In this event, Dr Peggy Brunache, lecturer in Atlantic Slavery at the University of Glasgow talked to independent historian, David Alston (who also has a PhD in history), about his new book ‘Slaves and Highlanders – Silenced Histories of Scotland and the Caribbean’.
Peggy sets the tone by speaking of the double trauma of being a descendant of those enslaved in the Caribbean – the trauma of what happened and the trauma of it being silenced or diminished. This ‘silencing’ of uncomfortable histories is the key feature of the book, and the motivational force behind its production.
David begins by unlocking some of these inconvenient truths. Reading from his book the audience are given an insight into some of the lives of the enslaved people who were reduced to commodities, bought and sold by Highland Scots, to work in plantations in what is now Guyana, for the maximisation of profit.
It is important to recover these micro histories, David says, as it enables us to better understand our own situation. The level of personal detail in these stories is so precise, hearing them read aloud provokes an uncomfortable feeling of historical voyeurism.
From Alston’s meticulous research we know who bought enslaved people and on what terms, we know what names the enslaved were given, we know what work they did, we know how many escaped, where they went, who was caught, who caught them and how much bounty they received.
One of the central pillars of this book is its defiance. It refuses to adhere to the centuries of complicity in which historians submit to the dominant Imperialist narrative. As David points out, we are taught, in great detail, about the military history of the colonial exploits of the Highland Regiments, but we are told almost nothing of their consequences.
In this respect there are important parallels between this discussion and the Resurrecting Scotland’s Witches event the previous weekend (access the blog here). What we are witnessing with both slavery and witch trials is the erasure of an unwanted raft of inconvenient truths.
Peggy asked why he decided to research Highlanders and slaves? The motivational force behind the research, David said, was anger. There were local history triggers that directed him to the subject initially but anger and a sense of moral obligation have driven his work over the last 25 years.
Realising the importance of this research, David set up his own website and placed all of his findings and materials within the creative commons – you can access this veritable treasure trove of research evidence here.
David’s book, published as an independent researcher, gives hope to historians everywhere working beyond the narrow confines of the academy. Remaining outside the hyper competitive world in which academic researchers are pitted against each other in a ruthless and relentless war over funding, journal publications and book contracts, he was able to avoiding the suffocating and stifling pressures of having to meet the full range of university-imposed targets. The fact that it was Edinburgh University Press who had asked him to write the book is testimony to the resonance of his work at the highest academic levels.
The session ended with a flourish of questions. Someone asked, given that we are morally obliged to unearth this history, what can we do about it, now that we know?
David responded to this excellent question with three levels of action. On an individual level, we can undertake charitable and ‘gift work’. David gave the example of Books for Africa, where we can have all our unwanted books sent to and distributed within African countries for the purpose of education. At the community level, David’s town of Cromarty recently raised £4000 which was sent to Guyana. At the national level, David talked about reparations for the formerly enslaved (for more information see https://www.davidalston.info).
Putting this into context, he and Peggy had a discussion about the fact that all slave owners, already wealthy people, were given enormous sums as a result of the Slave Compensation Act of 1837. This was of course funded by tax payers and remarkably, the last payment made by the citizens of the UK for this purpose was in 2015. Peggy pointed out the fact that of all the countries involved in the slave trade, not one had ever issued an apology.
David’s sterling work, over a quarter of a century, has shone a bright light into some very dark recesses of our collective history. However, as the discussion showed, when it comes to the process of righting the wrongs of our colonial and ancestral past, we are only at the very beginning.
You can buy this book on the Paisley Book Festival online Bookshop.