What about Henry Dundas? Ask the students at Lourdes School in Glasgow

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The controversy about the statue of Henry Dundas (Lord Melville) which dominates St Andrew’s Square in Edinburgh, and the debate about changing the plaque to reflect his contested role in delaying the abolition of the slave trade has been, along with the Black Lives Matter movement in general, both a source of teaching opportunities and a challenge for schools.


Earlier this year a group of Scottish schools (and one Canadian – there’s a Dundas Street in Toronto) decided to embrace the controversy as a teaching opportunity. This group worked with Parallel Histories to create a project which challenged their students to really explore into the historical source material about Dundas and form their own views.

Students at Lourdes School

Glasgow schools have done lots of work on their city’s connection to the transatlantic slave trade and students came to the topic of Henry Dundas well-equipped with this knowledge. We asked them to momentarily suspend their own opinion on the degree of complicity that Dundas can be charged with in delaying the end of the slave trade, and create two opposing arguments: one arguing that Dundas was indeed responsible for the delay and the other arguing the opposite. They were tasked with examining the sources and selecting what they believed, after careful and critical evaluation, were the best pieces of evidence to support either side of the case.

Congratulations to the students at Lourdes Secondary School in Glasgow who produced the most consistently high standard of work under the guidance of their history teacher Mr Peter Milne. Below are some extracts from the students’ work which demonstrate the balance and control they brought to creating the arguments and their clear understanding of how conflicting historical interpretations can be derived from the same set of facts:

Henry Dundas HELPED end the slave trade

  • Euan MacLeod: “For decades, countries had profited from the exploitation of Africans and the people of Britain had been radicalised into believing that the subjugation of Africans was routine. It was in this backdrop of political and spiritual awakening that in 1791 Wilberforce presented a Bill to immediately eradicate the slave trade, but it was firmly rejected. Dundas believed he could persuade the Commons to abolish the slave trade as long as it was done gradually, so people could adapt to a new system after years of radicalisation. It was through this ‘gradual’ motion and a 12-point plan that Dundas was able to gain a majority vote at Westminster against the slave trade. This ‘gradual’ ensured Dundas was successful vote for the ultimate abolition of the slave trade. What critics fail to consider is the fact that an immediate abolition would have resulted in absolute failure.”

  • Clara Soderqvist: “The Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 brought attention on Scotland’s role in the Trans- Atlantic slave trade and the role that Henry Dundas played in prolonging this. Undoubtedly, Scotland’s history is tainted by the role it played in profiteering from the misery of slavery. As Celeste-Marie Bernier, professor of Black Studies at Edinburgh University, states, “Slavery bleeds in every building, in every brick, in every town across Scotland.

    However, the recent attention on Henry Dundas and Edinburgh Council’s decision to reword the memorial plague to read “in the memory of more than half a million Africans whose enslavement was a consequence of Henry Dundas’s actions” can be suggested to be unwarranted. While acknowledging that Dundas ‘is not to modern eyes a sympathetic personality’, Professor Sir Tom Devine has rightly criticised this recent activity as ‘scapegoating’ Dundas. Devine has stated that the rewording of the plaque is ‘bad history and in future years will come back to haunt the city council.”

  • Cara Wilson: “Some years prior to the slavery abolishment debates in the 1790s Dundas was the top legal official and represented a multitude of clients, including Joseph Knight, an escaped slave who triumphantly sued for the right to his own freedom. Knight was bought to be owned by a man called John Wedderburn at the age of roughly 12/13. Dundas was seen in the case of Mr Knight to have described slavery as “immoral” and “unjust”. Without the help of Henry Dundas, Knight would’ve died a slave never experiencing freedom. One thing that is undeniable is that Dundas’s argument liberated a slave and gave them the right to live.”

  • Abby Sloey: “Overall, with the benefit of hindsight we can see that the gradual abolishment of the slave trade might not have been the right process. However, it cannot be said that Henry Dundas knew the effects of the plan would be so drastic and would cause more harm. Ultimately, Dundas tried to carry out a slow transition into it without harming the precarious economic and political situation Britain found itself in at the end of the eighteenth century.”

Henry Dundas HINDERED the end of the slave trade

  • Euan MacLeod: “By the 1790s, a political movement to eradicate the slave trade was uprising, led by William Wilberforce, who implemented a bill seeking to abolish slavery. However, Dundas, master of realpolitik, proposed an amendment. By inserting the word ‘gradual’, Dundas allowed the subjugation of slaves to continue for a further 15 years. […] He succeeded in diluting Wilberforce’s bill; a delaying mechanism responsible for the enslavement of 600,000 innocents.

    Furthermore, apologists form a different conclusion, could Dundas not simply be referred to as a product of his time? Simply, no. The ‘product of its time’ assertion makes a ruthless divide between past and present, assuming that the past was ultimately benighted and that we are entirely enlightened. It does so in the name of defending racism. When granted the opportunity to exercise his abolitionism, in 1796, he opposed immediate abolition as politically inconvenient in the content of Britain’s war against racial policy and liberation against France and the Caribbean, demonstrating a man who put the state of the country over the livelihoods of millions.”

  • Clara Soderqvist: “Professor Brian Young of Oxford University argues that ‘the 1792 motion on the immediate cessation of the slave trade was heading for certain defeat’ and that it only passed because of Dundas addition of the word ‘gradual’. I would argue that this assessment fails to take account of the factual background and the growing public support for the abolition of slavery. It is my position that the politicians were backed into a corner and it was only a matter of time before their hands were forced on this issue. By adding the word ‘gradual’ Dundas was able to give a vague commitment to the cause, while preserving his main objective of taking control of France’s Caribbean slaveholding empire. ‘Gaining control of the French colony of Saint

    Domingue, the most profitable slaveholding colony of the age, was his central aim’. Such was his commitment to this cause that a year after Wilberforce bill was passed, Dundas sent British troops to the Caribbean to gain control of the slave trade there. Between 1793 and 1798, 40,000 British troops, mostly sent by Dundas, died or were incapacitated in this fight. It is hard to settle this activity with the assessment that Dundas was strategically fighting to end slavery.”

  • Cara Wilson: “Further incriminating Dundas in 1795 he was accused by other MPs and politicians of encouraging British forces to commit heinous crimes towards the Jamaican Maroons, a free black community in Trelawney Town. This was a community who had 35 years prior signed a treaty with Britain that debatably they had broken causing the British forces to hunt down the Maroons with an army of dogs, In response Dundas defended the Forces actions by stating “The Maroons had been treated with humanity and attention” this obvious attempt of covering up their actions shines a sinister light onto Dundas, and proves he had no intention of abolishing slavery.”

  • Abby Sloey: “Although Dundas eventually put an end to the slave trade, we still need to remember all of his immoral acts without brushing over it and claiming that things are different now. However, it is imperative that we learn from his mistakes and ensure that nothing like that ever happens again and we attempt to make amends for the treatment enslaved Africans and giving back what was taken from them. We must take responsibility for the decisions made in the past and give the praise to those who deserve it, not those who made it worse.”