from the Scotsman
Disowned by his father . . for the colour of his skin
THE dark stranger had
crossed an ocean to arrive at his destination, the place that he hoped he
could call "home".
He had travelled from the fertile plantations of Jamaica, leaving behind
the horrors of the island~ez_rsquo~s slave trade to eventually arrive at an
impressive property on the outskirts of Edinburgh - his gruelling journey
fuelled by a burning injustice in his heart and longing that his father
would at last acknowledge his duty to his son.
But Robert Wedderburn, the result of his Scottish plantation owner
father~ez_rsquo~s "brutal lust" with a feisty but ultimately powerless slave girl
called Rosanna, would soon find his unexpected appearance on the doorstep
of his father~ez_rsquo~s Musselburgh home less than welcome.
"I visited my father, who had the inhumanity to threaten to send me to
gaol if I troubled him," he wrote years later of his trip to Inveresk
Lodge. "He did not deny me to be his son, but called me a lazy fellow and
said he would do nothing for me. From his cook I had one draught of small
beer, and his footman gave me a cracked sixpence."
Small pickings for the mulatto son of James Wedderburn, a respected member
of Edinburgh society who made a very handsome fortune from the Jamaican
slavery trade before returning to Scotland to marry into even more wealth.
And even then his shocking treatment of the slaves he owned, sold and
brutalised - Rosanna bore him three children, another slave delivered him
a son and a daughter - was being gradually airbrushed from history.
Indeed, Robert~ez_rsquo~s shameful treatment at the hands of his disinterested
father could easily have remained lost in the mists of time had an
Edinburgh academic not paid a moving tribute to his fight for his birth
rights and determination to highlight the injustices of slavery, in his
own brief memoirs.
Geoff Palmer, a professor of grain science at Heriot-Watt University and
award-winning race relations campaigner - whose own family roots were
moulded by the 18th and 19th century Jamaican slavery system - believes
Robert Wedderburn~ez_rsquo~s experience was hardly unique, yet still deserves its
place in Scottish history lessons.
"James Wedderburn lived out his post-slavery life in great luxury at
Inveresk," he points out. "His house, Inveresk Lodge, now stands in Trust,
in its whitewash splendour at the high end of a tranquil garden, now open
to all. Local historians speak graciously about James Wedderburn and his
well-placed white descendants.
"But, through either ignorance or omission, no mention is made of his 28
years as a rapacious slave-owner in Jamaica."
It~ez_rsquo~s a slice of Scottish history which, he firmly believes, we should
remember - regardless of how unsavoury the details may be to a modern,
more racially tolerant society. "This is an area of Scottish history that
is not taught in schools at all," he adds, "yet Scottish men played an
enormous part not only in fashioning the racial mix in Jamaica but also in
shaping the country.
"The Scottish influence was enormous. People may well feel it was a
disgraceful period but it~ez_rsquo~s still history."
In fact, there can be few episodes in Scottish history which highlight
more clearly the injustices, agonies and human tragedies resulting from
the Scots plundering of Jamaica than the story of Robert Wedderburn.
Ironically, his father had also experienced human tragedy at its most
gruesome level. James Wedderburn was just 16 in 1746 when he watched his
own father being hung, drawn and quartered for his role in the Jacobite
Rebellion. There was a further price to pay for his staunch support for
the Jacobites - the Wedderburns~ez_rsquo~ extensive family estates were confiscated
to the king, and his descendants, including sons James and John, forced to
seek a living wherever and however they could.
They joined the exodus of Scots who travelled to Jamaica, where
plantations yielded exotic spices, sugar, coffee and cotton, where the
lucrative slave trade flourished and where vast fortunes could be easily
James, still little more than a youth, quickly established himself as a
doctor, despite his lack of formal qualifications. "He turned an honest
penny by drugging and physicing the poor blacks," wrote Robert years later
in his book The Horrors of Slavery. "Those that were cured he had the
credit for, those he killed, the fault was laid to their own obstinacy."
As his fortune grew, so did his power and his carnal appetites. Like many
plantation owners and slave traders at the time, he thought little of
satisfying his lust by taking advantage of the prettiest slaves.
"It is a common practice for the planters to have lewd intercourse with
their female slaves; and so inhuman are many of these said planters, that
many well-authenticated instances are known of their selling slaves while
pregnant and making that a pretence to enhance their value," wrote Robert.
"A father selling his offspring is no disgrace there. A planter letting
out his prettiest female slaves for purposes of lust, is by no means
James, he added, was "a perfect parish bull", ranging through his
household staff for his own lewd purposes. "They were his personal
property, cost nothing extra; and if any one proved with child - why, it
was an acquisition which might one day fetch something in the market, like
a horse or pig in Smithfield."
Eventually his attention was captured by Rosanna, a lady~ez_rsquo~s maid, esteemed
by her "owner" which gave her the right to refuse any deal to sell her to
someone she did not want to work for. Somehow, though, James was able to
secure her as his personal slave.
The educated, chaste and virtuous Rosanna became not only the reluctant
manager of his household, but the main focus of his desires.
"My father~ez_rsquo~s house was full of female slaves," Robert wrote. "All objects
of his lusts; amongst whom he strutted like Solomon in his grand seraglio
or like a bantam cock upon his own dunghill."
Abused and defiled by her master, Rosanna was to suffer further ignominy
when he brought another slave to his home, ranking her higher than the
woman who had already borne him two children. She was already five months
pregnant with Robert in 1762, when, raging at her treatment, Wedderburn
finally agreed to return her to her lady owner - for a price - with the
concession that the child she bore should be free from slavery from birth.
The young Robert embraced that freedom. Having witnessed atrocities
against his mother - he once saw her pregnant, stretched on the ground,
hands and feet tied and flogged - and his 70-year-old grandmother falsely
accused of witchcraft and almost beaten to death, he battled against the
injustices of the slavery trade.
Educated and with a firm belief in the church, he set out for London in
1779, perhaps intending to build a relationship with his father, perhaps
with every intention of doing all in his power to highlight his father~ez_rsquo~s
inhumanity. He had met his father only once in Jamaica, having been taken
to him by his grandmother, Talkee Amy. "My grandmother called him a mean
Scotch rascal thus to desert his own flesh and blood," wrote Robert.
There was no doubt that Wedderburn had enough wealth to distribute just a
little to his own son. "James and his brother John had become two of the
most pernicious slavers in Jamaican history," explains Geoff Palmer. "They
had power and their power was within the laws of the time. Men like them
were there to make money, producing rum, sugar cane, coffee, spices.
Slavery was legal - why should they treat anyone well . . . the law did
not particularly require them to.
"James was a very powerful slave master who also saved all his money. When
he returned to Scotland 27 years later, he was a very rich man."
Indeed, James had immediately paid £1000 for Inveresk Lodge on his return
to Scotland in 1773. His wealth, gained from the blood, sweat and tears of
the slaves whose lives he traded in, helped whitewash over events of some
three decades earlier when his family~ez_rsquo~s land was seized and his father
Now he was rich and respectable - with the social status to attract the
daughter of a rich west coast steel magnate for his wife. And the last
thing he would have wanted was the mulatto son he had fathered to a slave
in Jamaica arriving on his doorstep.
"Robert probably did think he would be invited in," says Geoff Palmer. "He
would have thought he would be welcomed as a son and the fact that he
wasn~ez_rsquo~t must have made him angry. But it was a typical problem of the time.
When white masters had children with black slaves, it was fine if these
mixed race children remained in Jamaica. They were even educated and often
given freedom there.
"But Robert turned up just as Wedderburn had established himself back into
the Scottish hierarchy - he certainly would not want him to affect his
Stung by his treatment, outraged by Wedderburn~ez_rsquo~s "legitimate" son Andrew~ez_rsquo~s
claims that he was lying and simply trying to gain money from the family,
Robert became one of the nation~ez_rsquo~s leading anti-slavery activists.
He spent time in prison for his forthright arguments against the slave
trade, attacking the government~ez_rsquo~s position and raging against society~ez_rsquo~s
antipathy towards the plight of plantation slaves. And even when he died,
aged 73, in London, just one year after the abolition of the West Indian
slave trade, he was still insisting that Wedderburn blood ran through his
His story, insists Palmer, needs to be retold so Scots can understand a
vital element of their nation~ez_rsquo~s history and, perhaps, help put an end
racial misunderstandings. "Those ~ez_lsquo~ethnic~ez_rsquo~ people, those slaves,
contributed to Western civilisation: how many people today think of
oranges, sugar, tea, tobacco, potatoes, chocolate as ethnic foods?
"It~ez_rsquo~s insulting not to tell people about this episode in Scotland~ez_rsquo~s
history, it~ez_rsquo~s considering them not to be sophisticated enough or big
enough to understand it. The Scottish influence in Jamaica is everywhere -
from place names like St Andrews to the black people who have green eyes.
"It~ez_rsquo~s not something we should simply whitewash from the history books."
Monday, 9th June 2003
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