How Edinburgh both aided and prolonged the fight to abolish slavery
As dawn rose on the 1 August 1834, three hundred members and friends of the Edinburgh’s Anti-Slavery Society gathered for morning tea at the Waterloo Tavern to mark the moment that the morally abhorrent act of enslaving fellow human beings officially became a felony throughout the British Empire.
An advertisement in The Scotsman records that members were invited to breakfast together at 9am sharp at the request of society president Lord Moncrieff.
For society members, many of whom had spent the best part of two decades campaigning for reform, breakfast could not taste sweeter.
A year previously, the Slavery Abolition Act had been passed in parliament. The landmark ruling made the purchase or ownership of slaves illegal within the British dominions, with the exception of "the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company".
Edinburgh was at the forefront of the campaign to abolish slavery for decades and the city produced a great number of figures who led the emancipation movement in Britain.
But the city was also home to a raft of influential individuals who held the movement back.
The Knight case
In 1778, long before any official campaign for abolition got under way, judges at the Edinburgh Court of Session ruled eight to four in favour of the slave Joseph Knight.
African-born Knight had been purchased by Sir John Wedderburn of Ballendean at a slave market in Jamaica, and brought to Scotland where he was expected to serve Wedderburn’s household.
Inspired by a successful case in England in the early 1770s, Knight issued a freedom suit against his master, and, after two appeals and four years, he emerged victorious when the court established that Scots law “could not in principle uphold the institution of slavery”.
One of the eight men to decide Knight’s fate was the city advocate and philanthropist Francis Garden, Lord Gardenstone, who would go on to lead the Edinburgh Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Gardenstone’s peers, however, did not share similar views.
The main judge at the Knight case, however, was Lord Henry Dundas, an Edinburgh man held by many to be responsible for prolonging the abolition of the slave trade.
While the 1778 ruling was certainly a mark of progress, it was only the beginning for the anti-slavery movement in Scotland. Wealthy slave owners such as Sir John Wedderburn were still within their rights to continue profiting from the slave trade.
Lord Advocate for Scotland, Dundas was also the MP for Midlothian and vetoed efforts for reform on the matter. It would be another 15 years before the trading of slaves was abolished.
One of the most important Britons to lead the anti-slavery movement was Henry Brougham, who was born in the Cowgate in 1778.
Brougham, a leading liberal parliamentarian and British statesman, campaigned tirelessly throughout the early 19th century and is credited with swaying the vote on William Wilberforce’s 1804 Slave Trade Abolition Bill after his pamphlet, A Concise Statement of the Question Regarding the Abolition of the Slave Trade, was distributed among MPs.
Unlike Lord Henry Dundas, whose Melville column has attracted a great deal of criticism in recent years, there is no statue in Edinburgh to Lord Brougham, though he was later remembered in the naming of Brougham Place in Tollcross.
Another important abolitionist to emerge from Edinburgh society was Dr Andrew Thompson, the first minister of St George’s Church.
Edinburgh Anti-Slavery Society
Dr Thompson’s inspirational speeches on the subject of emancipation prompted the Edinburgh Anti-Slavery Society to call for the immediate abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire.
In April 1833, four months before slavery was formally abolished, the Edinburgh Anti-Slavery Society held a special general meeting, at which it was unanimously decided that "in depriving the slaves in the British Colonies of the natural rights of mankind, and in withholding from them the privileges and protection enjoyed by the rest of his Majesty's subjects, Great Britain has disgraced her free constitution and Christian profession".
When the Edinburgh Anti-Slavery Society was revived in 1854 – its attentions now focused on ending slavery in the United States, the Lord Provost, after reading a letter from Dr Thomson, attracted applause when he declared that no other town in the UK had “worked with more zeal or energy in the cause of abolition than the city of Edinburgh” over the past thirty years.
Further cementing Edinburgh’s role in leading the abolition movement is the striking American Civil War memorial in the city’s Old Calton Burial Ground.
Erected in 1893 as a tribute to the Scots-American soldiers who fought in the conflict, it depicts a freed slave extending a hand of gratitude towards an imposing President Abraham Lincoln and remains the only monument to the American Civil War outside of the United States.
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