18th-century human trafficking

5th October 2007 at 01:00
"TO BE DISPOSED of: A handsome black boy, about 13 years of age, very well, qualified for making a household servant, serving a table well, etc, of fine constitution, endured to the climate, and has had the small-pox. Any person inclining to purchase him, may call at Mr William Reid's iron-monger opposite to the door of the city guard."

It is 238 years since this advertisement appeared in the Edinburgh Advertiser. In a small room on the first floor of the Museum of Edinburgh, exhibits illustrate the city's links with the African slave trade.

Scotland was involved in the trans-atlantic slave trade in three ways: by im porting sugar, rum and tobacco produced by slaves, by shipping captives from Africa to North America and the West Indies, and by buying and selling them as servants.

Lured by the appeal of getting rich quick, some Scottish tradesmen and merchants also spent time in the West Indies selling goods to plantation owners and dealing in goods picked or mined by slaves, while many Scots owned plantations themselves. By the early 19th century, 30 per cent of Jamaican estates were owned or managed by Scots.

This exhibition marks the bicentenary of the abolition in the UK of the transatlantic slave trade British ships played a major role in the barter. Slaves weren't fully emancipated in the UK until 1838.

One exhibit is a statue of a black slave nonchalantly smoking a pipe an advertisement proudly displayed at James Gillespie's tobacconist shop on Edinburgh's High Street (pictured). Gillespie traded in Virginia tobacco, picked by slaves.

The philanthropist, who left pound;12,000 in his will to build a hospital and school for the poor (now James Gillespie's High, one of Edinburgh's most prominent comprehensives), was a respectable gentleman who profited from slavery without appreciating there was anything exploitative about it.

"This was a good, caring man who treated his workers well," says Sheila Asante, the exhibition's curator. "It just didn't register with these people that there was anything wrong with it. They didn't consider the implications. It was so far away at the time, and it was so accepted, that they didn't question it. The testimonies from ex-slaves didn't come until later."

The museum is also hosting drama workshops this term for P6-7 classes, using the exhibition as a stimulus to explore identity and citizenship. Dean Park and Clermiston primaries have been to visit with groups from each year.

"We are look-ing at identity, because their identity was stripped from them when they were enslaved," explains Ms Asante. "Africans' names were taken away and they were given the plantation owner's name or the captain of the ship's name. There are more Campbells in Jamaica than there are in Edinburgh and the Lothians."

A 2007 Jamaican telephone directory on display is full of familiar surnames, such as Cameron, Johnstone, McIntosh and Murray.

Meanwhile, Scottish religious leaders, journalists, lawyers, merchants, bankers and activists were very vocal in the abolitionist movement to end slavery.

An online resource about slavery and abolition, for teachers who wish to cover it across the curriculum in upper primary and lower secondary has been created by Learning and Teaching Scotland. Slavery already features in the secondary history curric-ulum as an optional unit at Intermediate 2.

"We recognised that a resource with a distinctive Scottish dimension would be welcomed in schools and the issue has wider appli-cations than history alone," says professional adviser at LTS Colin McAndrew.

The aim, he says, is "to help teachers raise awareness of slavery issues both in a historical and contemporary context", prompting "discussion around rights and responsibilities and equality and fairness" and promoting "respon-sible citizenship".

* It didn't happen here: Edinburgh's links with the transatlantic slave trade, Museum of Edinburgh, 142 Canongate, until November 30. Monday-Saturday 10am 5pm. Admission free.

* During the October break, the museum is hosting family events linked to the exhibition: storytelling workshops and a drop-in arts and crafts workshop where children can make masks and discuss identity.

* www.ltscotland. org.ukabolition

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today