British Empire was forged out of slavery, racism and oppression – Kenny MacAskill

Some revel in the supposed glories of the British Empire, but it was vicious and brutal, writes Kenny MacAskill.

Horatio Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener of Khartoum, was a soldier and statesman who symbolised the British Empire (Picture: I Heyman/Getty Images)

The debate on slavery and racism is rightly washing across the Atlantic. As well as confronting racism here which, though less prevalent than in America and certainly less institutionalised, sadly exists, it’s also appropriate to have a reassessment of our history and an unchallenging acceptance of supposed orthodoxies.

That’s why Sir Geoff Palmer’s call for a proper narration to be placed at Henry Dundas’s statue was correct. There’s may be no need for the effigy to be removed as, frankly, most folk can hardly see it, standing so high up on its column. But a proper explanation of who he was and what he did is appropriate. Indeed, as well as explaining his opposition to ending slavery, it would be well worth explaining that he was also culpable for the transportation of Thomas Muir and other radicals to Botany Bay, as well as internal repression on an appalling scale.

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However, Scotland’s role in the slave trade goes far wider than just the actions of that despot, no matter how powerful he was. That’s why not just his role, but that of the country, should be understood. For it went far beyond the oligarchy of rich landowners for whose benefit Dundas ran the country.

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Of course, they made spectacular wealth and many of the grand houses in Edinburgh’s New Town or Glasgow’s Merchant City, along with huge country estates, are soaked in it. Paid for directly by the abhorrent trade or more often through slave labour on plantations or, most perversely of all, the huge compensation paid to them upon abolition – ill-gotten gains if ever that description applied.

I was once given a walking tour of Glasgow’s Merchant City by a young academic who has studied it closely. Despite having lived and worked in Glasgow, it was revelatory. Some parts were self-evident, with the street names like Virginia and Jamaica speaking for themselves. Other aspects were far from hidden, but the link with slavery was unknown to me.

Robert Burns’ Ae Fond Kiss

For Scotland benefited through incredible economic growth and, although income inequality and a grossly unfair distribution of the profits abounded, the proceeds still seeped through. Moreover, the involvement was far more than simply a handful of the rich or merchant class.

Many Scots went as overseers or for other roles based on slavery. The Scots names given to many slaves testify to that and even the genesis of our National Bard’s “Ae Fond Kiss” was his beloved Clarinda’s believed departure to join her husband working in Jamaica.

But the issue is deeper than just slavery and should trigger a review of the British Empire and its role and purpose. For it was also steeped in slavery and its history forged by it. Indeed, America was even lost to George Washington and his continental army because of it. Profits from the sugar trade, in many ways the oil of that period, outweighed taxes from the fledgling colonies. Hence the Royal Naval fleet kept in the West Indies, warding off predatory French and Spanish eyes, rather than resupplying Lord Cornwallis, who was accordingly required to surrender.

Slavery’s abolition is rightly celebrated, with many abolitionists deserving enormous credit for their courage. But I also recall the great black historian and Marxist CLR James describing how it suited Britain’s strategic interest, because of the greater damage it would do to the French economy given greater scale. As it had once helped the Empire expand, it was in its interests for it to end. Capitalism, more than compassion, brought the change of heart.

Treachery and aggression

At school, I recall old textbooks that still had world maps with vast areas coloured red and being told that the sun never set upon the Empire. It was never explained, though, just how or why those lands had ended up within it. The history of colonialism wasn’t taught. It was just accepted the Empire had been a good thing. Rather benign. Better than other Europeans, certainly the brutal Belgians but even worthier than the despicable French.

But the treachery and aggression were never taught. The relief of Mafeking was a doughty tale for Boy Scouts but the Robber Band that was Cecil Rhodes and his cronies, or the concentration camps for Boer civilians, most certainly weren’t. What went on in other parts of Africa and elsewhere across the globe was even more repressive and vicious.

So, a reappraisal is long overdue. It would also help in modern debate where some see the opportunity to apparently restore Empire glories. They never existed. A deeper analysis of recent celebrations confirms that. The world wars saw many colonial soldiers who fought and died for the Empire but were paid less and denied the vote.

The British Empire was brutal and repressive, based upon race and class, forged on colonialism and slavery and we should know that.

Kenny MacAskill is the SNP MP for East Lothian

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