LABELLED as “Scotland’s first black professor” in recent media reports, Prof Sir Geoff Palmer, OBE, has every justification in wanting a more comprehensive curriculum regarding educating pupils in Scotland about the transatlantic slave trade.
Considerable recent treatment of the trade by historians in Scotland has indubitably revealed that a number of Scots participated in the trade and accrued great profits from it. Sir Geoff has been critical of the hitherto treatment of the subject in that the abolitionist factor has been highlighted in Scotland’s contribution to the trade, but less so its role as an active participant. Some would contest this criticism and say that Scotland has obtained too little acknowledgment of its part in the abolition struggle.
James Ramsay, from Fraserburgh, for example, is scarcely known today for his contribution to Britain’s eventual abolition of the trans-Atlantic trade. Yet it has been said of him that he was hugely influential in the anti-slavery movement and that the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 probably owed more to his arguments, proposals and personal integrity than to any other influence – but it is the English politician William Wilberforce who has the historical credentials.
Similarly, it is little known that Scots and Irish were effectively the “guinea pigs” in unpaid toil in the first sugar plantations in the Americas, and had it not been for their sun-sensitive skins, then there might never have been any transatlantic trade in slavery from Africa.
In justifiably asking for a more comprehensive treatment in Scotland’s educational system of the slave trade, Prof Sir Geoff Palmer, I am sure, would not be unwelcoming of a widening of the context to include what many home-based historians in Scotland appear to have recently ignored – that Scotland’s contribution was not confined to merchants who treated humans as profit commodities, but that Scotland contributed much to the abolition of this reprehensible practice, and that many of its population were among its earliest victims.