The long speak: The portraying of Scots as abolitionists and radical champions has hidden a long history of profiting from slavery 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 dark-brown coastal ocean have little in common with the lush green mountains and glens of the Highlands. If these landscapes share anything, it is their remoteness- one on the edge of a former territory burnished by the relentless equatorial sun and one on the leading edge of Europe whipped 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 mothers’ nation 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 parents, as part of the Windrush generation, had responded to 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 plane a couple of years later, to work as a harbour at Rushgreen hospital in Essex.

I had visited Guyana just once at nine years old( our only plane holiday as children) when my mother’s youngest sister was getting married. My reminiscences of that time are scrapped and rather strange: the singe hot; 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 wedding dinner; the constant nag of insects- mosquitoes, cockroaches, spiders, flies- enlarged in sizing and more hateful than any I’d seen in the UK; the sorenes and mortification of get sunburnt for the first time (” wha’ happ’n wid de gal face “); and finally my aunt ogling demure in a lily-white 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 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 beings later decided and stimulated Guyana their home, so it is known as the tract of six families, with parties of African, Indian, Chinese and European swoop, as well as native Amerindians and a sizeable mixed-race radical, becoming up its population.

The story of why my own family came to be in the Caribbean had been blurred over day: 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 produced the seminal journal Coolie Woman, which created much insight, but there have been few other notable handiworks. 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 asset 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 inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

I am standing on a crest cluttered with dehydrated grass and foliages on the eastern bank of Loch Ness. Below me, shimmering like a expanse of burnished steel, 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 home 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 countries intensely up until his death- one story has him action a automobile bonnet down on the handwriting of a move motorist who had the temerity to examine his automobile engine near the admission of the property.

Today the 11,000 -acre estate can be hired for” exclusive house parties” and corporate events. Clients can spend time in the grandiose dwelling, or enjoy 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 guiding” West Indian merchants” in the 1700 s and early 1800 s, active in the slave traffic and the ownership of orchards in the Caribbean. Brother Alexander and James, together 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 grimes of its neighboring islands had been employed, jaunts into Guyana acquainted more fertile territory. Consequently, the Baillies established a number of plantations there, with this colony yielding substantial advantages even after the abolition of slavery.

Stabroek sell in Georgetown, Guyana. Photograph: benedek/ Getty Images

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 didn’t precisely bring an end to chattel slavery, the committee is also overcompensated Britain’s 46,000 slave owners for the loss of their “property”. As Guyana’s orchards were mostly involved in sugar-making, and carbohydrate boilers dominated a compensation anatomy of PS100 compared with that of PS18 for an unskilled field worker, the Baillies and other plantation owners were heavily compensated for their estates in Guyana.

Consequently, the Baillies received a total of PS110, 000( equivalent to that given to around PS9. 2m today) seeks compensation for the 3, 100 slaves they lost, which they invested in a Monopoly board of estates from all the regions of the Highlands, ensuring that they and their progenies would become one of the largest property proprietors in the north of Scotland, predominantly thanks to the profits of slavery.

I meet with historian David Alston in Cromarty, a small town in the Highlands that sits at the mouth of Cromarty Firth. Comprised of exactly a few streets, the city boastings a asset of Georgian and Victorian architecture and its exhibition share of chi-chi shops, gratifying to the American and Canadian tourists who call the region enthusiastic to seek a piece of Highland ancestry.

Alston explains that there are 13 different websites in this tiny place that have connections to slave orchards- mostly in Guyana. He says:” If you lived in the Highlands in the 1800 s, you would know about Demerara and Berbice[ in Guyana ]; beings would talk about coming back’ as rich as a Demerary man ‘.”

It’s hard to process that a network of Scotsmen from here and the surrounding area applied Guyana as a “get-rich-quick scheme”, employing for profit the trafficked humen( both slaves and indentured labourers) who were my ancestors. A “gold rush” with no thought of the regrettable human consequence.

As I wade through the investigations and testimonials of the fate of slaves in Guyana, it’s difficult to suppress the wrath I feel: up until 1826( virtually two decades after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 ),” the 11 o’clock flog” was administered in Berbice’s searing heat to men and women who pennant in their tasks; sexual abuse was so endemic in the same district that, in 1819, one in 50 of the enslaved person was the child or grandchild of a grey European.

What is also astonishing is that the people I be addressed to in Guyana don’t seem aware of this is connected with the Highlands. I speak to an older cousin who grew up in Guyana but now lives in the US.” We were schooled about Cuffy[ a maverick slave leader ] and the slave uprising of 1763 ,” she recounts.” But the slave trade wasn’t discussed .”

A statue of Cuffy, the slave disobedience ruler, in Georgetown, Guyana. Photograph: Krystyna Szulecka/ Alamy

I tell her about Cromarty and she titters at the articulation of a well-known place from her childhood, near Cotton Tree in Berbice.” You know Aunty Florence’s mother, Big Mama, was half-Scottish ,” she says.” We all used to wonder why she was so white and so much bigger than us, but then one day Granny told us that her father was a Scotsman .”

She then recalls a troubling story.” Granny said that the Indian girls would be working out in the rice fields and it was then that most of the crimes would take place. No one would hear them shrieking … “theres only” nine several months later that they had to deal with the consequences .”

The Baillies were part of an Inverness network of Scots, including the Frasers, the Inglis family and the Chisholms, who had substantial orchard fascinates in Guyana. However, slave ownership wasn’t confined to the affluent: everyday working people had a chance to buy slaves very. Alston has compiled a comprehensive index of more than 600 beings from the Highlands with connections to Guyana before emancipation.

He says:” Guyana offered some the prospect of making a fortune, even for those working of limited means, if they were prepared to start work as clerks, overseers and tradesmen. The key to success was to own slaves .”

Alston justifies:” It was a weird coincidence that so many people from the Highlands gone over. Plantations applied different kinds of beings: carpenters, gardeners, bookkeepers and doctors were needed. Scotland had a good educational system and the population was mobile. Tacksman[ prinicipal tenants in Highlands after landowners] led in-migrations and looked for openings .”

Despite Guyana’s distance and dangers( many Scots succumbed to yellow excitement ), the wage was seen as worth the risk. The helps were numerous, there were beings returning from Guyana buying land and estates and improving farms in Scotland, and the orchard economy also fuelled industrial wealth.

Alston countries:” The livelihoods of some of the poorest people in Cromarty depended on what was going on in the Caribbean. There is a red sandstone structure near the hide which was established in the 1770 s as a proto-factory: it imported hemp from Saint petersburg and utilized 250 parties and 600 out-workers- more than the population of Cromarty now- to produce cloth to prepare pouches and sackings for West Indian goods .”

The economic benefits of slavery had a trickle-down effect on every part of the Scottish economy: there was a boom in herring fishing in the Highland lochs, as this salted-down fish was a major export to the Caribbean as a protein-rich source of slave nutrition. Similarly, in the Outer Hebrides, many craftsmen were employed in the manufacture of rough linen, known as slave cloth, for exportation to the colonies. In happening, Cromarty advantaged so much from the slave trade, “its one” of the city that petitioned against its abolition.

Highlanders too have the questionable honor of pioneering the first shiploads of Indian indentured labourers to Guyana shortly after the abolition of bondage. John Gladstone( a Guyanese planter and father-god of the future British prime minister, who received PS1 06,769 in compensation, the equivalent of about PS9m today) wrote to Francis Mackenzie Gillanders of Gillanders, Arbuthnot& Co in Calcutta, seeking a new root of inexpensive and readily inhibited labour.

Gillanders had already sent Indians to Mauritius under five-year agreements and was keen to fulfil Gladstone’s request. He realized no impediment with the brand-new recruits, showing the government has” few hankers beyond devouring, sleeping and drinking”, referring to the” mountain coolies of India” as” more akin to the monkey than the man”, unaware of” the place they agree to go to or the voyage they are undertaking “.

The arrival of the ships Whitby and Hesperus in Guyana in 1838 would herald the movement of more than half a million Indians to the Caribbean to work under superiors in the sweltering plantations, until the end of the practice in 1917.

What is scandalizing, given the extent of the involvement of Highland Scots in the history of Guyana, is the way their role has been airbrushed from history. Not numerous Scottish beings would have a clue where Guyana is or of its importance to their own nation’s industrial growth.

Scots ought to have portrayed as abolitionists, reformers and liberal champions, so David Livingstone is recollected lovingly, as is Scotland’s role in obliteration, while the slave-owning houses of Sandbach Tinne, John Gladstone, HD and JE Baillie, CW& F Shand, Reid Irving and others are referred to euphemistically as” West Indian merchants “.

Unlike in Liverpool, Bristol or London, here i am little acknowledgment in Glasgow of public constructs funded by the slave trade. Buchanan Street, Glassford Street and Ingram Street are named after notorious slavers, but there is no mention of this in the city’s history.

” The study I was doing in the 1990 s felt very lonely ,” says Alston. He recalls the opening of the National Museum of Scotland in 1998.” Despite massive parts devoted to Scotland and the world, there was not a mention of the slave trade or the slave-based plantation economies, which supported the rise of Scotland’s industrialisation. The storey sits extremely uncomfortably with the narrative that people want to tell about Scotland and Highlanders .”

Alston explains that Scotland’s own historic grudges, specific the Highland clearances( when tens of thousands of Highlanders were forcibly expelled from their dwellings to make way for large-scale sheep farming ), make it unable to confront the past. He says:” If you want to draw yourself as a prey, the last thing you want to do is be the victimiser, and it is difficult for that to change because it is so embedded in the Scottish view of itself and the Highlands attitude of itself.

Cromarty graveyard in the Highlands, where some Scottish slave owners are immersed. Photograph: Calum Davidson/ Alamy

” In Sutherland county there is a monumental to the permissions funded by a Canadian whose ancestors were cleared[ the Emigrants Statue ]. The flavor on the inscription is exactly that the Scots enlightened the nations of the world. There was talk of putting replica statues up in all the places that Scots went to … I wonder if they will put one up in Georgetown, Guyana .”

Helen Cameron, who now lives in Australia, visited both Cromarty and Guyana in an attempt to trace her roots. Helen is related to the Camerons of Glen Nevis: John Cameron, her enormous, enormous, great-grandfather, came to Berbice in the early 1800 s and set up a orchard with his kinsman Donald Charles Cameron. Details of their epoch there include shipments of coffee, cotton, rum and sugar, and the sale and hire of slaves. John Cameron had a relationship with Elizabeth Sharpe,” a free coloured maiden”( a descendant of slaves) and they had seven children. The couple’s five sons all immigrated to Australia, while the daughters remained unmarried.

Helen writes by email:” It will seem strange that I did not move the academic connection of being a descendant of a plantation owner as also being a descendant of a slave owner. I was somewhat taken aback when the manager of the inn where we stayed in Guyana said,’ This is the first time I “ve met” the progeny of a slave owner .'”

She sustains:” I had known that the family had orchards, but I do be recognized that until this research I had not considered who really operated these orchards. I was also ignorant of Britain’s dependence on slavery.

” I hope my ancestors were benevolent slave owners ,” she scribbles.” I do not like to think they were inhumane, although there is, as one person in Guyana said,’ Why would you think otherwise ?'”

Scotland’s persona in territory does not belong in the margins or footnotes: Highland Scots had a huge role to play in the large-scale trafficking of human beings for profit. I believe that nonetheless unpalatable this history is, it is a shared one, and contributes to our understanding of race and how the movements of beings from long ago fits with our legend now. To overshadow these facts is to rob individuals of their storeys all over again, and to disclaim them any sense of belonging or plaza in the world.

Today, steps are being made to acknowledge Scotland’s slaving past: there is a campaign to establish a museum of slavery, and for memorials and plaques to go up across the country on bronzes, streets and residences linked to the slave trade. In September 2018, Glasgow University produced a report revealing that educational institutions advantaged immediately from the slave trade, despite its leading role in the abolitionist flow- receiving bequests of virtually PS200m in today’s money. The university have already been propelled a” reparative justice programme” that will involve the process of creating a centre for the study of bondage as well as a collaboration with the University of the West Indies.

In Cromarty’s graveyard, the mid-morning sun slants across the gravestones pockmarked with moss and lichen, decorating the swooning inscriptions. The bronze of Hugh Miller, the town’s famed geologist and scribe, perched Nelson-like on a high column, overlooks the incident. I speak the carved words on one crumbling grey stone that has sat in this cemetery for more than 150 times. It says:” John Munro sometime of Demerara .” Less clear is “Berbice” on another stone. A merely 20 miles south-west of this cemetery, at Gilchrist near Muir of Ord, is an ornate mausoleum containing the well-preserved tomb of Gillanders- he of the famous ape paraphrase. One truth remains: nonetheless hard-handed we try to cover over our past, it rarely stands buried.

This is an edited version of a piece that was first published in adda , a publication run by Commonwealth Writers, the cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation

* Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, or sign up to the long speak weekly email here.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here