Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Scotland and Slavery with Making History

Several weeks ago I alluded to a future post on Scotland and slavery. Well, here it is. In the September 21st episode of the Making History podcast from Radio Four, host Vanessa Collingridge begins a segment on emigration to Jamaica with historians Dr. David Alston and Professor Tom Devine, but ends it with slavery and Scottish historiography. The links between the topics are not as bizarre as one might think.

A Making History listener wanted to know why three brothers he had found in his family tree had all gone to Jamaica together. He believed that three brothers going to the same place was unusual (the historians didn’t address this part of his question, but while I have no firm evidence, I don’t think multiple family members going to the same destination was unusual for Scots or any other ethnic group.)

It was quickly determined that without additional evidence it was impossible to know exactly why these brothers went to Jamaica, but it was pointed out that Jamaica, like India, was where one went to get rich quick during the 18th century. Unlike India, Jamaica’s economy was dependent upon slave labor. Anyone who lived in Jamaica (or anywhere in the Americas really) was in some way connected to the slave economy whether one owned them or not. First connection done: emigration – Jamaica – slavery.

Devine mentioned that his first book, The Tobacco Lords, does not mention slavery even though the tobacco market in the Chesapeake could not have existed without it. Other connections to slavery have been overlooked by generations of Scottish historians, as many focused on elite culture and popular topics like the Highland Clearances; a fact now much lamented by Professor Devine. However, Scottish historians are now looking into less pretty events – slavery as opposed to Sir Walter Scott.  Second connection done: slavery - historiography.

I’m not sure that Tom Devine need feel so guilty about overlooking slavery in a Scottish context. Except for the wealth that was transported from the Americas to Scotland earned on the backs of slaves, the experience of Scots and slavery was outwith Scotland. Once they went home, there would be few tangible reminders. In the United States, on the other hand, we have been living with either slavery or its aftermath on a daily basis for centuries. People were enslaved in the United States and they stayed here when freed. In spite of this much closer association with slavery, the experience of the enslaved was not really studied by American historians. They studied the great and the good, just as the Scottish historians did.

Two countries, two experiences of slavery, but with the same result – slavery was almost totally ignored by academic historians. Only since the 1960s or so have American historians been studying the “subaltern” (academic speak for subordinate people) – women, minority groups and slaves. It seems that Scottish history is on the same track, just a few decades behind. If American historians ignored slavery and it was in our own backyard, I’m not sure that Scottish historians should be blamed for overlooking it too, especially when it was an ocean away.

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