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Scotland’s Black History

As Black History Month draws to a close it is worthwhile reflecting on some of the excellent presentations and events which have taken place.

Two online events I was able to view were hosted by Aberdeen University involving collaboration with Glasgow University.

The tale of Two Kings related the stories of Thomas King, slave and church missionary, and one of his sons, Nathaniel King, Aberdeen’s first African born graduate. In another talk we heard about the multi racial citizens of Edinburgh and of Charles Heddle, The Merchant Prince.

The Two Kings

Thomas King was a liberated slave one of 100,000 Africans freed and who were disembarked on the shores of Sierra Leone. The freed slaves had limited freedom and many were conscripted to serve in the military. Thomas King became a missionary and even eventually managed to find and meet his mother. This was not possible for most freed slaves.

Thomas King was an extraordinary man and his son, Nathaniel, born in 1847 was able to be educated at Kings College London and then Aberdeen University. His fees were jointly paid by Henry Robin, a wealthy trader and the mission. Little is known of Nathaniel’s time at Aberdeen but he graduated with a medical degree.

Nathaniel returned to Lagos and was a doctor there. He is known to have treated Africans who could not afford to pay medical fees. His contribution to his community was recorded in a memorial window in the Christ Church, Lagos. Unfortunately the building was hit by a lightning strike in 1937 and there is now no surviving memorial in Lagos to him .

It was said of Nathaniel ‘He belonged to no tribe. He was an African‘ (Eagle and Lagos Critic 12 Sept 1885).

Nathaniel died in 1884 aged only 36 during a smallpox epidemic.

Empire, Abolition and Aberdeen – The Two kings, was presented by Dr Richard Anderson.

18th and 19th Century Edinburgh

Lisa Williams introduced us to Caribbean residents of 18th and 19th century Edinburgh. These were both enslaved and free people. If you think only the wealth of Glasgow resulted from the proceeds of slavery and those who worked the plantations then think again. No part of Scotland is exempt from those links.

This quick spin through some of the people of Caribbean heritage who lived in Scotland’s capital city all those centuries ago was fascinating. We know so little of our history.

George Dale born in Nago, West Africa, was brought to Scotland by his former enslaver and ended up destitute in Edinburgh. He wrote an account of slavery in 1790. You can read more about George Dale here: The History of George Dale, a native of Africa, 1790

Robert Wedderburn was born a freeman in Jamaica in 1762. He developed into an impassioned speaker and was part of the radical movement. He published ‘The Horrors of Slavery’ in 1824 and was co-leader of the Spencean Society. He was arrested for sedition. You can read more about him here: Robert Wedderburn

William Davidson, mixed race son of Jamaica’s Attorney General was educated in Edinburgh. He was executed in 1820 for his part in the Cato St Conspiracy. You can read about him here: William Davidson

John Edmonstone was enslaved in Guyana. He arrived in Scotland in 1817 and as a freeman in Edinburgh eventually taught taxidermy at Edinburgh University. It is said that he taught the young Charles Darwin the necessary skills he would need to bring back specimens on his Beagle expedition. John Edmonstone: the man who taught Darwin taxidermy

Esther Athill Anderson was born a free woman in Antigua in 1784. Her father was James Athill, the Chief Justice. She came to Scotland and married the Rev Christopher Anderson. Sadly she died in 1824 of consumption. You can read about her here: Esther’s Story

The grave of Malvina Wells born in Grenada in 1805 can be found in Edinburgh with the Scottish family she worked for.

Malvina died on 22 April 1887, aged 82 years old at 14 Gloucester Place, the Macrae family home. Voices from our Archives

credit: Margaret Ferguson Burns, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

There were several black women who married into the Edinburgh elite:

  • Elizabeth Shaw
  • Frances McLeod
  • Mary Fraser
  • Elizabeth Lindsay Palmer

Celestine Edwards, born in Dominica was Britain’s first Black editor. He was a speaker,author and anti racist campaigner.

Jean Baptiste Philipe born in Trinidad graduated from Edinburgh University with a medical degree in 1815.

Derwent Hutton Ryder Waldron born in Jamaica also graduated in medicine from Edinburgh University in 1879

William Fergusson another Edinburgh University medical graduate (1813) became the only Black governor of Sierra Leone

Arthur Hutton McShine, yet another Edinburgh graduate, was Trinidad and Tobago’s first qualified specialist eye surgeon and consultant.

The extraordinary story of Charles Heddle is worthy of a mini series. His father was an Orcadian doctor, John Heddle. His mother was a Wolof signaré from the island of Gorée off the coast of Senegal. Charles Heddle made a huge fortune in trade – mainly in palm oil, a valuable commodity which literally kept the machinery of the Empire turning. Charles had been educated at Dollar Academy and in London. He eventually retired to a chateau in France a very wealthy man. Orkney and the West African connection

This presentation was given by Richard Anderson, University of Aberdeen, and Christine Whyte, University of Glasgow.

This was merely a quick dip into the fascinating contribution made by Black men and women, many of whom have been completely missed out of the history we read and experience. They have also been erased from our interpretation of 18th and 19th century Scottish society. Period TV shows and films are mostly ‘White’ affairs. That needs to change.

Black History Month in 2020, having to go online, has increased its accessibility and introduced a much greater audience to the contribution made by individuals many of whom were born into slavery. Let’s hope it has inspired many researchers, writers and students to look further into their stories.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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