Abulhaq, that’s my understanding too. I just think it’s interesting to view the recent banking bailout in similar terms as a ‘selling of the country’ for the personal enrichment and benefit of it’s otherwise bankrupt governing and financial elites.

    I have really enjoyed and agree with a lot of your thoughtful and interesting posts on this thread, so thanks for them. Maybe it’s only because I also confuse myself by trying to come across as far more intelligent than I actually am. Although you seem to be much more adept at the deception of intelligence than I manage, so who knows.

    1. Abulhaq says:

      Seen from abroad the British Empire was definitely English. As you observe all the trappings, language, law, religion etc were culturally English. The Scots and Welsh, and previously, the Irish played walk on parts in a play scripted, produced and directed by Mr English. Having the majority percentage of the population, growing thanks to “Celtic fringe” emigration, the wealth, influence and political clout of power concentrated in few hands England had it made. Most in England did not, but that ought now not to be our concern. In any case little has changed. The same brigands who came over with William of Normandy to annex England to his domaines still rule the roost. Names change but attitudes do not. We too are a domaine. A list of assets in an inventory à la Domesday book. Territory not people is the operative criterion. And of course our Independence will expose the English northern frontier once again. Interesting how the anti-argument often touches on matters of defence, but whose exactly? Exciting times do lie ahead. As an air-headed intellectual poseur I say BRING IT ON!

  14. David Morgan says:

    Reblogged this on Another Scotland and commented:
    So here’s our first piece for Bella Caledonia. Hopefully the first of a good few…

  15. Devon Grant says:

    I am African Caribean, parents from Jamaica,born in the UK.
    Its still painful journey for me putting the peices together to find out who i am, my slave surname is Grant….
    And find out all the bits that make me up…

    its a source of constant irritability and anger,that surffices ever so often.
    Which i intend to put to rest,do the research and get to the bottom of the Scottish connection to my historian hopefully lay it to rest

    1. David Morgan says:

      Hi Devon – thanks for posting.

      I know you’re going to be embarking on a difficult and painful journey but hopefully you’ll find plenty to take pride in as well.

      Good luck with it.

      Dave Morgan

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