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David Alston's Slaves & Highlanders

Sharing my research on Highland Scots and the slave plantations of Guyana

Surprisingly, the ‘most widely read and graphic account of the cruelties of the [slave] trade' [Simon Schama, Rough Crossings] — and, because it was by an eye-witness and participant, the most influential account — was largely based on voyages under a Highland sea captain.

See web-page on James Fraser, a Bristol-based captain, whose family roots were in the parish of Kiltarlity, Inverness-shire).

Alexander Falconbridge's Account of the African Slave Trade (1788) was based on the author's experiences as a ship's surgeon on four slaving voyages, three of them under James Fraser on the Tartar and the Emilia.

Both Falconbridge and Fraser gave evidence to a Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1790, Falconbridge for the abolitionists and Fraser for the pro-slavery lobby.

David Robinson reviewing the Ullapool Book Festival (Scotsman, 9 May 2017):

I’ll end, though, with an event featuring a historian – and a history – who and which are far less well known. Before going in to David Alston’s talk about the involvement of Scots in the slave trade, I had thought that it was all so long ago that the question of reparations no longer arises. Quietly, dispassionately, and concentrating on Highlanders’ involvement in the slave plantations in Guyana, Alston picked apart that certainty. Tracing the reparations paid compensate slave owners in 1834 – proportionately a bigger sum even than the 2008 banks’ bail out – he showed how Scots at all levels benefited from slavery, but how we still collectively ignore this, perhaps even more so than in England, “because it doesn’t fit with the narrative of our own victimhood”.

Recovering Scotland's Slavery Past (ed Tom Devine) was Edinburgh's University Press's best-selling title in 2015/16.

My chaper in this book is ‘The habits of these creatures in clinging one to the other': Enslaved Africans, Scots and the plantations of Guyana'.

Other recent publications

Details and links to recent peer-reviewed chapters and articles.



Recently added resources on this site

Reports of the Titles to Land Commissioners

A small group of commissioners were appointed in British Guiana in the late nineteenth century to settle disputed claims to land and to clarify titles. Although not a comprehensive survey of land ownership, their reports are a vaulable insight into the complex history of land ownership, especially after emancipation. The report on Berbice (1893) is particularly detailed and runs to 900 pages. Those on Demerara and Essequibo are less so.

A complete set of the reports (possibly the only surviving complete set) was part of the library of the Colonial Office and is now held in the Foyles Special Collections at King's College, London. My thanks to the staff for helping me access these reports.

Sample page: claims to Belladrum, Berbice

Below is a link to a summary of the contents of the Berbice volume:

Summary of contents of Berbice Report

Check the Library for other resources

First Scots in Guyana: For a summary of the first Scots to become involved with plantations in Guyana see the notes which can be downloaded here.

Scots in Surinam: I am beginning to add information on Scots in the neighbouring Dutch colony of Surinam, many of whom moved there from Berbice. Slavery was not abolished in Surinam until 1863 and so these were some of Britain's last slave owners. See Scots in Surinam on this site.

Philip Dikland of KDV Architects, Paramaribo, Suriname has created a database of information on the history of 400 plantations in Surinam. This extraordinarily rich Heritage Database can be accessed through KDV's web site.

Right: Statue of Tata Colin, messianic leader of a slave rising on the Scottish-owned plantation Leasowes (Coronie, Surinam) in 1835.


Finding you way around the site? - this may help:

Index of 618 people with connections to the Highlands and plantations in Guyana.

Indexes also now available for Other Scots, English, Irish, North American, Other Caribbean and Other European

Or try using the FIND box at the top of the right-hand column on this page which will search within this site.


Joshua Bryant's idealised Rainbow over a Plantation (top) contrasts with the same artist's illustration of slaves executed after the Demerara slave uprising of 1823.