Abolition of the Slave Trade

Black resistance

Illustration of an early 19th century 'lady of quality'

Few black servants in Scotland accepted their status as slaves.

In 1774, an Edinburgh 'lady of quality' from the deck of a ship in the Forth watched a slave being sent back to Jamaica. She wrote:

'We heard a noise and screaming, for the boat that had gone off to bring Ovid, our owner's poor Devil of a Negro man, on board, who was to be laid in irons. We desired to know what crime the poor wretch had committed to deserve such harsh a sentence. The captain replied, he knew of none, for he believed he was a worthier man than his master.'

Owners rarely allowed their slaves to be baptised or to take a Christian first name and surname. This was to maintain their inferior status as 'property'. Some owners made them wear a brass neck collar, like a dog, with their name on it. Here are three stories of slaves who took their bid for freedom to the Scottish courts.



Image of David Spens court case document

A slave called 'Shanker' had been brought from Virginia to Beith in Ayrshire by his master.

There he was trained as a joiner. His owner's intention was to send him back to be sold at a high price. In 1756, against his owner's wishes, Shanker was baptised 'James Montgomery' in the local church. His owner found out and had him put in chains and dragged behind horses to Port Glasgow, where he was forced on board a ship.

With help, James escaped and fled to Edinburgh. There he put his case for freedom before the courts. While his case was being heard he was put in prison. Unfortunately, he fell ill and died before a verdict could be reached.

A slave called 'Black Tom' was brought from the West Indies to Methil in Fife by his owner. He was baptised 'David Spens' at Wemyss in 1769. With the support of a friendly local farmer, David confronted his owner. He said:

'I am now by the Christian religion liberate and set at freedom from my old yoke, bondage, and slavery.'

His owner immediately had him arrested as his 'property'. David had a lot of support from other members of his church and the local miners and salters, whose lives were also very harsh. They collected money to pay for David's lawyers. This time it was the owner who died before the case could be heard. David was set free.

The case of Joseph Knight from Dundee was quite different. His owner had allowed him to be baptised, and paid for his marriage and the baptism of his child. In court, Joseph claimed that he had been promised his freedom 'if he was well behaved' and worked hard for seven years - not for ever.

His owner said he could be set free immediately only if he went back to Jamaica. But Joseph read about a famous court case in England where an owner was stopped from sending his slave back to the colonies. Joseph wanted his freedom now and in Scotland.

His owner took him to court, claiming that he owned Joseph and that Joseph's family would be homeless and starving without the owner's protection, and that therefore Joseph owed him, at least, a lifetime of service as a servant. In 1778, the highest court in Scotland decided in Joseph's favour - he was a free man.

The judges declared:

'... the state of slavery is not recognised by the laws of this Kingdom and repels the master's claim for perpetual service.'

This court case meant that, in 1778, slavery in Scotland was abolished.


Picture credits

David Spens court papers. Image reproduced by permission of the National Archives of Scotland (NAS reference CS236/D/4/3 box 104).