The long speak: The portrait of Scots as abolitionists and radical champions has hidden a long history of profiting from bondage in the Caribbean. By Yvonne Singh
The mangrove-fringed coast of Guyana, at the north-eastern tip of South America, does not immediately bring to mind the Highlands of Scotland, in the northernmost part of Great Britain. Guyana’s mudflats and silty chocolate-brown coastal ocean have little in common with the luxuriant dark-green mountains and glens of the Highlands. If these sceneries share anything, it is their remoteness- one on the leading edge of a former empire burnished by the relentless equatorial sun and one on the leading edge of Europe beat mercilessly by the Atlantic winds.
But look closer and the links are there: Alness, Ankerville, Belladrum, Borlum, Cromarty, Culcairn, Dingwall, Dunrobin, Fyrish, Glastullich, Inverness, Kintail, Kintyre, Rosehall, Tain, Tarlogie, a join-the-dots list of placenames( 30 in all) south of Guyana’s capital Georgetown that hint of a concealed association with the Scottish Highlands some 5,000 miles away.
As a child, I knew low levels of my parents’ district Guyana. I knew that it was part of the British West Indies and the only English-speaking country in South America. I knew that my mothers, as part of the Windrush generation, had answered the call for labour in postwar Britain. My father, aged 19, travelled by ship from Trinidad in 1960 and enjoyed a long career with the Royal Mail; my mother arrived by airplane a couple of years later, to work as a wet-nurse at Rushgreen hospital in Essex.
I had inspected Guyana just once at nine years old( our merely plane holiday as children) when my mother’s youngest sister was getting married. My memories of that time are scrapped and rather strange: the singe heat; the propensity of beings to douse themselves with Limacol (” breeze in a bottle “); the glossy rubber leaves the size of dinner plates that were used to serve sticky pellets of rice at the bridal dinner; the constant nag of bugs- mosquitoes, cockroaches, spiders, flies- enlarged in size and more hateful than any I’d seen in the UK; the ache and humiliation of going sunburnt for the first time (” wha’ happ’n wid de gal face “); and finally my aunt looking demure in a grey cord wedding dress for the Christian wedding ceremony, then changing into a Lakshmi-like vision in a red-and-gold sari for the Hindu nuptials.
For this was and is a country that feted all beliefs- Christian, Hindu, Muslim- all features of a colonial past that involved the forced movement of people across continents to a life of bondage and indenture. Those people later terminated and reached Guyana their home, so it is known as the property of six people, with parties of African, Indian, Chinese and European swoop, as well as native Amerindians and a sizeable mixed-race radical, stimulating up its population.
The story of why my own family came to be in the Caribbean had been blurred over age: it was something to do with the British, something to do with slavery, but that was all that was shared. Decades later the Guyanese-American journalist Gaiutra Bahadur published the seminal book Coolie Woman, which introduced much insight, but there have been few other remarkable labours. Guyana doesn’t feature in the history books or the curriculum in Britain.
This is astonishing when you think that the British had such a role to play in that nation’s birth and how central that settlement was to the United Kingdom’s industrial opulence and raise in the 19 th century. Unlike the Caribbean islands of Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad, it is possible that Guyana’s unique geography( being attached to the South American mainland) has interpreted it and its history all but invisible from the collective British consciousness. Perhaps fittingly, it was the muse for Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.
I am standing on a ridge cluttered with dehydrated grass and needles on the eastern bank of Loch Ness. Below me, shimmering like a sheet of burnished sword, is the fabled ocean. I watch as puffy clouds haul shadows across its skin-deep. North of where I stand is Dochfour House and Gardens, a sprawling, sandy-coloured, Italianate mansion, the ancestral dwelling of the Baillie family , now owned by Alexander Baillie, after the death of his father- the eccentric Lord Burton– in 2013. The late baron was a hands-on estate owner and patrolled his estates ferociously up until his death- one narrative has him pressuring a car bonnet down on the mitt of a transfer motorist “whos been” the temerity to examine his automobile locomotive near the entryway of the property.
Today the 11,000 -acre estate can be hired for” exclusive room parties” and corporate phenomena. Guests can spend time in the grand dwelling, or experience shooting, fishing and voyaging in the extensive grounds.
It’s an impressive legacy, even more so when you realise that the Baillies of Dochfour were contributing” West Indian shopkeepers” in the 1700 s and early 1800 s, actively engaged in the slave trade and the ownership of orchards in the Caribbean. Brother Alexander and James, along with their cousin George, started trading in St Kitts and Grenada as Smith& Baillies in the 1760 s. Their substantial interests spread to include orchards in Jamaica, Nevis, St Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago.
When the grunges of its neighboring islands had been manipulated, tours into Guyana demonstrated more fertile territory. Consequently, the Baillies established a number of orchards there, with this colony yielding substantial gains even after the obliteration of slavery.