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The Tentacles of Slavery

It wasn’t until 2015 that the Treasury finally paid off the loans for slave owner compensation, writes Cammy Day

In August 2022 I was pleased to chair the meeting of Edinburgh Council’s Policy Committee which recognised the role of slavery in the history of the city and indeed the contribution it made to its growth. At its heart our policy will encourage greater awareness of this stain on the city’s history.

So far, of course, most attention has been paid to the monument to Henry Dundas and his alleged role in delaying the abolition of the slave trade. The debate about the future of the monument and the wording of its plaque has generated much useful debate.

I wonder, however, whether the attention on Dundas has obscured the extent to which Edinburgh grew because of slavery. Of course, Glasgow and the west of Scotland had a larger and more obvious connection as vessels carrying slave-produced tobacco, sugar and cotton arrived at ports in the west in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

As historian Tom Devine has shown, the profits from this trade played an important role in financing Scotland’s industrial revolution. Of course, it was not only slave owners and traders in cotton etc who benefited.

Edinburgh lawyers and investors in the banks which sprang up to finance these businesses made good incomes. Also, the wealth generated in the colonies created a demand there for Scottish manufactured goods to be exported westwards.

The legacy here lives on in the names such as Jamaica Street but Edinburgh’s close involvement is shown most clearly in the compensation of £20m which was paid to slave owners when slavery in the British Empire ended as a result of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which was enacted in August 1834.

£20m doesn’t sound like a lot today but back then it was an extraordinary 40% of total UK Government spending, “enough to carry on a medium-sized war” and it is the equivalent of £20 billion today.

Many in Edinburgh (over 130 have been identified so far) benefited from these payments including lawyers, army widows and even church ministers as well as major plantation owners.

One glaring example was Peter McClagan of Great King Street who received £21,000 (£2m in today’s money) for the 407 slaves he owned in Guyana.

The First Minister’s official residence Bute House also has many links with slavery, Sir John Sinclair a previous resident was compensated for his part ownership of 610 slaves in Saint Vincent.

So, what happened to the £20m?

Much went to buy country estates but a lot fuelled the engines of the second phase of Britain’s industrialisation. For example, 40% of those who bought shares in the Edinburgh and Northern Railway Company had slave interests. The railway built the main lines in Fife that we still use today.

An interesting example is John Gladstone, born in Leith and father of the future Prime Minister, who didn’t own slaves until he moved to Liverpool in his early 20s.

When slavery was abolished, he owned 2,500 slaves and received over £20m in today’s money in compensation.

With this windfall he invested in a large number of canal and railway projects in the Liverpool and Manchester area and the west of Scotland.

In 1844 in a joint venture with the Duke of Buccleuch he started a lucrative ferry service across the Forth to Burntisland: Interestingly the service was strongly opposed by Leithers due to the southern terminal being at Granton rather than Leith.

The Government borrowed the money to compensate slave owners from the banks, paying competitive rates of interest. As a result, the managers and investors in banks, some of whom had been slave owners, continued to benefit from the consequences of the slave economy.

It was not until 2015 that the Treasury finally paid off the loans that paid for slave owner compensation. This event was accompanied by a rather self-satisfied press notice which pointed out that ‘living British citizens helped pay to end slavery’.

The historian David Olusoga suggested the statement felt like a pat on the back and asked whether we really should be boasting about a policy that rewarded those who held slaves. One Twitter follower responded more forcefully ‘So basically, my father and his children and grandchildren have been paying taxes to compensate those who enslaved our ancestors, and you want me to be proud of that fact’?

The tentacles of slavery have permeated Edinburgh for 200 years right down to the present day. Historians recognise that the subject has been neglected in the past and much work needs to be done.

I believe that here in Edinburgh we have made a start, but there is still a long way to go. ■


Slavery was officially abolished in the UK on August 1, 1834

Peter McClagan of Great King Street received £21,000, £2m in today’s money, for 407 slaves he owned in Guyana



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