Building a legacy: Henry Dundas’s monument in St Andrew Square in central Edinburgh. Image: Andy Catlin / Alamy Stock Photo

Enlightened advocate, or the great delayer? Henry Dundas’s complex relationship with slavery

How one of Scotland’s most prominent politicians of the 18th-century has created bitter enmity in academic circles more than 200 years later
March 3, 2022

Two scholars in Edinburgh, both knighted, are at each other’s throats. Their enmity—pursued through social media and newspaper columns—vividly illuminates and pushes into opposition two sets of beliefs, both at issue in contemporary argument. One, that racism on the part of distinguished past figures must be brought into the open; the other, that historical fact must be the paramount criterion in deciding the outcome of disputes.

Multiple charges of racism have been made by a much-honoured black man about a much-honoured white man: presently the most awful accusation to make about anyone, short of rape and murder. Edinburgh University, one of Britain’s best-regarded, has been host to some explosive arguments on the matter, greater even than those on display in Oxford over demands that the statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes be removed from its perch above the main door of Oriel College. How, or if, this dispute is resolved will be a marker for future engagements of this kind.

Geoff Palmer, born and raised in Jamaica, was the first black professor in Scotland; now professor emeritus, he is chancellor of Heriot Watt, another of Edinburgh’s three universities. A research chemist, he specialises in the science of brewing, winning a prestigious award for his work. Tom Devine is a lauded historian, pre-eminent in the now well-populated field of Scottish history. They had once been friendly acquaintances.

The dead white male at the centre of this quarrel is Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville, a Scots aristocrat who became the most influential politician at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries: his statue stands on a tall pillar in St Andrew Square in Edinburgh’s neoclassical New Town. In the Enlightenment circles in which he frequented, Dundas had earned himself a reputation as a liberal. In 1776, while serving as Scotland’s lord advocate, he led a group of five lawyers in the defence of Joseph Knight, who had fled his master—the Caribbean plantation owner John Wedderburn—in order to claim his freedom from “perpetual servitude.” Dundas’s final speech for the defence, hailed as masterly, included a direct refutation of racial inferiority: “human nature, my Lords, spurns at the thought of slavery among any part of our species.” The subsequent judgment gave Knight his freedom, and underlined that in Scotland slavery was not recognised.

Yet, in the 1790s, by then a sitting MP for over a decade and among the most powerful ministers in the government of William Pitt the Younger, Dundas opposed the strong push from the abolitionist William Wilberforce and others to quickly pass legislation banning the British trade in slaves, then the largest in the world.

It is on this apparently liberal man’s insistence on delaying the law’s passing that the Edinburgh furore turns. For those who see him as unworthy of any kind of honour, he did so from obeisance to the interests of the West Indian planters and the British state. Stephen Mullen, a research fellow at the University of Glasgow, ends an essay published in the Scottish Historical Review by stating that “Henry Dundas was a ‘great delayer’ of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.”

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At loggerheads: academics Geoff Palmer and Tom Devine. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo, GARY DOAK/Alamy Stock Photo

Mullen’s essay concedes that while Dundas did at first experiment with proposing immediate abolition, ultimately his “motivations in delaying abolition after 1793 were grounded in imperial defence: the delay prolonged the trafficking in enslaved people… the broader purpose was the prosecution of war against revolutionary, anti-slavery France, in which Britain took the side of slavery.” He is in no doubt that Dundas was the main mover in ensuring that this legislation, with its huge consequences for thousands of Africans, was delayed for years.

Those who oppose the placing of the major burden of guilt on Dundas’s shoulders argue that he acted out of conviction that early presentation of the bill was bound to fail because of parliamentary opposition in the Lords—and because the loss of revenue from the plantations would wound a Britain faced with an aggressive France planning invasion. In a January essay in Scottish Affairs Angela McCarthy, a professor of Scots and Irish history at the University of Otago in New Zealand, writes that “immediate abolition was unlikely to have passed, even if Dundas had not proposed the word ‘gradually,’ due to concerns about revolution in France and Saint-Domingue as well as the probability that abolition would mean the victory of France in the West Indies.”

McCarthy develops an account of the failure of the legislation before its eventual passing in 1807, a failure influenced by other parliamentarians, plantation owners, British merchants, the military and the engaged public—quoting Devine to the effect that “even if Dundas had never existed as an individual or high-ranking politician” the slave trade would have continued through the 1790s because “forces political, economic and military were so potent that there was no way a British government would want to get abolition over the line.”

This would have been little more than an interesting if complex debate had politics not intervened. In September 2016, Adam Ramsay—former Edinburgh University Student Association president—wrote in the Edinburgh Evening News that he would present a petition to the council to place a plaque on Dundas’s monument giving details of his callous imperialism. Ramsay had been inspired to start the petition after a trip to Germany, where he saw a plaque apologising for the 1884 Berlin Conference which carved up Africa among the European powers. In 2017, a year after his article, the City of Edinburgh Council set up a committee to examine the memorials and statues in the city which might have links to slavery—and to draft a new plaque for the Dundas pillar. The existing plaque stated only that the statue had been largely financed by voluntary subscriptions.

Palmer was chosen as the committee’s chair. Among those invited to join the committee were a descendant of Dundas, Bobby Melville, and Michael Fry, an independent historian and biographer of Dundas who wrote The Dundas Despotism in 1992. Melville told me that he and Fry agreed that Dundas’s gradualism had nothing sinister about it. Fry was charged with writing a draft for the plaque, but found that another (unnamed) member whom he was to work with “never responded to my proposals except by giving excuses why he could not.” The project languished, and Fry assumed it was “quietly abandoned.”

In June 2020, however, Fry learned—as he wrote in the National—that “the whole project had been taken over by others, without the original committee being informed of what was happening, let alone given an explanation. Now, the people in charge are council leader Adam McVey; an ‘academic at Edinburgh University’ (not further identified); and Sir Geoffrey Palmer, former professor of brewing at Heriot Watt University.”

In the same article, Fry went further in defending Dundas, saying his advocacy of Joseph Knight had been reinforced by his introduction of legislation ending serfdom in Scots mines. This was a system of virtual slavery: if a miner tried to escape, he could be hunted and returned to his “master.”

Melville believes that the change of the committee, and the rapid adoption of a harshly critical text, was prompted by the killing of George Floyd and the much greater prominence of Black Lives Matter. In writing McVey told me that in the absence of a consensus, a meeting in 2020 with Palmer, McVey and his deputy, Cammy Day, agreed the new wording. This came after input from Edinburgh World Heritage and unidentified Edinburgh University academics—though these reportedly include Diana Patton, a historian of the Caribbean, and James Smith, a vice principal and professor of African and development studies. In any case, the plaque text was finally and unanimously agreed. It reads:


1st Viscount Melville (1742-1811)

At the top of this neoclassical column stands a statue of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville (1742-1811). He was the Scottish Lord Advocate, an MP for Edinburgh and Midlothian, and the First Lord of the Admiralty. Dundas was a contentious figure, provoking controversies that resonate to this day. While Home Secretary in 1792, and the first Secretary of State for War in 1796, he was instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Slave trading by British ships was not abolished until 1807.

As a result of this delay, more than half a million enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic. Dundas also curbed democratic dissent in Scotland and both defended and expanded the British empire, imposing colonial rule on indigenous peoples. He was impeached in the United Kingdom for misappropriation of public money and, though acquitted, he never held public office again. Despite this, the monument before you was funded by voluntary contributions from British naval officers, petty officers, seamen and marines and was erected in 1821, with the statue placed on top in 1827.

In 2020 this plaque was dedicated to the memory of more than half a million Africans whose enslavement was a consequence of Henry Dundas’s actions.

With this wording, Edinburgh’s council became the first public body in the UK to assert openly that a former leading figure, elevated (literally) to high honour, had deliberately connived in the transportation, sale, bondage and death of hundreds of thousands of men and women.

The uncompromising finality of the plaque immediately drew fire. Jonathan Hearn, a professor of sociology, wrote in the Spectator on 9th January this year that the council committee’s approach to slavery was “strangely superficial,” since it failed to ask “how we should make sense of the historical legacy around us, or what the moral implications of such a legacy are? It simply assumes that Edinburgh must somehow collectively atone for its sins, and decide how far it is willing to go down this road.” On Dundas, he claimed that there is “plenty of evidence to suggest that Dundas’s gradualist approach to abolition—however unsatisfactory it may seem to us in the present day—was the only approach which would be politically successful at the time… If this is an indication of how the Review Group and the City Council will go about revising Edinburgh’s history more generally, the signs are not promising. The problem is not about condemning slavery, it’s about distorting history.”

Palmer, his committee’s approach challenged at its root, was furious. “Professor Hearn’s racist propaganda has already been seen as bad racist history in Professor Newton’s work,” he wrote on Twitter, in reference to an essay published in July 2020 by Melanie Newton, an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto and former director of its Caribbean Studies Programme.

Hearn, a white American with a blog named “Uneasy Essays,” had expressed earlier unease at the removal of David Hume’s name from an Edinburgh University building. Agreeing that a footnote to one of Hume’s essays was clearly racist in arguing that sub-Saharan Africans were inferior beings, he wrote that “we judge people, including intellectuals like Hume, in the round, on their general contributions and accomplishments… his copious writings on philosophy, history and political economy are full of profound and lasting insights into human nature and history, that do not absolve, but do outweigh this error.”

Hearn told me that “the way in which we learn from history is to take seriously the dilemmas which confronted the figures in historical events. Part of the moral issue of history is to put oneself in the shoes of the historical figures. Going back to the 18th century, people did say slavery was wrong. But what prevailed was the system which had become embedded. When early capitalist systems attach themselves to existing policies, you get a very vivid sense of how systems like slavery solidify. The question here should be: what is the need to atone? There should be no collective guilt.”

Devine, who had written in his Uncovering Scotland’s Slavery Past (2015) that “by arguing for gradual abolition of the slave trade [Dundas] effectively killed off reform for a generation,” had since revisited his position, coming to believe that Dundas was one in a tapestry of actors whose interests and fears made delay inevitable. He appeared to be as furious with Palmer as Palmer had been with Hearn. In an interview with the Times, Devine said that Palmer had made “appalling slurs of racism against those whose only fault was to have a different view from his own.” As Sir William Fraser emeritus professor of history, Devine is a large figure in Scots society: his retirement ceremony included a conversation in the university’s McEwen Hall with former prime minister Gordon Brown. His appearance in the lists against Palmer and his group turned the sparring into a heavyweight bout.

After Devine called for Palmer’s resignation—not just from the Edinburgh council committee, but from a separate Slavery Review Group appointed by the university, which Palmer also chairs—Palmer tweeted: “Devine’s biased, racist demand does not bother me. We are used to bias.” He followed that with “this academic racist gang has used the press to peddle misinformation which supports the horrors of chattel slavery in an attempt to try and stop the people commenting on a topic which they believe they should control with elitist bias.”

The historian has consulted lawyers on whether or not he has a case against Palmer for defamation—in being called, several times, a “racist.” He has been assured he has, but says he will not take action—at least, for the present.

Devine tells me that “Palmer’s insouciance since he publicly vilified Professor Hearn and myself is intriguing. He has refused to apologise, despite being asked to do so, rejected the attempts of the principal of Edinburgh University to control his abusive outbursts and seems impervious to the fact that his reputation has been shredded on social and mainstream media in recent weeks. Why so? One can only speculate… it may also be that as a champion of BLM in Scotland and the descendant of Jamaican slaves he thinks he is untouchable. One thing is certain, however, he is not above the law of defamation in Scotland.”

Palmer, in interview, is less fiercely dismissive of his critics as racists than in his first reaction, saying they were not “racists per se”—but that the designation of his work by Hearn as “superficial” and “trivial” could “amount to being racially discriminatory.”  He believes Devine’s call for his resignation from the two committees he chairs is also discriminatory. He holds firmly to his view that Dundas was the prime mover in delaying legislation to ban the slave trade, and says that “his defence of Joseph Knight, and  legislation to change the status of the miners, do not stand as a reason to exculpate him from the delay to the legislation. When, in 1806, he was accused of mismanagement of the nation’s money and was forced to resign [he was later found not guilty by the House of Lords] he was finished as a politician—and then the legislation passed.”

Palmer’s strong defence of his position, combined with Devine’s similar determination that the new plaque should not stand, reveals a bitterness which plays out against a background of controversy on related themes. Devine has long been critical of the university’s administration, especially its principal, Peter Mathieson, who he believes was “supine” in refusing to intervene in the demand to remove Hume’s name and in not defending the anthropology lecturer, Neil Thin, from charges of racism which were found to be baseless. Iain Macwhirter, a former rector of the university and an influential columnist for the Herald, has called on Mathieson to resign for the same reason. Their criticism is amplified by Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy, who says that “Mathieson can’t tell anyone what to do, but he can lead by example... He needs to be much more explicit in defending members of staff.”

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A satirical cartoon by James Gillray in 1792 depicting Henry Dundas cloaking William Pitt the Younger. Dundas was one of the most influential ministers in Pitt’s government. Image: National Portrait Gallery, London

Mathieson sent an email to all staff in mid-January 2022, saying he supported the Slavery Review Group and had spoken to Palmer to “clarify expectations under the university’s dignity and respect policy”: he retained him, however, as chair of the group. In response, Palmer replied that he was under no obligation to justify himself to Mathieson, because he was not employed by the university. In an interview with the Times, Palmer said he would resign only “if [my critics] provide me with valid evidence that they are right about the historical facts.” In interview, he made it clear he has not seen such evidence.

Both Edinburgh City Council and the university’s review group have been reluctant to comment on the Dundas issue, as well as on the ongoing inquiries the committees are making. Palmer agreed to an interview with me, but Mullen and principal Mathieson have refused to be interviewed, while council leader McVey would only respond to questions sent by email. McVey made clear that the anonymity of the committee is because it is not a council committee, but an independent panel appointed by the council. Names would be released when “appropriate safeguarding supports are approved” and when the members  agree. The university Slavery Review Group membership has also been kept secret.

Palmer’s council committee has sent out surveys to Edinburgh citizens on what they would expect to be done about the city’s connection with slavery and has so far received some 3,000 replies. He says that his critics have obsessed about Dundas and the plaque at his monument—“when it is only one of 40 issues we raised.”

A black American, professor Tommy Curry, who holds a personal chair of Africana philosophy and black male studies, is said—again anonymously—to be a member of the university-appointed group. He is a powerful voice in stressing past white oppression and present white foot-dragging. Curry is a strong believer in the decolonisation of white-dominated institutions and thinks that much of what passes for exercises in decolonisation in British universities is mere talk. He did not respond to a request to be interviewed on the Dundas issue, but I had more than two hours of conversation with him last November, in which he made clear his general views. At the core of these is a pessimism about the willingness of whites to give up power, and the lack of will of those who claim to support decolonisation to get to the root of the problem—a stubborn belief in white superiority and the continuance of white control. He is a pessimist about the present, but a revolutionary on what must be done.

He told me that “the dominance with which white people control government and universities doesn’t make them likely to give up their power. In the UK, there’s not enough non-whites and black people, not a critical mass who could change things. There’s a lot of talk (about decolonisation) instead of doing something. It’s true that, in the UK, many people do believe now that the empire was not a benevolent thing. But what then? Are we studying African history? I applaud the efforts UK universities are making to acknowledge the role and negativity of colonisation. My criticism is over their not taking the necessary steps to the cure.”

Though he recognises that issues of race are more prominent in the US—with its much larger proportion of black citizens—he remains pessimistic. “Desegregation can only do so much. Derek Bell [one of the main developers of critical race theory and a mentor of Curry] said it was the whites’ belief that they were better that was not addressed by desegregation.

“Are we going to get integration when whites control the government? Obama didn’t change the way people thought. He didn’t change the basis of society. After him, you got Trump. He [Obama] did not redistribute power in society. I didn’t expect him to.” Curry’s much more radical approach to issues of race and racism strikes chords elsewhere in Edinburgh University—as in other universities, where these questions now routinely cause controversies to erupt. They prompt white faculty and students to examine, at times guiltily, past and present entrance policies, as well as review syllabuses—especially those in the humanities and social sciences not yet under fire for being “too white” or “Eurocentric.” At the same time, they rouse opposition by a minority who see the administrators and academics too easily ceding standards of excellence in order to avoid conflict.

One of the several academics who expressed their distress at the divisiveness of the dispute while broadly supporting Devine, McCarthy and Hearn’s views on Dundas’s actions in government is Guy Rowlands, professor of history at St Andrews University and a specialist in the history of France. Rowlands, who has followed the affair closely, finds the attacks on these scholars “egregious.” But he has reservations which constitute a middle way between the two entrenched positions.

 “I think that [Bobby] Melville and [Michael] Fry put a too rosy glow on Dundas. From 1792, he was clearly a liberal member of the Enlightenment: but from 1794-1795, he changed: he was very alarmed by the threat of France and the British war effort. He overreacted, as many others did; he underestimated the strength of the British navy. Fry doesn’t go into it in his biography. Maybe Palmer thought Fry was not to be trusted on this... My beef with the plaque is that it says that Dundas and Dundas only was responsible for ruining the lives of 500,000 Africans. The plaque should say something about Dundas’s defence of Knight. The judge, for the first time ever, gave a passionate castigation of the institution of slavery—egged on by Dundas!

“If there is going to be a proper reconciliation here, you must get the history right.”