The Hidden Man – Black History in Scotland

Sitting in Glasgow’s People’s Palace is a family portrait of tobacco merchant John Glassford, synonymous with the slave trade in Glasgow. Painted by Archibald McLauchlan, the portrait had a hidden secret, a legend that was finally confirmed in 2007 when Glasgow Museums carried out conservation treatment to reveal a Black enslaved man in the back left corner.

Image: McLauchlan, Archibald; John Glassford (1715-1783), and His Family
Image Credit: Glasgow Museums Collection CC BY-NC-ND

As if ‘owning a slave’ was originally seen as a positive thing, this seems like a perfect example of trying to hide Scotland and Britain’s past links to the slave trade.

This is not ‘obscure’ history. This is just history that someone like myself, who grew up in a predominantly white Scottish area, did not learn as a youngster. I remember in school learning some information about the American Civil war, and watching Roots. I did some South African history also, but that is about it. What about Black experience in Scotland, or experience caused by those in Scotland and Britain? I studied a bit more at university, with a focus on empires, but there was still so much to have to find and research. Social history, for me, is extremely important, and finding experiences of Black people, and other people of colour, is often hard due to the ‘white-washing’ of history, and the lack of primary sources.

Enslaved people were in British middle- and upper-class homes like John Glassford’s, and you can find examples in sources like this painting, and embroidery. Scotland made a huge amount of money off the back of things like transatlantic slavery, but it is not made clear unless you research it specifically. The Black Lives Matter movement has become more prominent in recent months, so there is more talk, but there is still so much to learn and do. Ordinary people in Scotland benefited from the slave trade, not just elites and names like those of Glassford, or Dundas in Edinburgh, and looking at the whole of Scotland rather than just individuals is important to remember also.

Some may know of the case of Joseph Knight, but what about other less talked about experiences, and names of enslaved peoples in Scotland (like the man in the Glassford painting)? There are adverts from this time that give us some indication of names, but these names were also probably anglicised. Adverts like those slave owners took out to find their ‘runaways’ or to sell their enslaved – the Runaway Slaves in Britain project gives us some examples from Scotland as well as other places in Britain.

The fantastic short film 1745, BIFA and BAFTA nominated in 2017, sheds some light on this more hidden part of history in Scotland, when it made a lot of money off the back of the slave trade.

1745 – An Untold Story of Slavery from Moyo Akande on Vimeo.

This film, like the Runaway Slaves project, gives a little more indication of experiences of Black enslaved people in Scotland.

While researching, I came to know that in the 1740s even the original Edinburgh Royal Infirmary was bequeathed a 128-acre plantation with 49 enslaved people, as well as being donated £500 from Jamaican slaveholders.

From before the time of the transatlantic slave trade, there is evidence not only of Black people in Scotland, but close to the royals as well as the obvious racist thoughts of those around.

The famous Scottish poet William Dunbar wrote the poem Of Ane Blak-Moir (My ladye with the mekle lippis) – copy of poem can be found on this site.

Written during the 16th century, William Dunbar’s poem talks about a woman baptised as Elen More, who took part in royal tournaments in King James IV’s court, which William Dunbar based his writings on. As Minjie Su notes, Dunbar’s poem shows Black people were “but a novelty, objects to be put on display so the court may have an extra exotic flair”, but their existence was important.

Karl Steel, who teaches at Brooklyn College, writes an article about teaching this poem, and its association with the recent coined term misogynoir.

I could talk about more examples, and there are many more that can be looked out, but my main reason for writing this post is to find out myself what representation there was, to show that Scotland played a huge part in slavery, even at home, and that Black people existed on our shores. And I hope that this at least inspired others to also look at more that has generally been ‘white-washed’ by colonial Britain. I hear a lot of people say “well, that’s what it was like back then I suppose”, but do not like to talk about issues thoroughly, or have in depth knowledge. By no means am I saying I do, but I find phrases like this extremely unhelpful. But the John Glassford portrait shows that the existence of many Black people were “painted over”.

As a white person, who will very likely have ancestors involved in the slave trade in one way or another, and as a historical based blog I thought it important to just bring forward some information and resources I have found – I know I have so much to learn. As Karl Steel noted in his article on Dunbar’s poem, looking at this requires decentring yourself from the conversation, and therefore unlearning some of what we may have been taught through a whitewashed British system, and relearning and learning some other parts of colonial history. Seeing some of the experiences of the enslaved and other Black and people of colour within Scotland and Britain, as part of a path to continued anti-racism.

Other history resources I have found useful:

Non-historical resources – Anti-Racism Act Now

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