This October marks the 30th annual Black History Month in the UK, providing an opportunity to commemorate the events that have shaped African and Caribbean history and to celebrate the lives and achievements of black individuals. It not only allows us to reflect upon black history in the past, but it is an initiative which raises awareness about racial injustice today.
As with many other cities, Edinburgh’s role in the slave-trade forms an important part of a dark and hidden past. Although the slave-trade was abolished in 1807, the city has only revealed the true extent of its involvement in April of this year. It is often thought that Glasgow was the dominant player of the slave trade in Scotland, however it has been revealed that inhabitants of Edinburgh were once twice as likely to own a slave as those in Glasgow or London. In fact, in 1833 the British government handed out £20 million (equivalent to a staggering £17 billion today) in compensation to Caribbean slaveholders in Edinburgh for the emancipation of their slaves. The recipients included Peter McClagen, who owned Great King Street, and John Gordon of St Andrew Square. Furthermore, one of Edinburgh’s most prominent and well-known monuments, the Melville Monument, features a statue of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, who played a significant role in delaying the abolition of slavery. This highlights the importance of looking into the history of the landmarks of our city, beyond the biased facade presented to us, and recognising that many of the people behind them should not be celebrated.
The history of Edinburgh is so white-washed that it is difficult to learn about the lives and work of significant black figures in the city, making Black History Month an ideal opportunity to find out more about these figures and their marks upon Edinburgh. One such figure is John Edmundstone who, despite his outstanding work and achievements, boasts no more than a few lines on most webpages. Born into slavery in British Guiana (present day Guyana), Edmundstone was liberated and became an academic trailblazer in the medical world. He moved to Scotland and became a lecturer and professor at Edinburgh University, specialising in taxidermy. His students included Charles Darwin, to whom he gave inspiring accounts of tropical rainforests in South America. Nevertheless, Edmundstone has not received the widespread recognition for his work that he deserves.
Edmundstone is just one example among a much broader problem, highlighting the importance of Black History Month’s aim of recognizing black figures whose achievements have been ignored in history books. Thus, ultimately, Black History Month does not simply highlight the injustices of the past, but equally, and perhaps most importantly, brings to light many aspects of black history that have chosen to be forgotten.
To find out more about the slave trade in Edinburgh and to discover more about the city’s long and profitable relationship with slavery, get tickets for ‘Edinburgh and the slave trade: the true cost of the New Town’, a groundbreaking lecture, on October 25th.