The long speak: The portrayal of Scots as abolitionists and liberal champions has secreted 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 irrigate have little in common with the lush light-green mountains and glens of the Highlands. If these landscapes share anything, it is their remoteness- one on the edge of a former empire burnished by the relentless equatorial sun and one on the edge of Europe flogged 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 indication of a concealed association with the Scottish Highlands some 5,000 miles away.
As a child, I knew little of my parents’ country 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 aircraft a couple of years later, to work as a nanny at Rushgreen hospital in Essex.
I had called Guyana just once at nine years old( our simply plane holiday as children) when my mother’s youngest sister was getting married. My rememberings of that time are fragmented and rather strange: the burn heat; the inclination 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 dances of rice at the wed dinner; the constant nag of bugs- mosquitoes, cockroaches, spiders, flies- magnified in size and more hateful than any I’d seen in the UK; the agony and shame of going sunburnt for the first time (” wha’ happ’n wid de gal face “); and finally my aunt seeming demure in a grey cord wedding dress for the Christian wedding ceremony, then altering into a Lakshmi-like vision in a red-and-gold sari for the Hindu nuptials.
For this was and is a country that celebrated 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 adjudicated and represented Guyana their dwelling, so it is known as the territory of six folks, with people of African, Indian, Chinese and European swoop, as well as native Amerindians and a sizeable mixed-race group, moving up its population.
The story of why my own family came to be in the Caribbean had been blurred over meter: 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 publicized the seminal book Coolie Woman, which drew much insight, but there have been few other remarkable undertakings. Guyana doesn’t feature in the history books or educational curricula 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 growing in the 19 th century. Unlike the Caribbean islands of Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad, it is feasible that Guyana’s unique geography( being attached to the South American mainland) has rendered it and its history all but invisible from the collective British consciousness. Perhaps fittingly, it was the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.
I am standing on a crest cluttered with dried grass and buds on the eastern bank of Loch Ness. Below me, shimmering like a membrane of burnished steel, is the fabled sea. I watch as puffy glooms tow darkness across its face. North of where I stand is Dochfour House and Gardens, a sprawling, sandy-coloured, Italianate mansion, the ancestral residence of the Baillie family , now owned by Alexander Baillie, after the death of his father- the eccentric Lord Burton– in 2013. The late monarch was a hands-on estate owner and patrolled his tracts furiously up until his death- one tale has him pressuring a auto bonnet down on the handwriting of a pas motorist who had the temerity to examine his automobile engine near the entering of the property.
Today the 11,000 -acre estate can be hired for” exclusive home parties” and corporate occasions. Guests can spend time in the splendid dwelling, or enjoy killing, fishing and sailing in the extended grounds.
It’s an impressive legacy, even more so when you realise that the Baillies of Dochfour were resulting” West Indian sellers” in the 1700 s and early 1800 s, active in the slave traffic and the ownership of plantations 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 plantations in Jamaica, Nevis, St Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago.
When the clays of the neighbouring islands had been exploited, outings into Guyana presented more fertile territory. Consequently, the Baillies proved a number of orchards there, with this colony yielding substantial advantages even after the abolition of slavery.