Black History Month: Unearthing Edinburgh’s complicated past, and the extraordinary black people who shaped its present

“Black History Month should be more of a celebration than anything else.”

It is the late 1700s and the son of a slave and a slave owner knocks on the door of his estranged Scottish father.

He is penniless and desperate for money, but is turned away from Inveresk Lodge, outside Edinburgh, by a man who wants nothing to do with him.

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The son will go on to be a revolutionary speaker and writer – uniting minority groups in a fight for freedom, and publishing a book which will pave the way for abolition.

A Black Lives Matter protest at the Melville Monument, which holds the statue of Henry Dundas (Lisa Ferguson)

Many may not have heard of Robert Wedderburn, but he is one of the extraordinary people whose legacy is being celebrated by Lisa Williams on her Black History walks around the Capital.

"There’s so much history here,” she says. “It was really important to take this to the streets.

"The heritage of Edinburgh reflects that history so deeply. I thought it’s important for people to look at that space and understand the history.”

It is a side of Scotland’s past not widely spoken of – the disproportionately high connections to the slave trade, the legacy of that wealth on spaces like the New Town, and the relevance which carries to the modern day.

Lisa Williams, founder of Edinburgh Caribbean Society, has run more than 100 Black History Tours of Edinburgh

But it is also the people who were fighting these systems of oppression in their own time who Williams wants to shine a light on.

“I do get fed up of people saying ‘you must not put a present lens on the past’,” she says.

Instead, Williams wants to draw attention to people “working together from all different backgrounds, black and white people coming together”.

The statue of John Hope outside the old RBS headquarters in Edinburgh (Lisa Ferguson)

“That’s an important example for people to look back and have a road map, fighting for freedom together.”

Robert Wedderburn is one of the individuals she highlights to bring that message to life.

"I think he’s really important as he’s part of this minority movement and fighting for land rights of people, including people who had been dispossessed,” says Williams. “The whole struggle is all connected.

"The fact he’s calling for abolition of slavery but also rights of working class people. He’s an important figure and very uncompromising.”

Robert Wedderburn was an "uncompromising" revolutionary, fighting for the abolition of slavery and working class rights

For Williams, Black History Month should be “more of a celebration” than anything else.

More key individuals she is championing include Thomas Jenkins, Scotland’s first black schoolteacher, and John Edmonstone, a black professor who taught Charles Darwin taxidermy. And Fanny Wright, a white woman born in Dundee, who was an “ahead of her time intellectual feminist” and abolitionist.

Williams, whose mother is from Grenada, lived in the Caribbean for 20 years.

There she noticed primary school children knew about Scottish colonial history and resistance to it.

But when she moved to Scotland, she found much less was known about the country’s deep links to the slave trade.

She set up the Edinburgh Caribbean Association and, after years of extensive research, launched Black History tours of the Capital.

People of all backgrounds take part in the Black History tours of Edinburgh.

“All kinds of people come,” Williams says, “from quite young people to very elderly people who have lived in Edinburgh their entire lives and are quite shocked by the information.”

‘A lot of these statues were controversial in their own time’

One of the tales of the city which is hidden in plain sight is that of John Hope, the Fourth Earl of Hopetoun. The right hand man of Sir Ralph Abercromby, Hope helped crush the Fédon rebellion in the 1790s, an uprising by revolutionaries and slaves against British rule in Grenada.

As a result, 200 of the rebels were enslaved and 50 executed, and slavery continued on the island for a further 40 years.

Now a statue of John Hope stands proudly with his horse outside Dundas House, the former headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland. There he gazes across St Andrew Square to his uncle by marriage, Henry Dundas, immortalised on the Melville Monument.

That statue has come under immense scrutiny in the past year, not least after slave trader Edward Colston’s likeness was toppled into Bristol Harbour.

There is now a plaque contextualising Dundas’ role in prolonging the slave trade, and a review has been ordered into the statue of John Hope.

Questions have also been raised about David Hume – who wrote black people were “naturally inferior” to white people – whose statue sits prominently on the High Street.

Williams says: “I see it as an opportunity to teach how important this period was for the social construction of race. You are armed with that knowledge to explain where it comes about in the first place.”

She challenges this racist narrative with examples of people like Anton Wilhelm Amo, an enlightenment scholar and African philosopher.

But should these contested statues be brought down?

"I think it depends on the statue,” she says. “The fact we are having this conversation is good and helpful, though sometimes it turns into a very binary and toxic debate.

The Melville Monument has been described as a “monument to servility”. Not by an outraged millennial, but before it was even built, by a Scotsman journalist.

“It’s important for people to understand a lot of these statues were very controversial at the time,” said Williams. “He’s become this sort of focus of this debate in a way that can be useful.

"But I think it’s important we don’t lose sight of the fact this was an entire system and a lot of people are responsible for it and it shouldn’t be just him.”

Standing at 150ft, the Melville Monument towers over Edinburgh. “Because it's so disproportionately huge, the impact is different from other statues because he’s looming down on you,” says Williams, who thinks it would be “really exciting” to replace Dundas with a statue or artwork chosen by the people of Edinburgh, and changed regularly.

‘The suffragettes would have been called woke’

How does she respond to accusations of ‘wokeness’ – which has become a pejorative for people wanting to make change in society?

"I think for some people learning this kind of history is very new,” she says. “It’s uncomfortable because it’s not what they have been brought up to believe or view their country as.

"It’s difficult for people to reconcile with their view of their country and identity. I think people get defensive.”

Williams says some parts of the media whip the debate up in a way “that’s not helpful or healthy” and we can have a “much more mature conversation”.

"The suffragettes, a lot of people were calling them something similar to ‘woke’,” she says. “They painted those woman as violent and mentally unwell and destroying the nation.

"Often, when you get these different flashpoints in history, you always get people trying to shut down that change.

"It isn’t saying ‘everything about Britain is evil’, it’s about being able to hold the good and bad in our mind at the same time.”

Indeed, in Scotland, freedom fighters like Ignatius Santo – the first black man to vote in Britain – spoke of the warm welcome they received when they got here.

And so did Nadia Cattouse, a singer and activist who came to Edinburgh as a volunteer during the Second World War, alongside many other black women. “In Edinburgh there was no racial tension,” she said. “We had camaraderie.”

Nadia is still alive today, aged 96, yet in her lifetime she experienced segregation in the Jim Crow US. She is one of the many reasons understanding our complex history is so important.

"We are still living with the legacies of these ideas of superiority and inferiority today,” Ms Williams says.

"These are stories they may not know much about. That’s why we are making such an effort.

"This is Scottish history. It’s something that should be year round.”


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