The Scottish Slavery Map: Plotting out Scotland’s past

Nathanael Williams

CommonSpace speaks to the Edinburgh-based creators of the Scotland Slavery Map which allows viewers to find properties and individuals connected to Scotland's slave trade past 

SCOTLAND had one of the highest proportion of slave owners to the general populous of any nation during the 18th century, with people in Edinburgh twice as likely to own a slave as a person in Glasgow or London during the same period. In Edinburgh, one in 1,238 had connections to plantations compared to London where it was one in 1,721 people in the city.

Crammed into cargo holds in spaces no bigger than that of a coffin, millions of Africans were seized and taken on British ships headed for plantations in the Caribbean.

From the account of Olaudah Equiano and those of ex-slavers, we know of the intolerable stench, “that cruel salutation to the nostrils” and the daily floggings on deck even before the ships arrived at their port.

Those that died – men, women and children – would be hurled overboard into the ocean after being disconnected from their interlinked chains which had rubbed the flesh of their ankles and wrists raw.

Those who lived would be greeted by a market line-up experience of being branded as cattle, having teeth, genitials and eyes checked so they were ready to work 24-hour shifts in the sweltering heat, cutting raw sugar cane. 

"What strikes you is the money and influence that was gained by the slave trade – and to consider how much land, wealth and property was passed down, still owned as a result." Nathan Ozga

Now, three architects have come together to create a comprehensive online map of properties in Edinburgh connected with the Atlantic slave trade in an effort to connect the horror of the voyage to the prosperity of Scotland's development.

They designed it as an attempt to record Scotland's physical legacy of slave ownership, mapping all the addresses of slave owners, as well as records of compensation claims, following the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.

The project was originally conceived as part of the ArchiFringe series of events that have taken place this summer that looks at new innovations in architectural design and people’s relationships with their city.

Nathan Ozga, 27, recalls the initial inspiration for the project and app: "It was during the Edinburgh festival actually, last year and I think it was – Tom Devine was presenting a book he had edited on the topic of slavery in Scotland.

"What struck me was the power of the narrative and how you could be familiar with a city but not know what really has happened in it. The whole of the New Town and Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art are all built with profits from slavery

"Some of the darkest parts of our history are right in our face, so it was after hearing him talk at this event that the idea first emerged."

The book in question was edited by Professor Tom Devine and is one of the most important and challenging history books recently published in Scotland. Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past (The Caribbean Connection), is a collection of essays by academics who have studied and analysed Scotland’s part in the African slave trade and why the country has been in denial about it since slavery was abolished in 1807. 

Vsevolod Kondratiev-Popov, 26, who was also instrumental in setting up the map say: "It's a way to anchor the history of our streets in the present, as it can be so remote.

"When we think of the kind of man involved in the trade, we think of the grandiose man in a large house, but not here, not among anything connected to us. But many of the flats we live in are awash with the history of the trade. After all, we are still in the history."

There is, for example, the story of John Newton, a slaver who worked on ships from Bristol, Glasgow and the Gold Coast, who, through a diary of letters, casually recorded the events of each day. A noted entry charted the amount of whippings he had to give out to a particularly “rebellious slave”. And how pitiful the state of the ship hold was with puddles of blood and faeces caked on the decks and panels.

The map, which can be downloaded on mobile devices, enables people to witness the homes and spaces of various Scottish people previously involved in the slave trade. It is based on the online register available online on the University College London's (UCL’s) Centre for the 'study of the legacies of British slave-ownership'. 

The map details a comprehensive register of Edinburgh residents connected to the compensation claims made between 1834 and 1845.

"When we think of the kind of man involved in the trade, we think of the grandiose man in a large house, but not here, not among anything connected to us." Vsevolod Kondratiev-Popov

Indeed, it is so thorough that for individuals who moved during the period, multiple addresses and dates are given. However, Ozga notes: "This is really a conservative estimate and picture we are looking at, seeing as it is rooted at the time of abolition. 

"We can imagine the full list from the 1760s onwards would be considerably more revealing."

From 1500 to 1860 it is estimated that around 12 million enslaved Africans were traded to the Americas, 3.25 million in British ships. Profits made on these voyages were often very large.

When Ozga, Kondratiev-Popov and their partner, Jaime Henry, put together the map and accompanying site, attention to detail and the ability to make full connections between the trade and exact properties and lives were seen as important. 

Not everyone on the map was a slave-owner; it includes individuals with various ties to slavers such as several plantation owners, some who had inherited slaves on plantations as part of a will, and others who acted as trustees in the part of slave-owners. 

You can even find out more about the different relationships the individuals had to slavery by clicking on their address on the map and following the link to the UCL LBS database.

The database was part of the academic project which formed the backbone of the two-part documentary by David Olusoga called Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners.

His documentary aired earlier this year and told the story of the substantive compensation handed out to slave owners at the point of emancipation and the widespread unheard social and political connections to the trade. 

The compensation in question was paid to the slave owners to compensate them for 'the loss of their human property' when slavery was finally officially abolished in 1834, but nothing was paid to the slaves or invested in the countries they came from.

A 10-man committee divvied up nearly £17bn in today’s money among 46,000 claimants stretching across the entire British empire, from £800 or so to a country vicar for his single servant to £80m for John Gladstone’s (father of prime minister William) loss of thousands of unpaid workers on his plantations in Guyana. 

It was the largest payout to a single industry interest in the UK's history until the financial bailout in 2009.

"Realising your surrounded by the history is a shared experience both fascinating but also disturbing, unsettling." Vsevolod Kondratiev-Popov

The compensation money was drawn largely from consumption taxes, because income tax did not exist at the time, and this effectively meant the poor paid for the lost property of the rich.

Will there be an opportunity for physical markings and heritage plaques as well as digital tech? "Certainly," says Vsevolod.

"We want to forget, but it's important to never forget how our cities have been built, how our history has been constructed, if you will. What strikes you is the money and influence that was gained by the slave trade – and to consider how much land, wealth and property was passed down, still owned as a result.

"I mean, it's only 150 years and we think it's important to, when exploring your city, peel back the layers. Realising you’re surrounded by the history is a shared experience both fascinating but also disturbing, unsettling."

Kondratiev-Popov and Ozga both speak at length about the current political context in which the project exists and grows. 

For Ozga, the referendum was an important marker both politically and culturally for the development of public understanding about architecture and history. 

He says: "It’s such an opportune time to continue the discussion about what Scotland is, what it has been and where we are going.

"Now has to be the time to start asking those honest questions – continually. Although the history of Scots’ role in slavery and the empire has begun to be gone into more thoroughly.

"I mean, the high proportion of middle class Scots involved in the bureaucratic running of the empire – I didn't learn about it at school. It's beginning to creep in round about now but it was, for me, the [Scottish independence] referendum that sparked my interest in a deeper Scottish history.

"And it made me question the narrative of us always being the subjected."

Kondratiev-Popov, who is French, has been impacted by not only the campaign for Scottish independence but additionally the European referendum and its subsequent result. 

Vsevolod, said: "I think the Brexit result – that was a shock, but the history is related to this as well, because a certain perception of your history can make you do, make certain choices in the here and now.

"The idea of being an empire is perhaps still present in parts of the UK and even Scotland."

In 2006, the Scottish Government asked two of the contributors to the Tom Devine book, Dr Eric Graham and Dr Iain Whyte, to write ‘Scotland’s Involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its Abolition: A Historical Review’. However, for undisclosed reasons the academics were later taken off the project.

The map-making trio hope to extend the map online to other cities in Scotland as part of not only increasing historical awareness but also engaging people with experiencing their city in a more deep-seated way.

"There's definitely a chance for more cities to be researched into and the map extended, so we're looking into it."

You can find the Scottish Slavery Map here

To find out more about Scotland’s connections to the slave trade take look at The National Trust of Scotland and Education Scotland. The University of Aberdeen has also done extensive research on links in the North East.

Pictures courtesy of Scottish Slavery MapVsevolod Kondratiev-Popov

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