The money’s still out there

Neal Ascherson

  • To the Ends of the Earth: Scotland’s Global Diaspora, 1750-2010 by T.M. Devine
    Allen Lane, 397 pp, £25.00, August 2011, ISBN 978 0 7139 9744 6
  • BuyThe Inner Life of Empires: An 18th-Century History by Emma Rothschild
    Princeton, 483 pp, £24.95, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 691 14895 3

Looking at the imperial magnificence, the Habsburgian gigantism of public buildings in Edinburgh and Glasgow, you want to ask: where did all that wealth go? Looking at the stone ruins in the bracken of Lowland and Highland hills, you want to ask: where did all those people go – and why? These are questions rooted in the history of the British Empire, and they concern the very distinct and remarkable and sometimes shocking part which the Scots – the traders and the plebeians, the Lanarkshire industrialists and the Gaelic poor – played in the development of that empire.

Scottish historiography used to resemble a half-reclaimed landscape: solid fields of established research in an undrained bog of questions. Some ambitious channels were dug by Victorians, with generally Unionist teleologies. But in the first part of the 20th century those channels seemed to silt up again until Marinell Ash published her poignant appeal The Strange Death of Scottish History in 1980. By then, however, Scotland’s cultural and political revival was already underway. Synoptic histories, serious but highly readable, were reappearing as Ash wrote: Rosalind Mitchison, T.C. Smout and Christopher Harvie were among the most successful authors. They wrote mostly narrative or social history, revealing unknown territory to generations who had learned almost nothing of Scotland’s past at school. Now, though, the fashion is more reflexive. Tom Devine, currently Scotland’s leading historian, targets myth – aspects of the past which have been either flamboyantly invented or furtively dropped down the memory hole. What are these tracts of their history which the Scots have distorted or ignored? And why did they do so?

Devine addresses these questions in the third volume of a trilogy which probably wasn’t planned as a trilogy. The first book, The Scottish Nation, 1700-2000 (1999), was an all-round narrative history which became a bestseller and made him famous. The second, Scotland’s Empire, 1600-1815 (2003), covered Scottish trading and colonising before and after the 1707 Union with England, and dealt with the critical 18th century, when Scots – admitted to equal rights in what was now a ‘British empire’ on the brink of enormous global expansion – learned to take full advantage of their chances. To the Ends of the Earth retraces that early period and carries on into Scotland’s paradoxical Victorian apogee of industrial triumph and mass emigration. Then Devine asks that big question: where did it all go? Why has contemporary Scotland benefited so little from those billions of intercontinental profit? And why do the Scots – once, per capita, so much more involved in the empire than the English – now affect amnesia about it, sharing none of England’s imperial nostalgia?

Each of the later volumes repeats and refines material in the previous one. That’s a virtue. Research is now moving fast in Scotland, and it’s exciting to register how Devine’s ideas mature. Take the sombre question of slavery. Could it be true that the immense profits from slave-worked sugar and tobacco plantations made Scotland’s industrial take-off possible? The older myth emphasised Scotland’s role in the abolitionist movement and was assembled by historians who were reluctant to investigate who owned and oversaw the plantations of Jamaica, Grenada or Virginia. As late as 2001, the Oxford Companion to Scottish History had no index entry for ‘slavery’, while the Caribbean was mentioned only as a market for Scottish linen. In Scotland’s Empire, Devine was cautious about this ugly problem, but fresh research has hardened his views. He writes here that capital inflows from ‘the slave-based economies were of fundamental importance in the first textile-dominated phase of Scottish industrialisation’ up to about 1830. As for the slave trade itself, it’s true that Glasgow did not send slave ships to Africa and the Caribbean as Bristol or Liverpool did. But Scots abroad were managing and financing the trade in disproportionate numbers.

It’s a cliché that the Scots ‘punched above their weight’ in the empire, and it’s misleading. They seldom competed directly with the English or Irish, but established distinct and almost exclusively Scottish fiefdoms: the fur trade, the tobacco trade, the jute industry, the opium business in China, the ‘hedge-banking’ outfits in Australia, the executive levels of the East India Company. Later in the 19th century, in the second phase of industrialisation, the Clyde basin achieved something approaching world domination in shipbuilding, locomotive and bridge construction and other branches of heavy engineering. Overseas enterprise was a pattern of near monopolies from Scotland’s regions. The Hudson’s Bay Company was staffed by Orcadians; its Canadian rival, the North West Company, was run by Highlanders; the sugar plantations of Jamaica were packed with younger sons of Argyllshire lairds; the great trading houses of South-East Asia were mostly family businesses from Aberdeen and north-east Scotland; the outflow of foreign investment was cornered by Edinburgh solicitors.

The myth that the Scots were somehow closer to indigenous peoples than the English has been well punctured by recent Scottish research. They were indeed closer – by the length of a slave-driver’s lash. Scots, in that sense, were the non-commissioned officers of empire; even Robert Burns, a sentimental abolitionist, planned to take a job in Jamaica as an overseer of slaves. The same myth suggested that Gaelic emigrants raised in a clan system had a special rapport with traditional societies. In fact, Highlanders behaved with sometimes genocidal savagery; among other examples, Devine recalls the Gaelic vigilantes who carried out the Warrigal Creek massacre of Australian aboriginals in 1843. In northern Canada, by contrast, the fur trade could only operate as a joint endeavour with local communities. There, the Hudson’s Bay Company encouraged its men to form ‘connubial alliances’ with Indian women (in 2004, a large Cree delegation travelled to Orkney to visit ‘the home of their grandfathers’). Some Scots gave real support to the ‘first peoples’ in times of crisis. But in the long term, the joint endeavour turned into what Devine calls a ‘historic disaster’ for Indian societies, ravaged by disease, alcoholism and the collapse of the hunting economy.

In an absorbing chapter, Devine studies the ‘missionary dynamic’, the almost forgotten torrent of Scottish men and women who went out to ‘convert the heathen’. Strict Calvinist doctrine objected that preaching the gospel to the heathen was ‘preposterous’; God had already ordained who was to be ‘elect’ and saved. It was not until the evangelical movement tore the Church of Scotland apart in the Disruption of 1843 that Scottish energy flowed into foreign missions to India and then Africa. These missions produced their saints, even superstars: Mary Slessor’s good works on the Upper Niger still earn her an image on Scottish banknotes, while David Livingstone became the world’s best-known Scotsman. They did not save many souls. After 50 years’ work in India, the missions could show only 3359 converts. But their influence on empire was deep and paradoxical, at once the advance guard of colonialism and the engineers of its fall. In Africa, above all, Church of Scotland mission colleges would educate critical generations to struggle against the racism of white settlers. As a journalist on the Scotsman in 1959, I saw at first hand how the Church of Scotland missions in Nyasaland (now Malawi) successfully crippled the British government’s sinister ‘federation’ scheme, designed to put all Central Africa under the control of white Rhodesia.

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