Monday, 8 December 2008

"Do not forget the role of Scots in slavery"

In the bar of an Edinburgh hotel, Geoff Palmer is hooting with laughter. After decades toiling away in the drinks industry, that most masculine of trades, he is amazed to find he is suddenly something of a ladies' man.

A year ago, he gave a lecture on Scotland and the Caribbean slave trade to 2,000 women from the Church of Scotland Guild. They were enraptured; now wherever he goes, a tweedy woman will be ready to accost and tell him how wonderful he is. “There's nowhere to hide, they always find me,” he laughs.

It seems faintly ridiculous that such a engaging man should be cast as a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad. Yet Palmer has recently become a thorn in the side of the SNP administration, one of the fiercest critics of Homecoming Scotland, its £5 million tartan, golf and whisky tourism initiative for 2009 which has been aimed at people described as expatriate “affinity Scots”.

“'Affinity Scots?'” Palmer growls in disbelief. “They mean 'affinity Scots with money'. No Scot I know would use those words. Affinity means white money and this is all aimed at wealthy Americans. But you could go to Jamaica, and find as many Scottish towns as there are in Scotland: Glasgow, Dundee, Inverness. In fact, why not hold Homecoming Scotland in the Caribbean?”

Palmer, 68, was born and brought up in Jamaica, but has lived in Scotland since 1964 (“in other words, longer than Sean Connery”).

Two years ago he retired as professor of grain science at Heriot-Watt University, where in the course of a distinguished career he compiled the standard work on beer and whisky-making.

Even in retirement he still regularly advises the industry giants. “You should inform Mr Salmond that he has insulted his leading expert on whisky,” he says with mock solemnity, before subsiding into laughter.

For all his good humour, there is a gravity to his message. Palmer's quest is to make the Scottish government and VisitScotland, its tourism agency, understand that Jamaica should feature prominently in any “Homecoming” campaign, because Scotland's imprint is all over the island.

This is a moment, he says, for Scots to get to grips with an untold history, a past which still divides the world today.

His focus is slavery and its legacy, which has left most of modern Jamaica in poverty while Scotland, whatever the talk of credit crunch, still basks in the glow of prosperity.

This huge disparity is built on 150 years of the transatlantic slave trade, a period from around 1700 when Britain grew rich and Scots played a decisive role in ripping 20 million people out of Africa.

Individuals such as Henry Dundas, the First Lord of the Admiralty, and island governors like Lords Balcarras and Home organised the sea trade and administered the Caribbean.

Illustrious Scots owned the most prosperous sugar and tobacco plantations; infamous Scots were the “whippers-in” of the slaves who laboured there.

In its most benign form, you can look up the legacy in the Jamaican phonebook. There are more Grants, Reids and McFarlanes per acre on this one tiny island than in Scotland, twice as many Campbells in Kingston as there are in Edinburgh. The Afro-Caribbean heroes who adorn Jamaican banknotes have strangely familiar surnames: Bogle, Gordon and Sharp.

But you should not imagine for a moment that the ancestors of these families were named after benign protectors, he says. Thousands of Jamaicans are truly “blood Scots”, to use the ridiculous phrase which was bandied around in the early marketing of Homecoming Scotland.

“My mother has Scottish blood in her. Not because she wanted it, because it was put there,” says Palmer, whose ancestors were chattel slaves, with no right even to life. For these people, existence was inevitably nasty, brutish and short; many of their descendants still live in poverty.

After a lifetime in academia, Palmer only began lecturing regularly on Scotland and the Caribbean last year, the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade.

At first he was dubious that Scots would respond to his story, but he has been overwhelmed by the interest. “Intelligent, educated people ask me: 'Why was I never told this?'” he says. He now has a packed roster of engagements at schools, universities and churches. On January 25, he will be delivering the address at the Lothian and Borders Police Burns Supper.

Has this anything to do with Homecoming Scotland? Shouldn't he accept that a tourism campaign can only do so much? It is not designed to be an education campaign, or an apology for the sins of the past.

He replies: “I thought this was meant to be about Robert Burns too. He was one of the world's great humanitarians, 'a Man's a Man for a' that'. What happened to a' that?”

Ironically, Burns himself was attracted by notion of emigrating to Jamaica to seek his fortune. He had already bought his ticket to sail, when at last fame and fortune arrived with his first published book and he decided to stay in Scotland.

But he was inspired by another Jamaican voyage. When the poet’s muse, Agnes McLehose – remembered as Clarinda – sailed out to the Caribbean to visit her husband, a slave master, Burns was distraught. His sweet sorrow inspired Ae Fond Kiss, arguably his greatest love long, though happily for Burns, Clarinda would soon return sent home by her angry husband, who told her he preferred “my ebony woman and my mahogany children”.

“Those mahogany children are us,” says Palmer. “We are not affinity Scots, we are much more than affinity Scots. We are people born under extremely difficult circumstances and we will not be insulted.”

He insists he is not one for apologies over the sins of the past. Instead, Palmer would like to see more financial aid from Britain and some positive interventions from Scotland to try to lift up those countries that “suffered the brunt of this awful slavery”.

He is no campaigner, but — who knows? — the furore around Homecoming Scotland could be a start.

Link to the original article in The Times.

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