An Original Piece by Professor Sir Geoff Palmer OBE on “Plaques”

Studies of Scotland’s historical links with British slavery and colonialism have resulted in the production of new plaques.

                                               Historical Plaques: Education works.

                                                       Professor Sir Geoff Palmer

Studies of Scotland’s historical links with British slavery and colonialism have resulted in the production of new plaques. This is an excellent way of using education to decolonise the consequences of an historical period which imposed colonial rule, invented racial differences and legalised the enslavement of African people as chattel, which had to be abolished (1838). The statue of Henry Dundas (1st Viscount Melville) is located at St. Andrew Square, Edinburgh. Although he played a significant political role in the economic enslavement of African people, this long delayed truth (1821 to 2020) was not on his original plaque that was replaced (2020). Four of the plaques with which I have been involved are listed below. Evidence from our history supported the production of these plaques and ensured that invalid attempts to negate and remove the new Henry Dundas’ plaque, failed. We cannot change the past but we can change consequences such as racism for the better using education. This means that our educational system, which includes plaques, can decolonise and facilitated progress in our ‘one humanity’ society.

  1. Glasgow University’s Commemorative Plaque 2018:
    ‘Near this site stood the house of Robert Bogle (d.1821) a wealthy West India merchant and owner of enslaved people. During the 18th and 19th centuries, this University benefited from gifts made by individuals who had profited from slavery. This plaque commemorates the lives of all those who suffered enslavement’.

This plaque is on permanent display in the University Cloisters. I had the great honour of unveiling it. The University has set up educational links with the University of the West Indies, installed scholarships and has named a significant building (cost £90.6m), the James McCune Smith Learning Hub, after its earliest (1837) black African-American medical student.

  • Edinburgh City Council’s New Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, St. Andrew Square, Edinburgh, Plaque 2020:
     ‘At the top of this neoclassical column stands a statue of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville (1742 – 1811). He was the Scottish Lord Advocate, an MP for Edinburgh and Midlothian, and the First Lord of the Admiralty. Dundas was a contentious figure, provoking controversies that resonate to this day. While Home Secretary in 1792, and the first Secretary of State for War in 1796, he was instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Slave trading by British ships was not abolished until 1807.

As a result of this delay, more than half a million enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic. Dundas also curbed democratic dissent in Scotland and both defended and expanded the British Empire, imposing colonial rule on indigenous peoples. He was impeached in the United Kingdom for misappropriation of public money and, although acquitted, he never held office again. Despite this, the monument before you was funded by voluntary contributions from British naval officers, petty officers, seamen and marines and was erected in 1821, with the statue placed on top in 1827.

In 2020 this plaque was dedicated to the memory of the more than half a million Africans whose enslavement was a consequence of Henry Dundas’ actions’.

As the plaque says, Dundas delayed the abolition of the slave trade for 15 years and imposed colonial rule on indigenous people. His delay was ‘indefinite’, negating unsubstantiated claims that he was ‘abolitionist’. He was President of the Board of Control of the East India Company from 1793- 1801. He was paid as President and received a pension. During this period Dundas’ colonial control was referred to as “pillage and patronage”.  

  • Royal Bank of Scotland New John Hope, 4th Earl of Hopetoun (1765 – 1823), St. Andrew Square, Edinburgh, Plaque 2020:
     ‘This statue, by the Scottish sculptor Thomas Campbell (1790 – 1858) was commissioned in 1824 by public subscription from the citizens of Edinburgh. Hopetoun was a member of Parliament and a career soldier. He was considered a hero of the Napoleonic Wars.

The commissioning committee intended to put the statue in Charlotte Square, but struggled to secure agreement for a site. Eventually, in 1831, they persuaded the Royal Bank of Scotland to allow it to be installed here on the forecourt of its head office. Hopetoun had a connection with the bank, having served as its governor, 1820 -23. The statue was unveiled in August 1834 and has remained here ever since.

As a soldier, Hopetoun was directly involved in upholding the British Empire, which in his time was entrenched in slavery. He also had family ties to the exploitation of enslaved people in the West Indies. His sister Jane was married to Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville, whose monument still overlooks St. Andrew Square today. His wife, Louisa, was a daughter of John Wedderburn, one of Jamaica’s biggest slave plantation owners’.

Dundas remarried into the Hopetoun family. The Earl of Hopetoun soldiered under Dundas’ political instructions. The Hopetoun family supported Dundas during his impeachment trial (1806) and promoted the installation of his statue (1821-1827).

  • Court of Session commemoration of Joseph Knight’s freedom from ‘perpetual servitude’, Edinburgh, Plaque 2022: ‘On this site, on 15 January 1778, in the case of Joseph Knight v John Wedderburn, the Court of Session upheld the judgement of the Sheriff at Perth that “The state of Slavery in not recognised by the Laws of this Kingdom and is inconsistent with the principles thereof”.

The Court by a majority of ten to four, found in favour of Joseph Knight’s freedom’.

The Lord President, Lord Carloway gave an enlightening speech encouraging better understanding of this history at the unveiling of the plaque, which was a great honour for me to perform. Henry Dundas MP, Lord Advocate, and Sir John Wedderburn, for whom Knight worked as a servant not as a slave, were involved in this case. This plaque also clarifies that although Britain enslaved African people legally in the West Indies, there were no legally held slaves in Scotland or Britain. Therefore, the judgement of this case did not abolish slavery in Scotland. Dundas’ support for Knight in this case (1778), has been used to try and ‘excuse’ his enslavement of thousands of African people later in 1792 (see 2). However, historically, it has been ignored that in this case Dundas said that by law in Jamaica…every black man is “doomed” to slavery. Such wrongs of the past cannot be ‘balanced’ and slaveries must be defined. Fourteen judges were involved in this case, not twelve as stated generally in publications.

Historical objects of the built environment such as statues should not be removed. In terms of the causes and consequences of our history, if you remove the evidence, you remove the deed and the opportunity to educate and conserve our historical environment. I am from Jamaica, an ex-British colony, where my ancestors were enslaved. I was pleased to be involved in the preparation of these reparative plaques which contribute to decolonisation and a better society.

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