Exclusive:Humza Yousaf urged to help end 'scandal' of giving slave-trade profits to Scottish schools and teachers
First Minister Humza Yousaf has been urged to take a stand on the payment of reparations for Scotland’s role in the slave trade, starting by backing the return of a £1.6 million school fund to Jamaica.
The Scottish Government failed to intervene in the future of the Dick Bequest under the leadership of former first minister Nicola Sturgeon, despite demands for a resolution from historians, teaching unions and SNP MSPs.
The fund was established following the death in 1828 of Forres-born slave trader James Dick, with the money to be used to support parish schoolmasters in the counties of Aberdeenshire, Banff and Moray. To this day, it still distributes grants for teachers and school equipment in the north-east.
However, its future has been under scrutiny since two historians, David Alston and Donald Morrison, published a paper in 2021 that said the bequest was “a direct legacy of slavery and the slave trade”. They called for the money to be redirected to benefit schools in Jamaica.
Now, the pair have issued a fresh plea for Government intervention, asking Mr Yousaf to help “make progress towards ending the scandal of the continued operation of the Dick Bequest Trust”.
The historians’ research into James Dick found he had been active in the slave trade in Jamaica for two decades, from 1762.
Working with his business partner Robert Milligan, in 1779 they offered for sale the captured French ship Nancy and 208 enslaved Africans who had been embarked at Cape Verde in Senegal. No fewer than 238 Africans had already died on the journey.
In the same year, the pair sold 300 enslaved Africans who had been transported on different ships.
On his return to London, Milligan was the driving force behind the construction of London's West India Docks, but his statue was removed from the Docklands area in 2020, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.
A memorial to Dick sits in what is now Anderson’s Primary School, in Forres.
Dr Alston, a former chairman of NHS Highland, won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year prize in 2022 for his book entitled “Slaves and Highlanders: Silenced Histories of Scotland and the Caribbean”.
In their paper on the Dick Bequest, the historians argued that generations of teachers and schools in the north-east had benefited from the Dick Bequest, and it was now time for the money to be returned to Jamaica.
Their calls for Jamaica to benefit from the money won backing from local SNP MSPs Gillian Martin and Richard Lochhead, now Government ministers.
Moray and Aberdeenshire councils, which appointed trustees to the bequest’s board of governors, both vowed to distance themselves from the fund, as did the other appointing bodies, Aberdeen University and a group of lawyers known as the Society of Writers to His Majesty's Signet.
However, progress hit a brick wall, with the Government insisting it had no powers to direct a charity on what to do with its money.
The trustees who oversee the bequest also insisted they had no way to change the use of the fund, despite Scotland’s charity regulator setting out three options available to the governors, including via new legislation through a Private Bill in the Scottish Parliament.
In their letter to Mr Yousaf, the historians ask the First Minister to “express support” for the call to repatriate the money to Jamaica, to do all that is within the power of the Scottish Government to bring this about, and to engage with campaigners in Jamaica, and the wider Caribbean, in discussions on reparations for colonial slavery and its legacies.
They added that despite the likes of Aberdeen University and Moray Council severing their ties, the “secretive” trust “continues and makes no attempt to redirect the benefit from these funds to Jamaica”.
"As First Minister you have, appropriately, expressed views on a number of matters which are outwith the powers of the Scottish Government – we ask that you do the same in this matter,” they said.
The anonymous trustees have rarely spoken publicly about the origins of the money, or what they plan to do with it. They did not respond to a request for comment from The Scotsman.
Aberdeenshire councillor Isobel Davidson previously served as a governor of the trust, but stood down in 2022, saying it was time for a review into its future.
She suggested the trustees had "decided to maintain the Dick Bequest" following the revelations about its origins, that the trustees did not all accept the money had been derived from the slave trade, and that some governors had been concerned about the cost of attempting to change its use.
Councillor Davidson was torn over the future of the money, highlighting it had done a "massive amount of good" for the north-east over the years, and could be used to educate younger generations on Scotland’s links to slavery.
"I think it's very difficult to know what is best,” she said. “We need to recognise what we've done and educate, that's the most important thing, so we don't behave like that in the future. I think that is a better use – to improve our understanding of our history in the north-east of Scotland.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We must never ignore the difficult aspects of our country’s history, including our involvement in the slave trade.
"The Scottish Government has recently accepted recommendations from the Empire, Slavery and Scotland’s Museums’ steering group. This includes building on the support from our museums and galleries in promoting and embedding anti-racism in the curriculum in a meaningful, effective and sustainable way.
“Ministers do not have the legal power to direct charitable activity. That is a decision for individual charity trustees – as has been made clear by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator.”
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