Slavery: Scotland’s Hidden Shame

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Cat Mackay spoke to filmmakers Don Coutts and David Hayman about their 2018 documentary Slavery: Scotland’s Hidden Shame. Coutts and Hayman travelled to Sierra Leone and Jamaica, bringing to light facts about the Scottish ruling class’s central role in the horrors of the slave trade.

SR: Were you commissioned to make the documentary, or was it your own idea?
DC: I’m pretty sure that myself, David and Dan Grey, who is a writer, were in the pub and I can’t remember who brought it up, but the idea grew from there. We’d all worked together on the documentary Scotch: The Story of Whisky. Dan had written a book called The Scots Who Fought Franco about the Spanish Civil War, and we did a documentary on that together. We pitched the idea of the slavery documentary to the BBC and they went for it. They were very hands-off with the project and let us get on with it the way we wanted, and they didn’t really make any changes to it.
SR: During the documentary you filmed in Bristol, which is of course where the Edward Colston statue was. Its toppling was a symbolic moment for BLM. How do you feel about the statues and the many buildings named after slave traders? Should they stay, go, be moved to a museum, or perhaps have a more honest description on them?
DC: We spent a lot of time doing interviews in Bristol. I think Marvin Rees, the mayor of Bristol, has been amazing. I really admire him because he’s walking a line of being the mayor and being a black man who has to stay unbiased. I think he’s been great. He is such an eloquent speaker and is doing his job as a politician in the best possible way. We did interviews on the bridge there. When I watched the statue go into the water, I thought it was amazing.
Another thing I really like is a plaque at the old royal infirmary in Inverness which is now the UHI [University of the Highlands and Islands] administration office. The plaque that says, ‘The Truth Will Bring Us Together’, ‘Am I not a man or a brother?’ and ‘Am I not a woman or a sister?’. And it says something like, ‘this building was built from the proceeds of slavery’. It was set up by former SNP MSP Jean Urquhart. She’s an amazing woman. Her husband, a lovely guy, Robert, was a brilliant actor. She is very much on the left. She was the person who pushed it through. I know Neil Mackay, a journalist at The Herald, really well. He is doing a big article on it.
I was trying to persuade him to start a national campaign to produce 3,000 of those plaques for every building and statue that’s linked to slavery. They would be instantly recognisable as a way of linking the building to the slave trade. It’s very hard to unsee once you realise how much of our country was built on the back of slavery. It makes you look at things differently. They say when you are in Glasgow to look up, because of the architecture.
I am now so much more aware of these things when I look around. I didn’t actually know that the slave trade was why the Union of the UK was formed. We can’t tear it all down, but we should have other statues of more worthy people instead of alcoholic, rich, middle-aged white men that made their money from the misery of others.
SR: How did you feel about the Colston statue coming down?
DH: I stood at the foot of that statue and looked up when we were filming and thought, ‘you fucking bastard, why are you here? You do deserve to be memorialised, but why do you have such a prominent place in this city?’ I lived in Bristol for about two years. I am deeply fond of Bristol. It is such a multicultural city. I loathed that statue and, I have to say, I did cheer when I watched it being pulled down. It was a very symbolic, cathartic moment. I believe buildings with slave owner names should be changed. I mean, why can’t you? I was asked to do a voiceover for the Green Brigade [Celtic FC ultras] when they went round and put up alternative street names around Glasgow. It was fantastic, and they made a great statement. When you see what happened in Glasgow with people defending statues and abusing asylum seekers it does make you worry. It is very much what my next documentary with Don is about, male toxicity. Neil Mackay is writing it. There is so much toxic masculinity around. Look at Boris Johnson and Trump.
SR: Is it a good idea to highlight buildings which were built off the back of slavery?
DH: Yes, it would be a great solution. They could be everywhere, and it wouldn’t cost a fortune. What I thought was brilliant was when we went onto National Trust properties, we found that they are beginning to explain the history of stately homes. It doesn’t go into a huge amount of detail, but it shows that the true story is beginning to be told. This is why I wanted to do this documentary; to get the true history into popular culture, on telly; to get people talking about it in pubs. So many people don’t know the truth about our past. Our ancestors enslaved, killed, beheaded and raped millions of people. I have wanted to tell this story for 15 years or so.
SR: Did any facts uncovered while making the documentary particularly shock you?
DH: Not really, as this was a subject I’d looked into so much over the years. Although, I didn’t know about the 1781 Zong massacre: 144 Africans were thrown overboard from a slave ship so the slave owners could claim the insurance for them. It was an absolutely horrific act of mass murder. Bunce Island was the place that had the most effect on me. It’s a tiny island off the coast of Sierra Leone where slaves would spend up to three months waiting for ships to transport them to colonies across the Atlantic to the Americas. It’s steeped in this atmosphere.
It just hangs in the air. The stones were transported from Scotland to build their forts and their golf course and the orange walk, as they called it, and all the luxuries that the slave owners had. DC: I think what’s really interesting, and I would love to develop it into something, is that there was a lot of workingclass collusion in the slave trade, whether they knew it or not. This isn’t talked about so much. Places like linen mills in Inverness and Perth produced a linen called slave cloth, made with cotton picked by African slaves.
There was a lot of money coming in as part of the triangular trade. The cotton was coming over here, being made into cloth and being sold back to merchants in Africa. We can’t get away with saying, ‘we made this cloth and we didn’t know anything about it, where it came from’, or that it was going back to be made into clothes for slaves. It is such an interesting thing, isn’t it, that a film like ours quite rightly points the finger at the merchant class and the upper class? But it would be quite interesting to make something that looks at the other side.
It’s like the arms factory in Fife that’s making arms that are being sold to Saudi Arabia and being used to kill innocent people and destroy lives and countries. Nobody is going to sit there screwing up a detonator not knowing what it is going to do. It would’ve taken a lot of courage back then not to do it, as you have a family and you need the money to feed them. I doubt that they had many options. It is really complex, and it was a very different time to what we are living in now. It’s like that amazing song by Elvis Costello called Ship Building. It was written by Robert Wyatt and is about a man who got a job building warships, I think in Newcastle, and being able to buy his boy’s first Christmas present with his wage, but actually knowing what he was doing was contributing to war and death. When you’re living in poverty it’s so much harder to have these morals, and you would do what you had to do to survive.
SR: The Scottish culture that still exists in places like Jamaica is quite incredible.
DH: Indeed. Looking through the Jamaican phone book was incredible, seeing so many Scottish names. The Scottish influence is deeply embedded there, from everything from food to fashion, all these years later. In the women’s World Cup when Scotland played the Jamaican team there were 11 white women and 11 black women, and all of the black women had Scottish names. Filming abroad was hard, listening to some of the stories. Look at Sierra Leone. We ripped that country’s history away from their archives. We stole it, destroyed most of it: 200 years-worth of documentation. They cannot piece their history together until we give them it back. No one really knows where it went. It was possibly all destroyed because it documented the slave trade.
SR: In terms of reparation, what should be done?
DC: Steven Mullen, the guy from Glasgow Uni, took us round ‘the tobacco shed’ in Glasgow. He had done a year’s research into Glasgow Uni’s history with slavery, and consequently the uni has decided to give £2 million in bursaries to young black students in Jamaica. This is a great action, as the reparation issue is very complex. An example like this is a great way forward. Steven wrote an amazing book called It Wisnae Us which is a wonderful philosophical piece on reparation.
SR: How do you think we move on from our past?
DH: If we don’t come to terms with our past and talk openly and honestly, I don’t think we will ever move on from it. Racism is rooted in the slave trade. An industrial escapade that cost millions of people’s lives. We need to talk about it and then we can deal with modern-day racism which surrounds us. The anti-racism work that you do for example Cat, it is so important. It is something we should all be doing to tackle racism everywhere and every time it rears its ugly head. Slavery: Scotland’s Hidden Shame. is available on BBC Scotland