Sugar and Tobacco

Individually we may not be able to atone for the past, but we must acknowledge it.

Fiction is often the gateway into fact for me. The books that stay with me longest are frequently those that have changed the way that I look at the world, taught me something fundamental or submerged me in an unfamiliar culture. Books like Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which centres on the Nigerian-Biafran war of 1967-1970, a war about which I was shamefully almost entirely ignorant until I read the book, or Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits which, even though the Latin American country in which it is set is unnamed, was my point of discovery of the history and politics of Chile and led me towards the more factual (but beautifully written) books about South American history and politics by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy—one of my favourite books of all time—not only evoked the most profound memories of the short time that I worked in West Bengal but, mirroring the unfolding family saga, it detailed the complicated and fascinating history of India in a way I hadn’t, and have never since, read elsewhere. And when I thought I had nothing more to learn about Henry VIII and his court, I read Hilary Mantel’s outstanding Wolf Hall, and her version of the French Revolution in A Place of Greater Safety is just as astonishing. Of course, I read these books aware that I’m reading a novel, not a factual account. But there is a joy in that discovery that stimulates me to delve beyond the fiction.

Likewise, personal stories, whether fictional or biographical, often illuminate events in a way that factual accounts may not. I’m sure that it is part of the human condition that it is so much easier to relate to the story of an individual rather than a large group. However terrible the suffering, when we are presented with pictures and news reports of thousands of refugees, famine victims, people displaced by war, it can somehow become overwhelming and  impersonal. Which is why documentaries like the BAFTA award winning documentary The Boy on the Bicycle which focuses on the daily life of a few children in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, or the dramatised story of the Rotherham abuse cases in the heart-rending but brilliant BBC drama Three Girls are so effective in helping us understand the true horror of situations that are thankfully outside of our normal sphere. (I deliberately avoid the term empathise here because even if we are deeply touched by these stories, I think it diminishes the horror to imply that we can truly imagine what it was like for those involved.)

Joseph Knight by James Robertson is one of those novels that has set me off on a journey of discovery. It has been on my To Read list since I read his later novels, A Testament of Gideon Mack and The Land Lay Still. It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of the author. A Testament of Gideon Mack was one of the books (along with several by Rupert Thomson) that persuaded me that I could write a novel with bizarre and unworldly happenings but which was rooted firmly in (my) reality so the book did not become overtly supernatural or make the leap into magical realism.

Joseph Knight is a different type of book to Gideon Mack. Based on true events of late eighteenth, early nineteenth century Scotland, it tells a fictionalised version of the fight for freedom of an African slave, Joseph Knight. Sir John Wedderburn brought Knight with him to Perthshire when he returned home to reestablish himself among the Scottish aristocracy after making his fortune in Jamaica as a sugar planter. Educated and baptised, Knight was a trophy of sorts for Wedderburn, a symbol of his benevolence and his enlightened thinking. He was, though, above all else Wedderburn’s property. But when Knight learned of Lord Mansfield’s ruling in the Somerset case (1772) (a ruling that said chattel slavery was unsupported by common law in England and Wales but was worded carefully enough to ensure it didn’t go so far as to grant Somerset his freedom) he demanded to work freely for wages and eventually, with the help of—among others—Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, took his fight to the courts.

Joseph Knight’s fight to win his freedom turned into a protracted legal battle. Similar cases in Scotland had previously come to nothing when the cases were (we assume, deliberately) drawn out for so long that either the plaintiff or the defendant died. Knight’s case was different. After four years it reached the Lords of Session, the highest court in Scotland. The verdict was a defining moment in the Scottish legal history and a vital boost for the abolition movement when in 1778 Knight was granted his freedom and it was deemed illegal to own personal slaves in Scotland. The Lords of Session ruling was clearer than Mansfield’s previous ruling and, in this respect, Scotland was well ahead of the rest of Britain. However, it would be another thirty odd years before the slave trade to the British Colonies became illegal and British ships were no longer allowed to carry slaves (1807), and a full fifty-five years before the complete abolition of slavery (1833) which itself took nearly five years to implement.

In an early version of The Backstreets of Purgatory, one of the characters was Pearl, a Jamaican woman who had come to Glasgow in the fifties. Sadly, Pearl was among those who didn’t make the final version of the novel. She was cut in an extensive rewrite, not because of any particular problem with her as a character but simply because my first draft was over-populated and her role was relatively minor. (I’ve written about how difficult it is to let go of characters once you have invested time in getting to know them but Pearl hasn’t been completely discarded. She’ll definitely be back in a future novel.) Around the time I was developing her character I did a fair amount of research into the history of slavery and its connection to Scotland. Who could miss the dramatic irony of Pearl thriving in a city where the wealth from sugar and tobacco is soaked into the stone.

Joseph Knight reminded me again of how deep Scotland’s link with slavery was.

Robertson’s novel is written on the foundations of meticulous research and revealing detail. Similar details permeate the Canadian novel The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (2007). One woman’s fictional (but closely researched) story, it is an epic novel, laden with history, which disturbed and educated me with its appalling and haunting explicitness. Like the horrific smell of the slave ships, moored for weeks on the West African coast while they were loaded with their captives, reeking from excrement and the festering dead, ships which could be smelt from miles away even at sea as if the stench formed a physical cloud around them. This horrific detail told me more about the conditions on the ship than any amount of facts about the numbers who died on the notorious Atlantic crossings.

Recently I spent an afternoon in the museum of the town where I grew up. Montrose is about twenty miles north of Dundee on the East coast of Scotland, an area known (to me) more for its historical connection to farming, fishing and flax than for any direct link to slavery (I had not made the connection between flax and linen exports). By the late 18th, early 19th century Montrose had become a thriving port, with the town expanding on the wealth gained from its shipping trade. With Joseph Knight fresh in my mind, I came across a display marking out the new villas being built in the town in these booming economic conditions. I was well aware that several major cities—London, Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow—had vastly expanded as ports on the back of the triangular Atlantic trade which saw various merchandise (copper, textiles, guns, ammunition, other goods) taken in ships to the West African coast and traded for slaves, who were then shipped to the Americas and re-traded principally for sugar and tobacco. It hadn’t occurred to me that the shipping merchants in a small town like Montrose were profiting in the same way. Thankfully, though, that the museum didn’t shy away from mentioning it.

Farm land near Montrose
Farmland near Montrose

Embedded in the Scottish psyche is its pride in its preeminent role in the Enlightenment. In the 18th century, Scotland produced more than its fair share of philosophers, scientists, surgeons, writers, thinkers. But Joseph Knight has made me view that period of history and the main players with a more nuanced outlook. With all the advances of the Enlightenment, the new ways of thinking about humanity, economics, science, it is almost impossible to credit that not all these so-called ‘Enlightened thinkers’ were against slavery. Even James Boswell who had assisted Joseph Knight with his case changed his opinion on slavery and published the disgusting poem No Abolition of Slavery in 1791. And for those who were actively campaigning against slavery, it seems that the plight of the individuals was often irrelevant to their argument. Adam Smith was vocal in his objections to slavery, but purely for hard economic reasons. He advocated a wage-labour economy arguing that the net production under freedom was twelve fold higher than under slavery. Hardly the argument of a moral crusade.

Thankfully, there were people within the abolition movement who campaigned because of the moral injustice. Men like Zachary Macauley and William Dickson. Women like Jane Smeal and Eliza Wigham. Anti-slavery societies produced pamphlets to spread the word to an ill-informed public. In a time when only a tiny proportion of the population were entitled to vote, these societies relentlessly petitioned parliament in an attempt to change the law. The former slave Olaudah Equiano wrote an account of his life The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African and toured up and down the country.

Olaudah Equiano
Olaudah Equiano

Gradually the abolitionists gained the upper hand. However, when the law eventually changed and abolition was enforced, it wasn’t the former slaves that were compensated for their kidnapping and enslavement. Rather the government paid out huge sums to slave owners as compensation and artificially propped up the price of British sugar so the planters would not be vastly out of pocket.

We can’t hide from the fact that Britain (and Scotland, perhaps disproportionately) benefited enormously from the economic benefits derived from plantations and slavery. Although not every plantation owner amassed great riches, there were plenty who did. Many returned, like John Wedderburn and his brother James, to build or expand vast country estates. Others never ventured to the Americas but made huge profits on British soil from shipping and trade. Britain’s economy in the early and mid nineteenth century owed a massive debt to slavery. We can argue over the detailed economics as to whether the slave trade directly provided the means for Britain’s industrial revolution as the Trinidadian scholar Eric Williams claimed in his 1944 book Capitalism and Slavery but it absolutely cannot be argued that it didn’t play a central role.

Slave trading led to increased urbanisation in the port cities, a boom in the practice of merchant banking. Increased population with readily available funding meant the conditions were ripe for industrialisation and manufacturing. It was the cotton mill industry in particular that marked the tipping point in Britain’s industrial revolution. However, without the merchant banks to fund them—banks who had made their money directly off the back of slavery—there would have been no cotton mills. Moreover, from the records of those scandalous compensation awards made to slave owners after the 1833 Act of Abolition, funds from slavery can be directly traced into railway lines, canal building, property. Huge sections of society profited directly. Wealthy slave owners were embedded in our educational, cultural, political, philanthropic establishments but slave owning was not only the preserve of the upper classes, the plantation owners or wealthy mercantile class. Small investments in plantations (and hence slaves) were often sources of income for the less wealthy middle classes. It chills me to imagine how many of our families are implicated. It is possible to search the records by name, by place, by commercial, cultural, imperial, political, historical impact and it makes for sickening reading.

And what about our the towns built on sugar and tobacco. There is a tragic irony in the terrible health consequences of both of these products. Rates of smoking related deaths and type 2 diabetes in Scotland are still among the highest in Europe. I’m not a religious person. I don’t believe in divine justice or anything of that nature but I wouldn’t have to push the boundaries of my imagination too far to wonder if in some way we weren’t paying for the sins of our forefathers.

History used to have right side and a wrong side. A moral path and the immoral path. Or at least that is how I understood it when I was much younger. But it is far more complicated. Proud though we may be of Scotland’s preeminent role in the Enlightenment, its early legal ruling in the case of Joseph Knight and its strong grass roots abolition movement, we shouldn’t shy away from our difficult past either.

And when we admire the grand architecture of cities like Glasgow and our other towns, let’s not forget where the money came from. Individually we may not be able to atone for the past, but we must acknowledge it. As Finn remarks of Glasgow in The Backstreets of Purgatory:

‘Sugar and tobacco. The dark twin souls of the city.’


Scotland and the Slave Trade. 2007 The Bicentennial of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. St Andrew’s University

Scotland and Slavery. Black History Month

Enslavement and Industrialisation. BBC History

The History of George Dale, A native of Africa 1790. National Archives of Scotland

The Zong Massacre 1781.

Making excuses for Hume: slavery, racism and a reassessment of David Hume’s thoughts on personal liberty. Glen Doris


Featured image: Revolt aboard Slave Ship, 1787 From William Fox, A Brief History of the Wesleyan Missions on the West Coast of Africa (London, 1851), via

Olaudah Equiano/Gustavo Vassa, 1789. Engraving from the frontispiece from first edition of Equiano’s Narrative via was compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Images reproduced under the terms and conditions.

Author: Helen M Taylor

Author of The Backstreets of Purgatory

6 thoughts on “Sugar and Tobacco”

  1. Such a shocking issue. I love stories that immerse me in other nations and/ or points in history, as well. And I like how you delineate the limits of empathy at the beginning. I’m a big proponent of literature expanding our capacity for empathising, but you’re right. There are some horrors we have no right to claim we can fully understand. For me, it was supporting in a Year 9 History class and learning that sharks STILL follow the triangle trade route because there was so much death, degradation and carnage coming from those ships, it’s now ingrained in the species’ memory…That brought home some of the horror to me.


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