Alex Renton is a British-Canadian journalist and the author of Blood Legacy: Reckoning With a Family’s Story of Slavery.
In February, 1781, Sir Adam Fergusson – a member of the British Parliament and an aristocratic landowner in Scotland – received a very unusual visitor at his London house. The man was called Augustus Thomson, he was Black, and he had travelled 5,000 miles in great danger in order to see Sir Adam and seek his assistance and his mercy.
Until a few months prior, Thomson had been a slave on Adam’s sugar plantation in Jamaica. He had status there: He was the veterinary surgeon and doctor to the other enslaved people. He fell out with the white overseers, who whipped him, his wife, mother and children, then took their possessions and burnt down their hut. So Dr. Caesar – his “slave name” – ran away, smuggled himself onto a ship and arrived in London to plead for justice from the ultimate boss: the plantation’s owners.
These were Sir Adam, my great-times-six uncle, and his brother Charles, my great-times-five grandfather. It is in their papers that I found Thomson/Caesar’s dictated account of what happened. They owned him (and 170 other enslaved people) in Jamaica – but not in London. In Britain, at the dawn of the popular anti-slave trade campaign, it had at last become legally impossible for one man to own another.
So Sir Adam’s task, as he puts it, was to persuade the free Thomson to “return to his duty” – go back to Jamaica and become Caesar the slave again. He was, after all, valuable property – worth £120. The equivalent today could buy you a large family car.
Sir Adam heard Thomson out. He promised him that he would put things right and that no action would be taken against him if he went back to the plantation. Presumably desperate to see his family, Thomson agreed – though runaways were severely punished back in the slavery colonies, often executed.
A berth was found for Thomson on a Royal Navy warship going to Jamaica. Then Sir Adam wrote to the manager of the plantation to boast of a job – his own – well done. The manager, he decided, could do as he saw fit with the returning runaway. The story does not end well for Thomson or his family.
I found many horrific things in my ancestors’ papers covering the 75 years during which my ancestors owned people – nearly a thousand of them – on plantations in Tobago and Jamaica. There are the grotesque punishments, the brandings, the selling of children, the senseless deaths – on average an adult on the plantation survived less than five years – and all the banal cruelties of the business of farming humans.
My great-uncle, Sir Adam, was a member of the governing Whig party in Parliament, many of whom were pro-abolition. (He was a friend and ally of the politician Henry Dundas, whose name has just been removed from Toronto’s streets). He did not balk at using his position for personal advantage. When in 1792 the first slave trade abolition bill is put to Parliament, Sir Adam writes to Jamaica telling the Scottish manager to buy more young women before prices go up: it will be good business to “breed” more slaves, if they can’t import people from Africa.
But the Caesar/Augustus Thomson story stands out for me amid all the greed and carnage, not just because it is a unique account of life on an 18th-century plantation. It is my ancestor’s casual betrayal of the man who came to him looking for decency that horrifies me. Sir Adam was a reformer, an educated man who played a part in the Scottish enlightenment, a reader of philosophy, a landowner known for treating his Scottish tenants well, a Christian. His word was his honour; he would not give it lightly. Unless it was to a Black man.
Why is this important today? This racism made slavery possible – people like my ancestors could not do to white people what they did to Black people. Racism was a cornerstone of the British Empire: It allowed the British to divide and rule. In India, in Africa, setting one religion or ethnic group over another was systematic, an efficient, economic way of controlling the masses so that just a few white men could rule. The Indigenous people of Canada, Australia and the Caribbean were expendable, if profit or politics required it: Sugar planting had wiped out almost all the Taino and Carib peoples in the British Caribbean colonies by the late 18th century. British historians tend to explain away this genocide as being chiefly the result of exposure to European diseases.
When I went to Jamaica and Tobago, to the sites of the Fergusson plantations, I asked people how the slavery era affected them today. Almost everyone mentioned “colourism” first. On the plantations, you got a better job if your skin was lighter – because that implied you had white blood: you were better. At emancipation in the British Caribbean, “coloured” people had more rights than “black.” The legacy of that lives on today, in the Caribbean and in the racism and inequality that divides Britain – and also Canada.
So what do we do about this now? Reparations is a dirty word in Conservative Britain: We have not even apologized for our 250 years of slavery and slave trading. But many other countries have embraced the principle that reparative justice can go some way to righting these wrongs. Canada has seen that in its approach to the awful history of abuse and exploitation of the First Nations. France is in talks with Haiti; the Netherlands has apologized to Ghana for its part in the trade that took 14 million people out of West Africa.
In the United States, reparations for slavery and the injustice that came after it is on the political agenda. I hope that Scotland, where I live, will start to discuss reconciliation with the islands where so many Scots made fortunes – some of whom retired to Canada to enjoy them. As one Scot of Jamaican origin, professor Sir Geoffrey Palmer, put it: “You can’t change the history. But you can change the consequences.”
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