A Contested Land: Behind the lens #4

Stephen McLaren talks about his new and ongoing work Edinburgh Unchained.

After I finished taking photographs for my 2015 project, A Sweet Forgetting, which looked at how Scottish slave-owners made their fortunes in the production of sugar by thousands of enslaved Africans in 18th and 19th century Jamaica, I felt that there was some unfinished business here for me. Specifically I wanted to know how wider Scottish society had related to the rapacious nature of the slave-colonies in the Caribbean? What did they know, when did they know it, and what did they do about it?

Edinburgh Unchained. Photograph © Stephen McLaren, 2018 all rights reserved.

These are the kinds of historical questions that photography struggles with, or certainly my kind of photography struggles with. How to photograph the social and historical attitudes of a population?

Anyway, one way through the puzzle, I found was to look at one specific Scottish location, Edinburgh’s New Town, and using historical records try and make some kind of visual record of how slavery impacted the lives of the city’s denizens.

Edinburgh Unchained. Photograph © Stephen McLaren, 2018 all rights reserved.

In Edinburgh Unchained, I have attempted to show how those genteel Georgian streets laid out to create room for a burgeoning Scottish middle class, benefited enormously from slavery in the Caribbean during the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Edinburgh Unchained. Photograph © Stephen McLaren, 2018 all rights reserved.

In 1834, when slave-ownership was finally abolished, the British government paid out £20m to compensate around 3,000 families that owned slaves for the loss of ‘property’. This sum is the equivalent of around £16.5bn today and equates to around 40% of UK’s gross national product in that year. This was the biggest bailout of private interests in British history and the government debt was only finally paid off in 2017.

The New Town in Edinburgh benefited disproportionally from this bailout and thanks to a ground-breaking database from University College London, we know that 320 Edinburgh addresses were compensated by the government for every slave that was owned by these households. 

Edinburgh Unchained. Photograph © Stephen McLaren, 2018 all rights reserved.

In Autumn 2018, I downloaded the UCL database of compensated slave-owners from New Town, Edinburgh, and using GPS I walked and cycles around every street. I photographed every address in whose owners had been compensated in 1834 and found that, thanks to very strict preservation orders, virtually all these addresses currently still exist. Not every house contained slave-owners as many were represented by local agents and lawyers, but a great many were fairly ordinary people, who just happened to own slaves.

Virtually all of the properties I visited are respectable Georgian-era buildings, most are still private dwellings, but occasionally we see how commercial life has taken over some of these properties in the intervening period. What is certain is that Edinburgh, as a city, benefited from slavery, both from the huge government compensation bailout, but also from 150 years of brutal human exploitation of African labour.

Edinburgh Unchained. Photograph © Stephen McLaren, 2018 all rights reserved.

In Edinburgh Unchained I suggest that the profits from slavery have been deeply embedded in the very fabric of Edinburgh life and society, and that ultimately, the city, and Scotland as a whole, has a massive debt to pay to the countries of the Caribbean for the depravity and human exploitation which lay at the heart of this transatlantic crime against humanity. 

If you would like to read my Guardian article on why Scotland has a real financial debt to pay the countries of the Caribbean for the era of slavery please follow this link…https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/13/slave-trade-slavery-scotland-pay-debts

Document Scotland’s A Contested Land will have its first showing at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, England from 16th January until 16th March, 2019, before further showings in Scotland at Perth, Dunoon and Inverness.

See more information and the press release here

Martin Parr Foundation
316 Paintworks
Arnos Vale

Gallery opening times
Wed to Sat, 11am – 6pm
Sun to Tue, closed

Free entry to all exhibitions.

Touring exhibition dates

– Salon event at Stills Gallery Edinburgh 7th February 2019 (evening).
– Perth Art Gallery and Museum – 20th April 2019 – 23rd June 2019.
– Dunoon Burgh Hall – 20th July 2019 – 18th August 2019. Preview on 19th July.
– FLOW Photofest, Inverness, September 2019.

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