Slavery has a long history all around the world – and one that, sadly, still continues in too many places to this day. That fact alone, if nothing else, should be sufficient enough to prevent politicians from using a reference to slavery for taking cheap political jibes at the opposite side. Apparently not.
And this brings me to Conservative MP Lucy Frazer. When debating the Queen’s speech the other day, Mrs Frazer decided to include in her maiden speech a number of historical references to her constituency, South East Cambridgeshire. Amongst others she included a nod to Oliver Cromwell – someone who strikes me as a peculiar choice at the best of times. But it is what Mrs Frazer said next that deserves scrutiny here: it was Oliver Cromwell ‘who defeated the Scots at Dunbar and incorporated Scotland into his Protectorate and transported the Scots as slaves to the colonies.’ This is an extremely ill-judged statement to make. That it has not caused more critical comment from other politicians escapes me. This holds true even more so because the statement was made worse by the laughter of Mrs Frazer’s fellow Tory MPs, and significantly worse by Mrs Frazer ending her reference by saying ‘there’s an answer to the West Lothian Question’ – an ending accompanied by even more laughter from her colleagues (to watch the actual speech please click here). While I stress that Mrs Frazer’s final point is that she would not ‘recommend’ such a solution, the fact that she made these comparisons and that several fellow Tory parliamentarians had nothing better to do but laugh at a reference to transportation and slavery, has me in a state of disbelief beyond measure – both as a historian and as a person. And, of course, also because of where these comments were made: it seems that some MPs should take a bit more time to check out their own workplace website in more detail (see here).
More importantly, Mrs Frazer’s comments, and the laughter of fellow MPs they triggered, simply demonstrate a very ill-informed understanding of Scottish history – as well as English history for that matter. There undoubtedly are more knowledgeable historians then me when it comes the Battle of Dunbar and its aftermath. Suffice it to say for the purpose of this piece that a lot of Scots, civilians and soldiers, died – and of course English soldiers too. So why anyone would want to invoke that historical moment of dissent, bloodshed and rupture remains beyond me in any case.
What I, as a historian of the Scottish diaspora, can say a bit more about is the comment relating to the transportation of Scots to the colonies. First of all it is misleading, of course, to say that Scots were transported. Rather, it was Scottish soldiers and officers, specifically hose who had been captured and imprisoned after the Battle of Dunbar (as well as other battles). Hence, in essence, we are talking about prisoners of war. Mrs Frazer, are you suggesting that the Scots are prisoners of war?
Initially, those taken captive in the aftermath of the Battle of Dunbar were marched south, away from Scotland (the picture on the left above is a list of those taken prisoner – click on the picture to get to the original full image). This was a march on which many of the prisoners perished. Of the survivors, the majority were then transported to English colonies in America and the Caribbean. While I am taking issue here with the use of the terminology of ‘slavery’, it is important at this point to note that the prisoners who were transported were not actually slaves in the strict sense of the word: they were sent as indentured labourers, and therefore, were to eventually be free men again. But there is, certainly at the point of transportation, only a fine line between involuntary indentured servitude and slavery, particularly as those Scots who were transported were prisoners of war. Still this important distinction is critical as it demonstrates most clearly the remarkable ignorance of Mrs Frazer: her comments are both misinformed and misleading.
We know little about what exactly happened to those who were transported, partly as a result of the absence of complete passenger and landing lists. As Butler explains in his classic study ‘British Convicts Shipped to America’ published in the American Historical Review in 1896:
It seems certain that among the felons sent to New England, by far the largest element was made up of prisoners taken in battle. A letter from Rev. John Cotton to Cromwell, dated Boston, July 28, 1651, states that “sundry Scots taken by him at Dunbar, September 2, 1650, had arrived there and been sold, not for slaves to perpetual servitude, but for six or seven or eight years,” etc. That the word “sundry” meant one hundred and fifty we learn from the British Calendar, Domestic Series, for 1650. On September 19, the Council of State ordered 150 Scotch prisoners delivered to be sent to New England by John Foot; on October 23, it was ordered that they be shipped away forthwith, and, on November 11, that they be delivered to Augustus Walker, master of the Unity, for transportation to New England.
Of those Scottish prisoners who were transported on the Unity, a little over 60 were bought to work at the ironworks at Lynn, Massachusetts, with the remainder being sent to different towns elsewhere in Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire. There is evidence that a few of those who were transported managed to make a good life for themselves once their indenture had come to an end, owning land and writing home to Scotland that they had no intention of returning even though they then could have. But this certainly was not the case for everyone. As Dobson suggests, it is, in all likelihood, no coincidence that the Scots Charitable Society of Boston – the first Scottish ethnic association to be established outside of the British and Irish Isles – was founded in the late 1650s, the very period when many of the Dunbar prisoners ended their servitude.
For more details on early Scottish emigration – forced and voluntary – to America, see:
David Dobson, Scottish Emigration to Colonial America, 1607-1785.
Alexander Murdoch, Scotland and America, c.1600-c.1800.
If you want to learn more about the history of the Scottish diaspora, including developments in North America post 1800, and slavery in that context more broadly, see:
Tanja Bueltmann, Andrew Hinson and Graeme Morton, The Scottish Diaspora.