By Jocelyn Rendall
Following on from Virginia Schroder’s article on Orkney and Slavery, readers may be interested in some more information about Orkney’s involvement in slave-worked sugar plantations in the West Indies.
Letters in the Orkney Archives from the brothers Hugh and Robert Mowat to their father (merchant Hugh Mowat) and mother in Kirkwall shed some light on their life in Grenada and St Vincent in the mid 1770s and ‘80s. The boys were sent to these islands when they were 16, in the hope they would earn enough money to help the family at home, struggling with Orkney’s perennial problem of crop failures and chronic food shortage. They started work on the bottom rung of the planter ladder as clerks and junior overseers, but life was far from easy. In 1779 both islands were captured by the French and there were fears that the British population would be shipped to France as POWs. The war with America had made imported food and clothing so expensive that they could hardly make ends meet.
Salarys are so very low and provisions and clothing so very extravagant that a person can save little or nothing out of so small a salary as mine.
The terrible hurricane of 1780 damaged the sugar crops so badly that they thought they would be lucky to be kept in employment, let alone to get an increase in their salaries. However their greatest regret was that they were unable to help their families at home:
all I lament is that it is not in my power to give you and your family the assistance I would wish to do was it otherwise with me
wrote Hugh to his mother. Robert, like so many other Europeans in the Caribbean, was desperately ill most of the time he was in St Vincent. He managed to get back to Orkney in 1781, penniless and in broken health. He died a few months later, aged 21.
Robert’s story was typical. Certainly, a few Orcadians, like Malcolm and James Laing, came home with fortunes but their careers were built on the colossal gamble that they would live long enough to enjoy their wealth. Three of James’ brothers died in the West Indies as very young men.
The Mowats’ letters are as uncommunicative as those of most teenage boys to their parents. They tell us almost nothing about what they actually Do as an ‘Overseer in the Planting way’. I do not think that they are avoiding discussing the ethical issues of slavery out of guilt or a wish to cover them up, but because it has not occurred to them that they are issues. In much the same way as family letters from sons in the oil business today are unlikely to launch into the environmental issues of oil exploitation.
Of course we are horrified that Orcadians grew rich on slavery, and the folks at home were seemingly oblivious of the human cost of the sugar they stirred into their tea, but we can be absolutely certain that in 250 years time our descendants will be astonished and horrified that we enriched ourselves by blandly accepting colossal damage to the environment and therefore the livelihoods or even the survival of people in poorer parts of the world, and unjust trade deals which ensure that we benefit from cheap food while its producers do not receive a living wage. We could see today’s equivalent of slave-owners as the big corporations like Shell or Nestle. The latter, for example, despite making profits of $10 billion last year, has cancelled contracts to pay a fair-trade price for the cocoa and sugar that goes into their Kit-Kats and thousands of poor farmers will be even poorer as a result. We are back at the cost of sugar. If we are going to mount our moral high horses over the deeds of our 18th-century predecessors, we should be prepared to carry mirrors with us.
 Letter from Hugh Mowat, Beaulieu Estate, Grenada to Barbara Mowat, Kirkwall 26/5/1781, OLA D3/345
 Letter from Hugh Mowat, Beaulieu Estate, Grenada to Barbara Mowat, Kirkwall 3/2/1783, OLA D3/345
 Letter from Robert Mowat, Glasgow to Hugh Mowat, Kirkwall 29/7/1781, OLA D3/345
- Orkney and the West African connection
- The Harray men who went for gold
- Orkney and Slavery–‘I have at present 36 negroes, besides stock…’
” in 250 years time our descendants will be astonished and horrified that we enriched ourselves by blandly accepting colossal damage to the environment and therefore the livelihoods or even the survival of people in poorer parts of the world, and unjust trade deals which ensure that we benefit from cheap food while its producers do not receive a living wage.”
Exactly – times change – we don’t – unfortunately.