The descendants of Henry Dundas say they are “surprised and disappointed” that plans to install a “false and misleading” plaque on the Melville Monument, in Edinburgh, have been approved – and are insisting their ancestor was in fact an abolitionist.
Bobby Dundas, the 10th Viscount Melville and a professional Polo player, and Jennifer Dundas, a Canadian broadcast journalist, say Edinburgh City Council has “blundered” in its decision to allow the installation of a plaque on their distant relatives’ monument, which outlines his role in delaying the abolition of slavery.
However, Sir Geoff Palmer, the independent chair of the council’s Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialsm Legact Review Group, which is reviewing historic links to slavery in the capital, says the evidence against Dundas is unequivocable.
This week, the local authority approved plans to add a plaque to the St Andrew Square landmark – denouncing Henry Dundas’ role in deferring abolition of the slave trade and his role in expanding the British Empire.
The Category A-listed monument pays tribute to Henry Dundas, the 1st Viscount Melville, the trusted right hand man of Prime Minister William Pitt and at one time the most powerful politician in Scotland.
Dundas is a controversial figure in Scottish history, due to his role in subjugating indigenous populations in the British Empire and for his part in delaying the abolition of the slave trade.
He was the Scottish Lord Advocate, an MP for Edinburgh and Midlothian, and the First Lord of the Admiralty.
As first lord of the admiralty, Dundas deliberately prolonged slavery to protect the elite in the 1800s – forcing about 630,000 slaves to wait more than a decade for their freedom.
However, the living relatives of Dundas have pushed back against claims he was complicit in the continuing of the slave trade.
In a joint letter, Bobby Dundas and Jennifer Dundas said: “The council has approved wording for a new plaque that is false and misleading.
“The claim that Henry Dundas caused the enslavement of more than half a million Africans is patently false.
“The truth is: ‘Dundas was the first MP to advocate in Parliament for the emancipation of slaves in the British territories along with the abolition of the slave trade.’
“Dundas’s efforts resulted in the House of Commons voting in favour of ending the Atlantic slave trade for the first time in its history.
“Earlier in his career, Dundas led the legal team that helped a slave [Joseph Knight] from Jamaica achieve his freedom in Scotland, achieving a declaration from Scotland’s highest civil court that no person could be a slave on Scottish soil.
“The process by which the statement was adopted by Edinburgh City Council, and the statement itself, were soundly denounced by Scotland’s most eminent historian, Professor Sir Thomas Devine.
“It is surprising, indeed, that Edinburgh City Council would accept the interpretation of the two political activists over an expert in Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade.”
Sir Geoff, on the other hand, says the evidence against Dundas proves he was pro-slavery.
Of particular interest, he says, is a letter Henry Dundas wrote to a member of the House of Lords, on the day a bill from the famous abolitionist William Wilberforce was defeated in the House of Commons by a vote of 74-70. Dundas declined to vote on the bill, despite the narrow margin.
The letter, which Sir Geoff owns, concludes: “I have not time to write more. The time is near five and I must go to oppose the proposals on for abolition of the slave trade.”
Sir Geoff said: “They’re now trying to work out exactly what Henry Dundas meant by that – it’s obvious what he meant.
“CLR James, the great black historian, who did a lot of work on Dundas, tried to draw Dundas to our attention and we never took any notice.
“CLR James, in his book ‘The Black Jacobins’, says on 18th February, 1796, Dundas went to Parliament and opposed the abolition of the slave trade.
“Therefore, we have a respected historian concurring with the letter, which I’ve got a copy of.
“At the beginning of the letter, Dundas was involved in purchasing slaves for the British Army. He ordered Earl Balcarres to purchase slaves.
“He said in the beginning of the letter he’d just had a two-hour meeting with the Duke of York, who was the main advocate of the purchasing of slaves for the British Army.”
Sir Geoff continued: “Dundas did help Joseph Knight, so there’s a certain amount of balancing to do.
“But the truth of that is, Dundas, as Lord Advocate in 1776, pleaded for Knight, but the statement comes from the Caledonian Mercury, which says that Dundas, as they all did – said slavery was terrible.
“But what they’ve left out is that Dundas also said in that statement, every black man in Jamaica is a slave. Therefore he was confirming the legality of British slavery in the Carribean.
“When the judgement was made, in 1778, the judges said that Joseph Knight is free in Scotland but if he goes to Jamaica he’s a slave.
“So the Joseph Knight case is about reaffirming slavery in the Carribean – Joseph Knight is incidental, he was on sixpence pocket money, how could he get to the High Court?
“This about how people have manipulated our history.
“Joseph Knight wasn’t a slave, he was a servant – so how could we abolish slavery in Scotland when there were no slaves?”
Story by local democracy reporter Joseph Anderson