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Stories 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’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’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’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’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’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’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’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’ 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 made.

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 uncommon."

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’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’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’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’s land was seized and his father executed.

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’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 social status."

Stung by his treatment, outraged by Wedderburn’s "legitimate" son Andrew’s claims that he was lying and simply trying to gain money from the family, Robert became one of the nation’s leading anti-slavery activists.

He spent time in prison for his forthright arguments against the slave trade, attacking the government’s position and raging against society’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 veins.

His story, insists Palmer, needs to be retold so Scots can understand a vital element of their nation’s history and, perhaps, help put an end racial misunderstandings. "Those ‘ethnic’ people, those slaves, contributed to Western civilisation: how many people today think of oranges, sugar, tea, tobacco, potatoes, chocolate as ethnic foods?

"It’s insulting not to tell people about this episode in Scotland’s history, it’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’s not something we should simply whitewash from the history books."

Sandra Dick
Monday, 9th June 2003
Evening News

The Scotsman


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