Scotland, Britain and the Atlantic Slave Trade

A Very Brief Introductory History:

Edinburgh's part in the slave trade - Historic Environment ...

Knight Vs Wedderburn: A Promising Start:

In 1769 something perfectly ordinary happened in Scotland. John Wedderburn, a plantation and slave owner, living in Jamaica returned to Scotland. As part of the move he brought back a piece of what he considered to be his property, Joseph Knight, a black man who had been enslaved in Africa and sold to Wedderburn in the Caribbean. Wedderburn had educated Knight and may well have thought highly of him in his decision to bring him home.

However, things would take a perfectly extraordinary turn. In 1774, Knight took Wedderburn to the Scottish legal authority. Referencing the 1772 Somerset case where it had been decided that slavery was illegal under English law, he argued that under Scottish law he should not be seen as the property of anyone.

The case was initially rejected but he won on an appeal. However, then Wedderburn appealed in turn and the case was taken all the way to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, where a full panel of twelve judges highlighted the importance of the moment.

It was here that Knight won his freedom and Wedderburn’s right to ownership was rejected under Scots law, with a vote of 8-4. Lord Kames, stated,

“the dominion assumed over this Negro, under the law of Jamaica, being unjust, could not be supported in this country to any extent: That, therefore, the defender had no right to the Negro’s service for any space of time, nor to send him out of the country against his consent.”

This momentous decision meant that, in effect, slavery was not legal under Scots law. The case was the first of its kind in Scotland and it massively pre-dated abolition which would not be achieved until 1833.

So at this point you may be thinking, fantastic, look at Scotland leading the way in the fight against the unjust institution of slavery. My ancestors fought against it. They weren’t involved in it. So what has it got to do with me?

Well that is where the Knight vs Wedderburn case raises some interesting questions.

How was it that a Scottish man, John Wedderburn, had come to own slaves in the first place (incidentally at the time of his return to Scotland he was the wealthiest slave owner in Jamaica)?

If he was doing it, were there other Scots involved?

Why didn’t Scots law extend to Jamaica when it was so clearly under Scottish influence?

But surely it was the British and not the Scots who were guilty of perpetuating the slave trade?
And again, how is this relevant to us today?

In order to answer these questions, let us briefly examine the rise of Scotland’s role in the British slave trade.

Scotland’s Role within The British Slave Trade:

Wreck of last slave ship that ferried 100s of captives from Africa ...

Initially Scotland’s attempt at involvement in the slave trade started with the failed Darien Scheme. In 1698 a group of Scottish colonisers set out to settle in South America with a view to opening up a trade route for the mainland. The expedition went terribly wrong, but by this stage trade meant not only physical goods but also human trafficking. The slave trade had been advanced by the English and other colonial powers throughout the 1600’s and following the act of Union in 1707 Scottish political interests became aligned with England’s and the British Slave trade began in earnest.

With no small role played by Scots, by 1807 ships of the empire had carried over 3.4 million Africans to a life of slavery. Conditions on the ships were horrific, cramped and overcrowded, many did not survive the journey. Those who did were sold all over the Americas and Caribbean. Many would come to work on plantations owned by Scots. Sugar, Tobacco and cotton was all produced for consumption back in Europe, built on the back of the untold suffering of black slaves, these industries would make Scotland and the British Empire ludicrously wealthy.

It is why many Scots like Wedderburn moved out to Jamaica. Even Rabbie Burns, the famous poet, at one stage very nearly took a job as a foreman on a plantation. Indeed, by Wedderburn’s time, Scots controlled 40% of all tobacco imports to Britain and of the 20,000 white people living in Jamaica 10,000 were Scots. Scotland’s population only accounted for a 10th of the UK’s so these figures suggest that Scotland was disproportionately involved in the Slave trade.

Cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow grew richer and the fabulous buildings of the Enlightenment period, such as Glasgow’s Art College and much of Edinburgh’s new town were built with money made from the slave trade.

Joseph Knight may have been protected in Scotland, but in the colonies Scots and English law appeared to see no problem with slavery existing beyond our borders. His case would mean nothing to the millions who were suffering just as he had.

Eventually the slave trade did end. Indeed, many Scots also played a leading role in the Abolition of the Slave trade in 1833. However, this is not as straight forward as it appears. Abolition did mean a legal end to slavery. However, slave owners were not punished, rather they were compensated for their hardship. 15% of all compensation went to Scottish slave owners, this meant that Scots were more likely than any other nationality to gain compensation. Trillions of pounds in today’s money was given as compensation to UK slave owners, and often slaves had to work for free for decades to pay of the debt of their freedom.

Freedom, was in no way free for the freed.

What has it got to with us?

The Melville Monument | Edinburgh World Heritage

So we have answered many of our questions. We can see that Scots were heavily involved and huge beneficiaries of the slave trade. We can see why Wedderburn would have seen no issue with owning another human. We can see why Knight’s case meant very little for any slaves beyond Scottish borders.

But this was 200 years ago? What has it got to do with us? Well, the slave trade was part of a wider British and Scottish colonial project, which affected the entire world and will be dealt with in another article. What is clear is that as part of the UK, Scotland participated in and benefited from the subjugation, colonisation, and exploitation of other countries, cultures and whole continents.

The very streets we walk today are reminders of our slave owning past. The Melville monument in St Andrews square immortalises Henry Dundas, one of Scotland’s most prolific slavers and an important anti-abolition advocate. Buchanan street in Glasgow sees a powerful Slave owner’s name given to the city’s main street. A truth is that the wealth, prosperity and beauty of our favourite spaces was often built on the backs of untold human suffering.   UCL’s Legacies of British Slavery map provides an excellent tool for exploring how wide spread slave ownership was in Scotland. Simply click on the map,, and you will find that slave owners lived near your very home.

This history, uncomfortable as it may be, is not limited to the fact that we are privileged because of past suffering. The Scots, within the UK, played a part in intellectually legitimising the lot of Black People as slaves. Celebrated figures like David Hume, whose statue sits on the royal mile, commented,

“I am apt to suspect the negroes…to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilised nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation. No ingenious manufacturers among them, no arts, no sciences”.

Such ideas were born in Scotland and remain relevant today. Racism is built on a framework of beliefs that see non- white people as inferior. And statistics in the modern UK highlight that these beliefs have not gone away.

Black people in particular are more likely to face institutional discrimination, when applying for jobs, when simply walking down the street, when facing police brutality, and currently are more likely than white people to die of Covid-19.

We hope that this article sheds light on Scotland and Britain’s Slave owning past. It is by no means comprehensive. Should you like to know more please see a list of resources which we used to create the article. We are also aware that some of you may disagree with the presentation of our information. We welcome any challenge but we do ask that it is done on a well-thought through basis, to simply tell us we are wrong with no evidence as to why is not constructive for anyone.

We thank you for sharing in this journey to learn about our countries difficult past with us. We hope that this article provides help in the race to educate and fight against racism.


Reni Eddo Lodge, ‘Why I am No Longer Talking To White People About Race’

T. Divine, ‘Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past’- Where most of our statistics were from.

Akala, ‘Natives’

3 thoughts on “Scotland, Britain and the Atlantic Slave Trade

  1. A good and much-needed “wake up” for Scotland. However, there is a repeated reference to “Scotland and Britain” as if they were different countries After 1707 Scotland was (and remains) a part of Britain. The UK is the United Kingdom of Great Britain (Scotland, England, Wales) and Northern Ireland.
    Interestingly, some Scots were also effectively slaves within Scotland until the 18th century, although not called such.


    1. Hi Rodger,

      Thank you so much for your comments.

      So with regards to the issue of Scotland and Britain, we are in no way implying that Scotland wasn’t and isn’t a part of the United Kingdom. However, as will be more deeply addressed in a future article on amnesia, Scotland’s relationship with the Transatlantic slave trade can be seen as unique and we felt the most effective way to convey this was to highlight Scotland as an entity which wasn’t simply homogenised into the wider UK. We felt that to simply refer to the United Kingdom’s role in the slave trade would allow people to see Scotland’s involvement as a byproduct of a union in which they weren’t key actors (which is not our interpretation from the sources and recent historiography). We also did mention the Act of Union of 1707 and refer to the British Slave trade and Scotland’s role within that.

      Concerning potential arguments for “white slavery” of the Scottish people, this is not an area in which we are well read. We are aware there are arguments for and against both standpoints on the status of some Scots. We are also aware that some Scots and Irish people were sent initially in the 1600’s to work in the colonies (although they were rapidly replaced by enslaved Africans). Yet, this is not the point of this blog, which is responding to the call to learn about our past and how it connects with modern day racism in the UK. So the issue of white slavery, whilst very interesting and valuable to our shared human understanding, is not one which we will be touching on in the weeks to come.

      Thank you so much again for opening up a dialogue on some tricky and fascinating issues,

      Nathan and Niall


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