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.