Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Days of Empire - a stain on our history

Around the mid-1800s, Scots were beginning to find their voice in radical and socialist organisations.  Living conditions for much of the population were appalling, with large families often crammed into one room of festering, unsanitary accommodation in Scotland’s expanding cities.

Fledgling bodies representing workers and local communities began to demand improvements, both in the workplace and from housing landlords.  Often, a cornerstone of such organisations was the recognition that ‘home rule’ for Scotland was a necessary requirement in the struggle to throw-off the yolk of remote governments in London, which were seen as being in the pockets of the rich, the very people whose interests were served by the conditions that trapped the working class in grinding poverty.

However, while the seeds of class consciousness and the importance of Scottish national self-determination were taking root at home, many Scots were actively conquering and suppressing the peoples of other nations in the name of the ever-expanding British Empire.

Throughout the 19th Century, Britain extended its military and economic power around the globe, with Scots playing significant roles in the building of an Empire ‘on which the sun never set’ – a reference to the fact that British colonial conquests spanned so much of the world that there was never a time during a 24-hour period when the sun was not shining on at least one part of it.

Nations and peoples were defeated by British military might, including massed ranks of Scottish regiments.  Once colonised, every ounce of wealth was extracted from the conquered nations, with Scots to the fore in providing clerks and administrators within ruling regimes, in addition to managers in plantations and other British commercial interests.  For example, in India, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, the first three Governors-General were Scots.

Throughout this period – the mid-to-late 1800s – Scots at home were also seen to ‘benefit’ from Scotland’s membership of the British Union and as a ‘partner’ in Empire.  Colonial railways needed steam engines, which were built in the Glasgow district of Springburn: mills in Dundee prospered from the jute industry linked to trade with India.  Fabulous wealth was built by Glasgow merchants through their trade in tobacco and sugar harvested in the West Indies.  But, amidst these ‘success stories’, thousands-upon-thousands of ordinary men, women and children in Scotland continued to live in absolute poverty.

The British Empire was built on the pursuit of wealth through exploitation, the founding principle of modern capitalism.  Scots aristocrats and merchants who signed-up to the project were well rewarded, while those at the bottom rung of the colonial ladder saw little benefit, other than a misguided feeling of superiority gained from policing the so-called ‘lesser beings’ of conquered nations.

While it can be argued that ordinary soldiers and lowly clerks were products of their time and knew no better than to carry out the orders of their social and military ‘superiors’, the same argument cannot be made for Scots of supposedly ‘higher orders’ and positions. 

To this day, many Glaswegians remain unaware that the 19th Century wealth of the city was built on slavery.  Much of Glasgow’s stunning architecture and many of its mansions and town-houses were built by merchants who made their money from tobacco and sugar-cane cultivated in the West Indies and picked by slaves forcibly removed from their homelands in western Africa.  Not only did Glasgow merchants grow fabulously wealthy on the labour of slaves, but when slavery was abolished within the British Empire, the former slave-owners received financial compensation from the British Government.  Official papers show the British exchequer paid-out £400,000 to 100 Scottish claimants.  Most of the Scots who received compensation for the loss of their slaves were recorded as living in Glasgow: the amount they received would have a value today in the region of £2bn.

The time of British Empire is a period of shame, and the significant role played by Scots in the violent repression, subjugation and exploitation of the peoples of other nations is a permanent stain on our history.

There are very good reasons why, today, the British flag fluttering in the warm breeze of foreign lands still generates feelings of foreboding in local people.  The late Hamish Henderson, in his seminal work Freedom Come All Ye, written in 1960, described how the role of Scots as both cannon-fodder and colonial oppressors in the British army led to a situation where the sound of bagpipies instilled fear in lands across the globe.  However, Henderson went on to reflect that a wind of change blowing across Scotland – the strengthening of socialist beliefs and of Scottish national identity, as opposed to British – has the potential to sweep-away the British state-control under which Scots helped to exploit others in the name of imperialism.

In a vision of a fair, multi-racial and just society, Hamish Henderson referred to a Scotland (and a world) where we are “aw Jock Tamson’s bairns”, and where Scots, shorn of the negative baggage of British unionism and colonialism, are welcomed as friends in countries around the world.

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