SLAVERY and CASTLE SEMPLE

 

By

Dr Brian Smith

The McDowall’s and Harvey’s combined ownership of Castle Semple spanned 181 years from 1727 to 1908, the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. Both families made their fortunes through the sugar industry of the Caribbean and Indian Ocean. Such trade in the 18th and 19th century was entirely dependent on slaves. In particular, chattel slavery where the person is the personal property (chattel) of the owner and can be bought and sold as a commodity. Prior to its abolition chattel slavery was replaced (for a short while) with indentured labour. In this case the person is not owned by another but is an employee within a system of unfree labour who is bound by a signed or forced contract for a fixed time.

 

Slaves were not restricted to the far off and unseen Caribbean. In 1727 McDowall “ordered” two negro boys from St Kitts to be delivered to Scotland, one as a servant and the other as playmate to his son William.

 

Andrew Crawfurd’s “Cairn of Lochwinnoch Matters” has an interesting entry under Colonel McDowall:-

 

“The old Colonel (McDowall) brought home from St Kitts a negro as a flunkie

or footman. This blackamore was not suitable to the refined taste of the

Jacobitical lady McDowall. She kept a constant war with her husband about

this black. She advised the laird to 'put the Negro away'. One day he ordered

his carriage to be prepared for a long journey. She asked him what was his

business. He replied he could not live without his favourite Negro and he was

determined to separate from her. She was obliged to be content with the black

colour of the Negro skin"

 

Perhaps this is one of the boys referred to above.

 

The grandson of Colonel McDowall placed the following advert in the Caledonian Mercury on 30th January 1784:-

 

“Gone from Castle-Semple, twelve Miles from Glasgow, on Saturday the 30th January,
A NEGRO LAD, named CATO, the Property of Colonel McDowall of Castle-Semple. Whoever secures him, so as to be returned to Colonel McDowall the Owner, or sends notice of his being in Custody to Alexander Houston Merchant in Glasgow, or Andrew Wallace Writer to the Signet at Edinburgh, shall be sufficiently rewarded: And it is earnestly desired that no Person may entertain him, as he has left his Master’s Service without any just Cause.”

 

When I read this it reminded me of an address in the village mentioned in another part of the website – “Black Boy Close” located somewhere off Main Street. Was this perhaps a reference to an earlier link with slaves brought over to Scotland by the owners of Castle Semple?

 

During his first ten years in the Caribbean Colonel McDowall was a trainee planter and slave overseer. This would put him in the centre of the cruel and harsh regime that controlled the slave population. In addition to later owning several hundred slaves on his plantations, McDowall actively participated in the transportation and sale of Africans. There was a high death rate on slave ships crossing the Atlantic. In 1719 on one of McDowall’s ships out of 134 captured slaves a quarter died during the crossing. Once across, it is thought up to 40% of slaves died within the first year on the Leeward islands. In Glasgow, the Colonel was regarded as a gentleman of fine character and the most notable figure in the city. He was also described as “the darling of the city, and did much to shape its social and human qualities.” A recent TV program on Scotland’s links to slavery described Scotland as having selective amnesia with respect to our involvement in this trade.

 

The wills of both John and Robert Harvey refer to their ownership of slaves as you would of any other personal possession. John Harvey’s will makes provision for three “mulatto” (one white and one black parent) children. Presumably his illegitimate children. Was this through love or sexual favour between slave and master much like the sexual exploitation scandal which engulfed Oxfam aid workers in Haiti. A granddaughter, Sarah, of their older brother Alexander married a lawyer in England, Robert Wilburforce, and the two became involved in the abolitionist movement.

 

The value of the sugar crop meant little land was set aside to grow food. The slaves were entirely dependant on imports of food and clothes by their masters e.g. salted herring from Scotland. As this was expensive it was minimised. By the middle of the 18th century, the islands of the Caribbean were the most valuable parts of the British empire, and the large island of Jamaica, with its huge sugar plantations and brutal slave regime, was the jewel in the imperial crown.

 

There was no room for kindness in slavery, the law also penalised lenient white masters who were a threat to the security of the majority. Minor theft or a careless glance resulted in the loss of a limb or life. One of the cruellest and most disgusting punishments was Derby’s Dose. The slave would be beaten, and salt pickle, lime juice, and bird pepper would be rubbed into his or her open wounds. Another slave would defecate into the mouth of the miscreant, who would then be gagged for four to five hours.

 

But physical abuse alone could not keep the lucrative plantations of the British Caribbean productive. It is impossible to get large groups of people to perform sustained labour effectively and consistently for years on end simply through doling out pain and raw terror. Even the most brutal of slaveholders were therefore compelled to develop a sophisticated system of management that exploited the most human aspirations and fears of the people they dominated.

 

Creating divisions between slaves was essential to this. Enslaved people outnumbered free whites in the British Caribbean. Managers needed to divide slaves in order to rule over them. The slave trade from Africa provided them with one opportunity. It was a general policy to ‘have the Negroes on an estate a mixture of nations to balance one set against another, to be sure of having two-thirds join the whites’ (in the event of an uprising). The theory behind this was that enslaved people from one African ‘nation’ would refuse to join rebellions plotted by those from others, or by creole (locally born) slaves, choosing instead to serve their white masters in the hope of rewards for loyal service.

 

Privileging some enslaved people above others was another effective means of sowing discord. Slaveholders encouraged complex social hierarchies on the plantations that amounted to something like a system of ‘class’. At the top of plantation slave communities in the sugar colonies of the Caribbean were skilled men, trained up at the behest of white managers to become sugar boilers, blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, masons and drivers. Such men were, in general, materially better-off than field slaves (most of whom were women), and they tended to live longer.

 

Slavery was as complex as it was cruel. Negotiating its grim realities required determination and skill, even selfishness; and it was next to impossible to endure without making compromises of one kind or other. All enslaved people responded to their predicaments in ordinary ways, albeit under extraordinary pressures. They did what they could to keep alive and, if possible, to capitalise on scant opportunities within the system in which they were trapped.

 

In 1772, a legal ruling in the Somerset case – where James Somerset, a runaway slave, challenged the right of his former owner to forcibly return him to Jamaica – effectively established that the state of slavery did not exist in English law. This judgement emancipated between 10-14,000 slaves in England and also ruled that slavery contracted in other jurisdictions, including the American colonies, could not be enforced in England.

 

In Scotland, a similar ruling was reached in 1777 when Joseph Knight, having read about the Somerset case, left his master John Wedderburn. The full panel of the Court of Session, including Lord Kames (an important legal and social historian and a prominent figure in the Scottish Enlightenment), reached the decision that the state of chattel slavery (where one person is directly owned by another) did not exist in Scottish Law. Although Knight was freed, he was still legally bound to his master as an indentured apprentice for perpetual servitude. The case for Knight was partly prepared by Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, under the premise that ‘no man is by nature the property of another’ and that, since there was no proof that Knight had voluntary given up his freedom, he should be emancipated.

 

While trading in slaves was outlawed in the British Empire in 1807, and the Royal Navy deployed to prevent it, slaves could still be held in the colonies. In 1827, Britain declared that participation in the slave trade was piracy and therefore punishable by death. Britain could not have become the most powerful economic force on earth by the turn of the 19th century without commanding the largest slave plantation economies on earth, with more than 800,000 people enslaved.

 

Slaves were eventually freed in the colonies by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, although most remained bound to their masters through an ‘apprenticeship’ system that was not outlawed until 1838. A substantial amount of compensation was paid to plantation owners for their loss, while the former slaves received nothing. Even in Scotland during the 18th century a system of indentured labour existed by which workers – particularly miners – were bound to perpetual service in a state of serfdom. These Scottish ‘slaves’ were not freed until 1799.

 

Parliament established a system of indentured servitude or "apprenticeship" that required slaves to continue to labour for their former owners as apprentices. The gradual emancipation measure was implemented to ease the transition from slavery to freedom for slaves but it was in large part a result of British concerns about emancipation's effect on West Indian sugar production. As stipulated in the emancipation act, field hands were apprenticed for a period of six years, household labourers were to work for four, and children under the age of six were immediately freed. All apprentices' names were to be placed on a registry that served as documentation of their required service. Apprentices, were required to work no more than forty-five hours per week without compensation but were paid for any additional labour performed. Policy makers reasoned that the opportunity for some paid labour would teach slaves how to be industrious. In return for unpaid labour, ex slaves received food, housing, clothing and medical treatment from their employers though the Act did not specify precise quantities. Apprentices were prohibited from working on Sundays. If financially able to pay the remaining years of their service, an apprentice could purchase his or her own freedom.

The British had been the world's largest slave dealers. Ships of the Empire carried 3.4 million Africans to a life of servitude and often early death. This amounted to as many slaves transported as all other European nations combined.

At its peak annual shipments reached 42,000. By the late eighteenth century, the British were the biggest proponents of the abolition of slavery worldwide. But before we give ourselves a pat on the back consider the following.

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 provided for payments to slave-owners. The amount of money to be spent on the payments was set at "the Sum of Twenty Million Pounds Sterling". Under the terms of the Act, the British government raised £20 million (£16.5 billion in today’s money) to pay out for the loss of the slaves as business assets to the registered owners of the freed slaves. In 1833, £20 million amounted to 40% of the Treasury's annual income or approximately 5% of the British GDP (5% of the British GDP in 2016 was around £100 billion). To finance the payments, the British government had to take on a £20 million loan, finalised on 3 August 1835, with banker Nathan Mayer Rothschild and his brother-in-law Moses Montefiore. The money was not paid back until 2015!!!!. I wonder what 180 years of interest on £20m meant we, the British taxpayers, actually paid Rothchild and Montefiore.

 

Half of the money went to slave-owning families in the Caribbean and Africa, while the other half went to absentee owners living in Britain. Not a penny to compensate the slaves. The names listed in the returns for slave owner payments show that ownership was spread over many hundreds of British families, many of them (though not all) of high social standing. For example, Henry Phillpotts (then the Bishop of Exeter), with three others (as trustees and executors of the will of John Ward, 1st Earl of Dudley), was paid £12,700 for 665 slaves in the West Indies, whilst Henry Lascelles, 2nd Earl of Harewood received £26,309 for 2,554 slaves on 6 plantations.

 

The Treasury post a “surprising Friday Fact” on their Twitter page and on Friday the 9th February 2018 posted:

The box reads:-

“Did you know? In 1833, Britain used £20 million, 40% of its national budget, to buy freedom for all slaves in the Empire. The amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn’t paid off until 2015. Which means that living British citizens helped pay to end the slave trade.”

 

What the Treasury didn’t mention was that the £20m was paid out to the 46,000 slave owners, to compensate them for the loss of their human property. Compensation was a mechanism by which Britain was finally able to end a system that millions of people had come to regard as abhorrent, and a national disgrace. It was a way out. The abolitionists agonised over it. To accept the principle of compensation was at odds with their fundamental moral position: that it was impossible for one human being to own another, to hold “property in men”, as they put it. The only people who saw the payment of compensation as a positive were the people who had spent three decades campaigning for it and would be the beneficiaries of it – the slave owners.

 

Within hours of the Treasury’s tweet being posted it was evident that surprise was not the dominant emotion it was eliciting. Anger and incredulity were more in evidence. Lexington Wright tweeted:

 

“So basically, my father and his children and grandchildren have been paying taxes to compensate those who enslaved our ancestors, and you want me to be proud of that fact. Are you f**king insane???”

 

To pay the £20m to the slave owners, the government set up the Slave Compensation Commission, which like all bureaucracies left behind detailed records of its financial outgoings. By accident, the process of compensation created a nearly complete census of British slavery: the names of all the slave owners on 1 August 1834, the day on which slavery ended – and of course “apprenticeship” began. This is how we know the scale of slave ownership of the so-called plantocracy, the super-rich of their age: men such as John Gladstone, the father of prime minister William Ewart Gladstone. The Gladstones were paid £100,000 – the modern equivalent of about £80m – in compensation for 2,500 men, women and children they regarded as property. Also in the records of the Slave Compensation Commission are the ancestors of George Orwell, Graham Greene, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Gilbert Scott – all owned slaves and received compensation. 

So, what of our Castle Semple slave owners. Records show the following:-

Based on the multiplier for Gladstone the cumulative amount paid to the Harvey dynasty was £23.8m and to the last McDowall owner of Castle Semple £4.1m in todays money. The ill-judged tweet was quickly removed. The photograph below outlines the trade routes associated with slavery in the Caribbean.

Lochwinnoch today is a quiet dormitory town which has a proud industrial heritage, it had families of wealth and influence and even connections to royalty which by association may make you feel a sense of pride in the village. The article “The Dark Side Of The Semples” relates the less pleasant side of our betters. Pat (the sites co-author) posted three video’s on YouTube he made entitled “Lochwinnoch Through The Ages”, someone commented – “The Semples were thugs.” I think that is a polite summary. The McDowall’s and Harvey’s were up to their armpits in the slave trade. And the transformation of the village from a farming community to an industrial centre was accomplished via the wealth they gained from the cruelty of slavery. There is one beacon of light from these three families, the son of the last laird whose story is told in the article “Shand”.