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Hidden Histories: Scotland, Slavery and Joseph Knight

In Scotland we don't learn much about our history as a slave trading nation. What most Scots remember from what we learned about the slave trade in school is a simplified and questionable version of history. This goes back to years of historiography which left out perspectives and contributions of people of colour.

In my school experience, I was taught about the triangular trade, with emphasis on the horrors of the middle passage. I learned that slaves were taken from the West African coast to the Americas to work on sugar and tobacco plantations, at some point William Wilberforce came along and campaigned to abolish the trade. Then years later in the 1960s there was a civil rights movement in America which made racism go away.

The abolition movement was whitewashed, even as it happened and for years after. Only until the 1970s when new historians began to challenge these narratives, did things start to change. Even now, so few people know about the black presence in Britain, especially in Scotland and there tends to be the general belief that slavery and racism was much worse in England. Amongst many Scots is a pride that our country is not as racist as England and that people of colour have (and had) it better here. For some Brits it is comforting to learn that we were one of the first nations to abolish the slave trade and that many Britons supported campaigns for abolition. But this allows people to ignore that we were also a key slave trading nation that contributed to and enforced racist theories and attitudes that were used to expand and support the British Empire for years after the slave trade was abolished in 1807.

Scotland and England have separate legal systems and owning slaves on Scottish soil was outlawed before the the slave trade was for the whole of the United Kingdom. This is, at least in part, because of Joseph Knight. Joseph Knight was taken to Jamaica from West Africa at the age of 13 where he was bought by John Wedderburn, a Scot, and brought to Ballindean, near Dundee, in 1768. Jamaica was a British colony, and a new home to many Scots hoping to profit from trades that used slave labour, particularly sugar. Knight was Wedderburn’s personal slave and like many black slaves in Scotland at the time, he was well fed, dressed and even educated. This was often the case for slaves that were brought to Britain; they were evidence of the wealth and status of their owners, and were treated in most cases like accessories.

Knight was isolated as the one of the few black people in Scotland at the time, stripped of his identity, freedom and family in Africa and was expected to serve his master for life for free with no prospect of freedom or independence. He was also at risk of being resold and sent back to Jamaica - where the living conditions were more brutal and dangerous.

Joseph Knight was to change the law on slavery in Scotland, after hearing of similar cases in England, Knight challenged his owner by leaving his service. Knight had started a relationship with Annie Thomson, a chambermaid who worked at Wedderburn’s home, and the couple were married. Knight wanted to leave Wedderburn’s service to find work and get a home in Dundee with his wife, but Wedderburn refused Knight’s requests and dismissed Thomson from his service. He disapproved of the relationship with Thomson, probably due to her social class and background. This disagreement between master and slave began a lengthy legal battle that was eventually brought to twelve Lords of the Court of Session - Scotland’s supreme court. In 1778, after four years of legal processes and appeals, eight of the twelve Lords made their landmark ruling in support of Joseph Knight, and in doing so ended legal slavery in Scotland. This meant that in 1778 it became illegal to own a slave on Scottish soil. It meant that any slave in Scotland was free to leave their master’s service. This, however, had had no bearing on the colonies, so masters were free to keep slaves as long as it was not on Scottish soil. While the ruling meant little for the hundreds of thousands of slaves suffering in the colonies, it was a small step towards meaningful change and abolition.

After his legal victory we know nothing else of his life with Annie Thomson as a free man, although his life did inspire the eponymous historical novel by James Robertson.

Before Joseph Knight’s case were two similar involving slaves brought to Scotland from the colonies by their masters. In both cases: Montgomery v Sheddan (1756) and Spens v Dalrymple (1768), masters were threatening their slaves with return to the colonies. Slaves in Scotland who rebelled against their masters did so at great personal risk and their rebellion would have taken courage and strength. The short film, 1745: an Untold Story about Slavery, brings to the screen the struggles faced by enslaved women in Scotland, and the graphic novel Freedom Bound:Escaping Slavery in Scotland captures similar counter-narratives on paper.

The slave trade spanned hundreds of years and involved millions of human beings around the world. Understanding the scale of the trade can make it difficult to highlight the individual suffering of each slave. We rarely learn their stories, which is why it is so important to highlight them where we can. Especially in Scotland, we need to learn about the slaves who lived here and understand that a lot of Scots benefitted from the trade.

Joseph Knight is just one example of many people of colour in Britain who made a huge impact in our country, but have been left out of mainstream history. We need to challenge the way British history is taught in schools and ensure that the narratives in history that ignore perspectives and stories of people of colour don’t go unquestioned.

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