Missing faces: Jackie Kay on Scotland’s involvement in the British slave trade

Jackie Kay, Scottish Poet Laureate and author of The Lamplighter, on why it is time for Scotland to face up to its dark past.

Poet and author Jackie Kay thought she knew all she needed to know about the British slave trade, but she soon realised she was wrong. When she began researching this dark period of history she realised how deeply the country she was born in, and the city she loved, were involved in the British slave trade. Her research, and the shocking original testimonies she read, inspired her to write her play The Lamplighter. Produced both as a radio and a stage play, The Lamplighter takes us on a journey through the dark heart of slavery, focusing on parts of history other books rarely touch upon and revealing the devastating human cost of the transatlantic slave trade. Here, she calls on Scotland to acknowledge the parts of its history that are so often forgotten.

We’re perhaps over-fond of dates, of going around in circles of a hundred years to mark the birth of, or the death of; trying to grasp, as we all get older, what time means, and particularly in these Covid-19 days and nights when we feel vulnerable, when we feel mortal. Anniversaries give us the perfect excuse to try and catch up on what we already should have caught up on. Anniversaries afford us a big noisy opportunity to try and remember what we should not have forgotten. But all of us who have ever loved know that it does not take an anniversary of a death to remember our dead. And all of us who have ever loved know that the dead have a way of staying around; as long as we are still here loving and remembering, then in a sense they are too.

We often distance ourselves from the people who once were slaves, as if they didn’t have mothers and fathers, as if they never became mothers and fathers themselves. But for those who are descended from slaves, these men and women are ancestors, great, great, greats . . . They are the long and the lost family. 

Slavery is one of those subjects that we all think we know about. People repeat, like a litany, facts they think they know. Men were shipped, packed like sardines, as in the famous Brookes slave-ship drawing, commissioned by Thomas Clarkson, the abolitionist. The Africans sold their own people – this gets mentioned so often, as if the reiteration of African complicity diminishes responsibility. But what spirit, eh, the African people? Mind you, there’s always been slavery, the ancient Romans were at it, and so on and so on. We are closed off to any more detail about slavery; we don’t want to know. We don’t want to imagine how slavery would affect each of the five senses. Too much information about the actual experience of it fills most ordinary people, black and white, with revulsion, distaste, or worse, induces boredom. We seem to think we’ve heard it all before.

When the BBC radio producer Pam Fraser Solomon first asked me to write something to mark the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of slavery in 2007, I replied that I thought enough had been written about slavery, and that I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a black writer. Black writers are often expected to write about slavery and race. I also thought I knew a lot about the period, and had written the odd poem.

I had a long conversation with Pam and she persuaded me that I was wrong. I realised that the past was not past, as Faulkner had it, and that many of the inequalities and divisions in our society today were the direct result of the slave trade. I felt fired up then by a moral imperative: there can be no such thing as too many stories about slavery. I took Toni Morrison as my guide in realising there was more future in the past than there was in the future. 

Months later, having immersed myself in original accounts and research, I realised how ignorant I was. The Lamplighter emerged out of these shocking original testimonies, and focuses on the lives of four women – Black Harriot, Constance, Mary and the Lamplighter – during hundreds of years of enslavement. As I wrote it I felt as if I was writing a love letter to my ancestors. I emerged from the experience wondering how I would write about anything else.

Most British people think of slavery as something that happened in America and perhaps the Caribbean. They know vaguely about boats, Bristol, Liverpool, and something about sugar maybe, but not that Britain was the main slave-trading nation. Nor do they know details of what that meant, for example that two days before a slave ship docked it could be smelt, the putrescence of blood, faeces, vomit and rotting bodies carried downwind into the port.

Being African and Scottish, I had taken comfort in the notion that Scotland was not nearly as implicated in the horrors of the slave trade as England. Scotland’s self-image is one of a hard-done-to wee nation, yet bonny and blithe. I once heard a Scottish woman proudly say: ‘We don’t have racism up here, that’s an English thing, that’s down south.’ Scotland is a canny nation when it comes to remembering and forgetting. The plantation owner is never wearing a kilt.

It was a not so delicious irony that the anniversary, the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery, was also the tricentenary of the union between Scotland and England, a union which allowed Scotland to profit from the slave trade in a big way, and changed the face of Glasgow in particular. When Bishop Pococke visited Glasgow in 1760, he remarked that ‘the city has above all others felt the advantages of the union in the West Indian trade which is very great, especially in tobacco, indigoes and sugar’.

I belong to Glasgow, dear old Glasgow town, but, alas, there is something the matter with Glasgow that’s going around and round. Glasgow does not readily admit its history in the way that other cities in the United Kingdom have done — Bristol, Liverpool, London. Other cities now hold major events to commemorate the abolition. What’s happening in Glasgow? —in the Gallery of Modern Art, for instance, which was originally built in 1778 as Cunninghame Mansion, the splendid townhouse of William Cunninghame, a tobacco baron? Or in Buchanan Street, the great shopping street, named after Andrew Buchanan, another tobacco lord, or in Jamaica Street, Tobago Street, the Kingston Bridge? There has been some belated progress. There is a move afoot at last to have a Scottish Slave Museum, and we have also seen Glasgow University’s pioneering decision to start making repayments to the University of the West Indies. Many people in Scotland involved in these ventures will comment on the fact that Scotland has been slow to acknowledge its legacy, and slow to teach its children about why Jamaica Street is Jamaica Street and why every second place name in Jamaica comes from a Scottish place name. 

At school, I was taught about the industrial revolution, but not about the slave trade which financed and powered it. I was taught about the suffragettes, but not about the women abolitionists who came before them, and who went on to become them. I am thinking here of Jane Smeal, who set up the Glasgow Ladies Emancipation Society in the 1830s. Or, of how as early as 1792, around thirteen thousand Glasgow residents put their name to a petition to abolish slavery. I never learnt, for instance, that the movement to end slavery in the British Empire in the eighteenth century is probably the first human rights campaign in history.

What else? I was taught about James Watt’s steam engine. In Balmuildy Primary School, I was in the house group Watt (we had four house groups: Baird, Carnegie, Fleming and Watt). I was proud of Watt’s steam engine, but I was not taught that money from a slave trader financed his invention. I was taught my times tables the old-fashioned way by rote, but was not taught about the triangular slave trade, the three-legged journey British slave traders undertook.

At school, I learnt that Glasgow was a great merchant city. I learnt about the shipping industry, but not about the slave ship Neptune that arrived in Carlisle Bay, Barbados, on 22 May 1731, after leaving Port Glasgow months earlier, carrying a hundred and forty-four enslaved Africans, half of whom were children. When they arrived, they were ‘polished‘⁠— meaning a layer of skin was removed with fierce scrubbing ⁠— and a wadding rammed up the rectum of those who had dysentery, and then put up for sale.

I learnt about the French revolution, the Russian revolution, but not about the Demerara rebellions, the St Kitts uprising. I learnt about clans and clan names and kilts and the differing tartans and the Highland clearances, but not that in Jamaica in 1770 there were a hundred African people called MacDonald, or that a quarter of the island’s people were Scottish. There was a network of Argyll Campbells at least a hundred strong in Jamaica too, concentrated on the west of the island, where the place names were nostalgic: Argyle, Glen Islay.

Yet Scotland never acknowledges the existence of the Scottish plantation owner, who was often as cruel as his English or American counterpart. It almost seems anti-Scottish to imagine all those MacDonalds out there in Jamaica stuffing their faces on mutton broth, roast mutton, stewed mudfish, roast goose and paw-paw, stewed giblets, fine lettuce, crabs, cheese and mush melon. Or knocking back punch, porter, ale, cider, Madeira wine and brandy – this from a true account of a plantation owner’s meal in 1775 – while the enslaved Africans got whipped for sucking a sugar cane.

Remember Roots? I remember running home from school, excited, on the night it was on television. Remember the characters – Chicken George, Kunta Kinte, Cassie? It was the first time that I remember seeing black people, a whole lot of black people, on television. Before Roots, I had to make do with a nurse in Angels and Trevor McDonald. And, perhaps, during Wimbledon, Evonne Goolagong.

Recently, I went to Manchester’s Cornerhouse to watch BBC Black Archives footage of early interviews with Sir Learie Constantine, the cricketer, from 1966. It struck me how unusual it still is to see black people, even from that near-past, captured on screen. Constantine was talking about how black people have been taught to forget Africa, how black people are uncomfortable remembering. Then there was footage of a beautiful black woman in 1958 smoking a cigarette and talking very articulately about independence in Barbados. It made me wonder where she’d been, why I hadn’t seen more of her face. I missed her.

Marking the abolition is also marking the missing faces: the people buried at sea, the deaths in the tobacco and sugar fields. It’s a common misperception that 25 March is about ‘celebrating’ the abolition of slavery. It isn’t. It marks the passing of the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act through the British parliament and the abolition of the slave trade. Slavery itself wasn’t abolished by this country until 1838.

Imagine waiting a further thirty-one years, after most decent people had decided that the slave trade was intolerable. Here’s Pitt’s speech to the House of Commons, way back on 2 April 1792: ‘We may now consider that this trade as having received its condemnation; that its sentence is sealed; that this curse of mankind is seen by the House in its true light; and that the greatest stigma on our national character which ever yet existed is about to be removed.’

If someone asks me to write something to mark the abolition of slavery in 2038, I’ll be seventy-six. Imagine the frustration of being an enslaved African in 1807, knowing the trade was supposed to have stopped because people in Britain had decided it was evil, and still being subjected to endless beatings and whippings, and still not getting a sniff of free air for another thirty-one years.

It’s time that Scotland included the history of the plantations alongside the history of the Highland clearances. A people being cleared off their land, and taken from the Slave Coast, the Ivory Coast, the Guinea Coast to a new land. Forced to board a ship and taken on a nightmare journey from Hell.

One third of African people did not survive their journey in ships where they were packed more tightly than in a coffin. One African woman in three did not survive the first three years in her new country. The death toll is inconceivable, a great black missing population thrown to the sharks at sea. They said the sharks followed the slave ships for the pickings. John Newton, a slave-ship captain, better known for writing ‘Amazing Grace‘, wrote a log of the deaths: ‘Captain’s Log, 23 May 1709: Buryed a man slave No 84, Wednesday 29 May. Buryed a boy slave No 86 of a flux. Buryed a woman slave no 47 . . .’

We don’t like to think about that, or the children who were sold in British pubs and inns and coffee houses, in London, Bristol, Liverpool. Or the Church’s complicity: on a Sabbath day, at the door of every church and chapel, the proclamation was put up by the parish clerk or reader of the church requiring all runaway slaves to surrender themselves immediately after divine worship. In Liverpool, 1756, there was an auction at Merchants’ Coffee House for eighty-three pairs of shackles, eleven slave collars, twenty-two pairs of handcuffs, four long chains, thirty-four rings and two travelling chains. Travelling chains?

After we had finished recording the production of The Lamplighter, we sat around talking about the complex business of what we remember and what we forget. Pam Fraser Solomon said that her great-grandmother, whose mother had been born enslaved, often had an enigmatic expression on her face. She’d say: ‘I’m just listening to where the breeze is coming from.’ I thought of all the silences ⁠– the silences from African people who do not want their children to hear about slavery, and from white people who do not want to discuss the family tree with its roots in a plantation in the Caribbean.

The history of the slave trade is not ‘black history’ to be shoved into a ghetto and forgotten, or to be brought out every hundred years for a brief airing then put back in the cupboard. It is the history of the world. It concerns each and every one of us. Here’s Pitt to Parliament, again in 1792: ‘And Sir, I trust we are now likely to be delivered from the greatest practical evil that has ever afflicted the human race, from the severest and most extensive calamity recorded in the history of the world.’

The Lamplighter

by Jackie Kay

Book cover for The Lamplighter

This groundbreaking play from one of our best-loved poets and writers focuses on parts of history that are so rarely touched upon. Four women and one man tell the story of their lives through slavery in a rousing chorus that gives voice to all of those oppressed by the slave trade. This acclaimed play, produced both for radio and the stage, can also be read as a stirring poem.