THE NEWS that my old alma mater, the University of Glasgow, is to give £30 million to the University of the West Indies in compensation for the donations made to it in the past by slaveholders struck me as as a suitable gesture if somewhat woke. However, it did make me reflect on the fact that we Scots are blissfully unaware of another damning aspect of our
Involvement in slavery, namely the enslavement during the seventeenth and eighteenth century of large numbers of our own people, with the enthusiastic approval of our respectable and educated classes.
Some of these slaves survived to give evidence to the Children’s Employment Commission in 1842 and in the Appendix to its first report on mines, can be found the testimony, particularly of those employed as colliers by the Laird of Prestongrange. It transpired that they were ‘liable to be let or sold with their owner’s colliery, unable to stir from it without his written license and capable of being recovered by him from any employment to which they had deserted, even from the Royal Navy if they had enlisted in that service, how for faults real and supposed they could be imprisoned by him without any reason being given, or chained to a wall with an iron collar or fastened to the gin with their face to the horse and their hands tied behind them and forced to run backwards all day in that position, and how people of that class were so despised and detested by the neighbours among whom they dwelt that they were not suffered—in Fife at least— to be buried beside the free in consecrated ground.’
This slavery which was imposed particularly on coalmines and saltpans was the result of the social legislation of the period immediately after the Scottish Reformation (The First Book of Discipline prepared by John Knox and adopted by the Kirk included the principle ‘beggars must be compelled to work’.). That legislation contained two remarkable series of enactments: the first deprived all the hired labourers of Scotland, section after section, of the right of free movement to better their conditions; the second made all the unhired—not merely beggars or gypsies—but also the inoffensive unemployed, those merely temporarily out of service, liable to be cast into perpetual or prolonged slavery to such private employers who were pleased to have them and conferred successively on all employers of almost every class the power of apprehending such idle persons and keeping them thereafter in compulsory servitude either for life or for a considerable time. Slavery to a private owner was the Scotch Poor Law remedy for the able bodied. Orphans and the children of the poor were later made liable to slavery till the age of thirty. If possible these laws would have enslaved the whole industrial population of Scotland if only they had been enforceable. The trouble was that not all employers wanted or needed such unruly and expensive slaves. But the Scottish mind thought for two centuries that slavery was the answer to vagabondage and to the encouragement of industry. Thus that great Scottish scholar and patriot, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, a noble champion of liberty whose works were read in France and the colonies, after estimating in 1698 that 200,000 beggars were wandering wild over Scotland, wrote that the rest of the population should be compelled to take their right proportion (depending on their wealth) of these beggars as slaves. So he added compulsory slave-owning to compulsory slavery.
Scottish social reformers long persisted in their belief in slavery. Francis Hutcheson, for example in his System of Moral Philosophy (vol. 2, p. 201) wrote ‘no law could be more effectual to promote a general industry and restrain sloth and idleness in the lower conditions than making perpetual slavery of this sort the ordinary punishment of such idle vagrants as, after proper admonition and a temporary servitude, cannot be engaged to support themselves and their families by any useful labour .’ He, note, was a moderate. Slavery would only be imposed if a seven year period of servitude had not proved sufficient to reform such delinquents. Criminals and debtors however deserved slavery. Indeed, enslaved criminals commonly had brass, copper or iron collars put around their necks.
It should be pointed out that this slavery was not serfdom. Feudal serfs were born into serfdom. And serfdom was abolished in Scotland at the latest by the end of the fifteenth century. No, this slavery was imposed by respectable God-fearing Scots on the idle in a series of Acts from the start of the seventeenth century which extended the system further and further. An Act of Charles II of 1649 for example gave every British subject the right to capture a tramp in Scotland and keep him as his slave or sell him on to another master. One commentator writing on the subject in 1899 declared: ‘It is impossible to read this remarkable law in any other sense than as establishing a slave trade in Scottish vagabonds and throwing it open to the whole inhabitants of the empire. The slavery allowed was unlimited in duration.’
Nor was it less cruel than slavery elsewhere. Here is an extract from c100 of an Act of 1641: ‘That all masterfull and strong beggars found after the twentieth day of August next may be taken by any any man and being brought to any sherif, bailye or regalite or burgh, and getting them declairet masterfull beggars, may set his burning irne upon thame as slaves and gif any of thame after escape the owner may have repitition of thame as of other gudes.’ The slavery contemplated was manifestly perpetual and the Act was one to which thirteen Protestant prelates were privy.
By the mid-seventeenth century therefore Scottish employers were in a position if they wanted to, to staff their works with slave labour.
The system ended probably less due to enlightenment than the onset of the Industrial Revolution which created its own huge demand for free labour.
What then are the implications of this story for the woke inhabitants of modern Scotland? Slavery, it should be remembered, was universal and considered perfectly natural everywhere till the end of the eighteenth century. African slaves were enslaved by fellow Africans before being sold to white traders. The Arab slave trade in Africa was just as big. Meanwhile respectable Scots were enslaving their own unemployed and vagrants, orphans and the children of the poor. There was a law establishing poorhouses but it mostly remained a dead letter. The Scottish respectable classes were fixated on slavery. I think the story needs telling. Perhaps a monument should be erected? A museum founded? In any case we Scots should know our own history before becoming too obsessed with the history of others. And as for priding ourselves on our unique sense of democracy? Forget it. We have a great deal to live down.