Fri | Apr 12, 2024

Trust and mistrust: Scotland and the reparation debt

Published:Sunday | February 25, 2024 | 12:08 AM
David Alston
David Alston
Verene Shepherd
Verene Shepherd

Recently, Prof Verene Shepherd (VS) caught up with Scottish historian David Alston (DA), author of Slaves and Highlanders: Silenced Histories of Scotland and the Caribbean, which won the Scottish Book of the Year in 2022, to talk about where he was in his advocacy to get the funds accumulated by James Dick returned to Jamaica and the responses to his lobbying around this issue in Scotland.

For those unfamiliar with James Dick, he was born in Forrest in 1743 (died in 1828) and was a “slave-factor” in Jamaica, in partnership with the infamous Robert Milligan. “Slave-factors” (also known as Guinea factors in the colonial Caribbean), bought enslaved people from ships’ captains in the trans-Atlantic trafficking in enslaved Africans and sold them on to local enslavers or ‘re-exported’ them to markets in other colonies.

VS: David, in 2021, I wrote to the then government minister responsible for education in Scotland to support the call which you and Donald Morrison had made for the funds held by the Dick Bequest Trust, then worth £1.7 million (J$359 million), to be repatriated to Jamaica. The rationale was that the wealth accumulated in the Dick Bequest rests on the brutal exploitation of African people. Also, while children in Scotland are still benefiting from the Dick Bequest Trust, children in Jamaica, whose ancestors created that wealth, are not. Tell me, did he only leave his money to this Dick Bequest Trust?

DA: He did leave some money to relatives, but the bulk went to benefit schools in the north-east of Scotland - enough to double the salaries of about 120 rural schoolmasters.

VS: So the funds are managed by the Dick Bequest Trust. Tell us about the members and how they have responded to your advocacy.

DA: The trustees are a group known as the Governors of the Dick Bequest. There are 10 of them, appointed by two local councils in Scotland, the Senate of the University of Aberdeen, and half of them by the Society of Writers to the Signet, which is a group of lawyers in Edinburgh. Since the publicity around the source of the funds and the call to repatriate them to Jamaica, Aberdeen University, one of the councils, and the Society of Writers to the Signet have said they are no longer prepared to be involved in the Trust. They will no longer appoint governors. That has been a success. But the remaining governors have found a way of continuing to operate, secretively behind the scenes.

VS: Is there information available to the public about the Governors of the Dick Bequest?

DA: There isn’t. They are a Scottish charity. They are obliged to publish their accounts every year, but the accounts are redacted so that there is no information about who the governors are. We have tried using freedom of information requests under Scottish legislation to get more information, but because they’re not a public body, they are not obliged to reveal more. They do operate within the letter of the law. But I think this is showing that there is a gap in the legislation. Charities are getting tax benefits. The other side of that should be transparency about who the trustees are.

VS: Is it unusual for a charity to act in such a secretive way?

DA: Most charities want to have a public face. They want to say, here we are, here is what we do! So I would say, yes, it’s unusual.

VS: Given Scotland’s historic connections in Jamaica and Scotland’s involvement with the Transatlantic trafficking in enslaved Africans and in the plantation economy of Jamaica, why is the Scottish Government unwilling to express a view on the Dick Bequest Trust?

DA: I think that has been our biggest problem. We understand that charities have to be independent of government and government can’t say to a charity ‘We direct you to do this’. But what has been deeply disappointing is the refusal of the Scottish government to express an opinion and show leadership.

VS: What has been the most recent impact of your revived advocacy around finding a way of repatriating the money to Jamaica?

DA: Scotland got a new first minister last year; so this seemed the right point to try to revitalize the campaign.

VS: So as part of revitalising the campaign, you have just sent a letter to Humza Yusaf, the new first minister of Scotland. Is there a chance that Yusaf might take a different stance from those you have approached before?

DA: I certainly hope so, and I think there is a chance. He is somebody who is personally concerned about international issues. He has even sometimes gotten himself into trouble domestically within the UK from doing things on an international field without the consent of the UK Government. It seems to me he has shown some independence of thought in these matters, and so here is an opportunity to do something different from the UK Government that in the long run, could lead the UK Government to act differently.

VS: On a more general level, what are the chances of the Scottish Government engaging in a wider discussion about reparations? In fact, some might say that this is mainly a matter for the UK Government rather than the devolved Scottish Government.

DA: The big issues are certainly for the UK government. But my own feeling is that there is an important tactical move here. I think if CARICOM leaders and civic and political leaders within the Caribbean were to engage with the devolved governments in the UK, there is the chance of getting a more positive response. These governments do not have the powers to make the big decisions, but I think if they engaged, that could begin to create a dynamic, which could make it more difficult for the UK Government not to engage. There is a parallel if we go back to the campaign against apartheid in South Africa. Desmond Tutu said that when the UK Government and other governments did not want to engage, they engaged local government within the UK. That created a particular dynamic. I wonder if maybe that is the way forward.

In addition, since the globalisation of the Black Lives Matter movement in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, the profile of the reparation movement has been raised and I think it’s far less common now for people to say that this is something in the past that should be left in the past.

VS: Yes, but does Scotland have a significant black population, or even a African/Caribbean population to push the advocacy?

DA: African, Caribbean, and other ethnic minority communities do exist within Scotland, but Scotland is less diverse, particularly when you come to my part of Scotland, the north and north-east of Scotland, where the Dick Bequest operates. That makes it more challenging to get the activism on the ground, which might make a difference.

VS: Well, David, thanks for taking the time to engage in this Reparation Conversations and keep us informed about the results of your advocacy. That money is needed in Jamaica.

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