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Scotland’s complicity with slavery cannot be glossed over – country’s top judge

The plaque was unveiled by Lord Carloway, left, and Sir Geoff Palmer (Jane Barlow/PA)
The plaque was unveiled by Lord Carloway, left, and Sir Geoff Palmer (Jane Barlow/PA)

Scotland’s complicity with slavery cannot be “glossed over”, Scotland’s most senior judge has said, as a plaque to a landmark legal case was revealed.

Lord Carloway said it is important to mark the “true extent” of Scotland’s historic role in the slave trade, while prominent academic Sir Geoff Palmer called for reflection on the philosopher David Hume’s views on race.

On Tuesday, the Lord President unveiled a plaque at the Court of Session commemorating the 1778 judgment in Knight v Wedderburn, which established that Scots law would not support slavery.

Joseph Knight was purchased as a slave by John Wedderburn in Jamaica and brought to Scotland to serve in his household.

Parliament House slavery case plaque
Lord Carloway set out how Scotland was involved in the transatlantic slave trade (Jane Barlow/PA)

When he tried to leave the slaveowner’s service to go and live with the woman he had married, the wealthy landowner had him arrested.

However, Mr Knight launched a years-long court battle with the aristocrat which ended in his emancipation, while a majority of judges ruled that Scots law could not uphold the institution of slavery.

In a speech at the court’s Parliament Hall, Lord Carloway said much has already been written about Scotland’s “collective amnesia” when it comes to slavery.

He quoted one of the judges in Knight v Wedderburn, who said: “We sit here to enforce right, not to enforce wrong.”

Lord Carloway said: “Despite those rhetorical flourishes, to imply that Scotland’s hands were clean, is to say the least inaccurate.”

He said Scotland was involved in the transatlantic slave trade and African people had been brought to Scotland long before the Act of Union in 1707.

There are were cases of privateers bringing “gifts” of captured slaves to Scottish royal courts, he said, and there are records of James VI mistreating four black slaves at his wedding in 1689.

Lord Carloway also noted that those working as colliers and salters were held in bondage in Scotland – their freedom came in the years following Knight v Wedderburn.

The Lord President said: “Against that background, Scotland’s description as a land of liberty in 1778 may fairly be described as somewhat of a veneer.

“The laws by which Mr Knight had been enslaved may have been Jamaican.

“But Scotland’s complicity in the slave trade at that time cannot be glossed over.”

Parliament House slavery case plaque
A letter from Sir Geoff Palmer inspired the plaque (Jane Barlow/PA)

Lord Carloway decided to commission the plaque after receiving a letter from Sir Geoff, who recently carried out a review of Edinburgh’s historic links with slavery and how they can be marked.

Sir Geoff, who is Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University, said other institutions should also reflect on their past links with slavery.

He told the PA news agency the plaque meant a “tremendous amount” to him.

The death of George Floyd has sparked interest in black history he said, adding: “This is one of the stories from that history.

“It’s a powerful story from that history, just like the Floyd death is a powerful incident in our humanity.

“I was so pleased when we discussed it with the powers that be in the court and decided that a plaque would be made.”

Sir Geoff’s views on Henry Dundas, the influential 18th Century politician blamed for delaying the abolition of slavery, have sparked disagreement from some historians who say his legacy is more complex.

The Heriot-Watt chancellor backed the installation of a plaque which linked Dundas to slavery, saying: “If somebody did something that is wrong, it should be remembered.”

However, Sir Geoff’s review did not recommend removing statues and building names associated with Viscount Dundas.

He said: “If you remove the evidence, you remove the deed.”

Winter weather Jan 21st 2021
Sir Geoff Palmer said David Hume’s views on race should be taught in universities (Jane Barlow/PA)

Sir Geoff said that although Dundas argued in Joseph Knight’s favour, the viscount acknowledged that black people were “doomed” in Jamaica and still sought to delay their freedom.

The academic also called on Scottish universities to reflect on the work of philospher David Hume.

Hume said black people were inferior and his thinking was reflected in other philosophers’ work.

Sir Geoff said: “They should start teaching that, all institutions that teach Hume.”

He added: “I think all institutions should try and speak the truth about our one humanity, because we are one humanity, nothing less.”