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Scotland's Role in the Slave Trade

​The Slave Trade, the exploitation of Africans to labour in British colonies in America and the West Indies occurred from the late 18th century until the

mid-19th and Scots played a large part in this inhuman practice.

In 1796, Scots owned just under 30% of the estates in Jamaica and by 1817, just under 32% of the slaves. Certain Scots masters were thought to be among the most brutal, with life expectancy on their plantations averaging only four years.

The successes of the sugar, cotton and tobacco industries which helped much of the country and key cities prosper were built on slavery.

The people of Scotland were, however, extremely active in the Abolition Movement. There are records of hundreds of petitions for abolition originating from Scotland and the owning of personal slaves was banned in Scotland in 1778, 28 years before the abolition of the slave trade.

Although at any given time there were only around 70-80 slaves in Scotland, a small amount in comparison to the tens of thousands enslaved in the colony areas, the banning of owning personal slaves followed the case of James Knight.

Sir John Wedderburn of Ballindean, 6th Baronet of Blackness was forced to flee to the West Indies in the mid 18th century following his father, Sir John Wedderburn, 5th Baronet’s execution for treason after the Jacobite uprising of 1745. Wedderburn became the largest land owner in Jamaica. In 1769 he returned to Scotland with a slave, Joseph Knight. Knight sued Wedderburn and he won his freedom when the Court of Session in Edinburgh ruled Scotland could not support slavery. Slave sales were banned in Scotland.

James Wedderburn, brother of John, joined John in Jamaica following their fathers’ execution. An African born slave of James’, Rosanna, fell pregnant with his child. Rosanna was sold at five months pregnant but her new owners declared Robert free, from birth. Robert served in the Royal Navy then travelled to Britain in 1778 becoming increasingly involved in radical politics. In 1824 he published a book entitled “The Horrors of Slavery” which attacked his father and the institution of slavery. This book was widely circulated by abolitionists.

In 1807, the slave trade in British Colonies was abolished and it became illegal for British ships to carry slaves.

The Glasgow Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1822 and the city was known as one of the most vehement abolitionist areas of Britain. James Ramsay and Zachary Macaulay from Inverary were leading supporters of the Abolitionist Movement. Macaulay had worked as an overseer in a West Indies Plantation and his disgust at what he saw prompted him to form the Anti-Slavery Reporter. He eventually became governor of Sierra Leone, a colony founded by freed slaves.

Complete abolition of slavery occurred in 1833. The architect of the Abolition Bill was James Stephen, born of Scots parents and educated in Aberdeen.

Reference: (2015); Chase, M “Wedderburn Robert” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edition

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