In the summer of 2020, with Scotland struggling to get off its knees after a severe Covid lockdown, Edinburgh City Council set up a new organisation, the Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group, to investigate the city’s imperial past and how it is still represented to this day. A new plaque was soon approved for situating at the foot of the Melville Monument, a soaring pillar erected to Henry Dundas in the early 19th century thanks to the efforts of naval circles. This was a tribute mainly to his effectiveness in running the Royal Navy and seeking to improve the conditions of its sailors, as well as to his possession of a formidable grasp of its strategic and operational capabilities. Dundas was a controversial figure in his time, in large part for his deeply cautious attitude to political reform during the 1790s, when anxieties about the importation of revolutionary fervour were nevertheless shared not only by the establishment but even many smaller property holders, shopkeepers and tenant farmers. Meanwhile, Dundas’ role in managing within the Union a corrupt Scottish political system (the widening of whose miniscule franchise base he was sympathetic to) helped give the government of William Pitt, whose chief lieutenant he was, a fairly solid basis of support in Parliament. Beyond this, Dundas was frequently called on to tackle the most complex issues in government in a series of major offices of state.
But none of this made Dundas a target for receiving a new plaque, the wording of which runs as follows:
At the top of this neoclassical column stands a statue of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville (1742-1811). He was the Scottish Lord Advocate, an MP for Edinburgh and Midlothian, and the First Lord of the Admiralty. Dundas was a contentious figure, provoking controversies that resonate to this day. While Home Secretary in 1792, and the first Secretary of State for War in 1796, he was instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Slave trading by British ships was not abolished until 1807. As a result of this delay, more than half a million enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic. Dundas also curbed democratic dissent in Scotland and both defended and expanded the British empire, imposing colonial rule on indigenous peoples. He was impeached in the United Kingdom for misappropriation of public money and, though acquitted, he never held public office again. Despite this, the monument before you was funded by voluntary contributions from British naval officers, petty officers, seamen and marines and was erected in 1821, with the statue placed on top in 1827. In 2020 this plaque was dedicated to the memory of more than half a million Africans whose enslavement was a consequence of Henry Dundas’s actions.
Councillor Adam McVey is surely right that explanations of monuments to long-dead statesmen periodically need updating, and equally correct that “It’s important that a more appropriate and factual description is in place so that we can all get a better understanding of Edinburgh’s history, and particularly an honest acknowledgement of our City’s role in the slave trade”. The problem with this new plaque is that while it almost certainly does not go far enough in suggesting Dundas was indeed guilty of malversation of funds, it is otherwise deeply misleading and its final sentence is clearly intended to cast Dundas public enemy number one for the enslavement of another half-a-million Africans.
Shortly after the wording was approved, Sir Tom Devine – widely regarded as Scotland’s greatest living historian – made vocal criticisms of the new plaque, writing in The Herald on Sunday in October 2020, “I believe these words are bad history and in future years will come back to haunt the city council.” For good measure he also revealed how an impasse on how to characterise Dundas had been broken by an inner cabal on the Edinburgh Review Group, which then claimed that their final version had been run past an Edinburgh academic – though not apparently a historian, rather an oversight when there is a Faculty some 70-strong on the doorstep. It would seem that Dundas, in the sights of Review chair Sir Geoff Palmer for some time, has been made to carry the blame, and carry it alone, for the continuation of the slave trade. Palmer responded to Devine’s broadside with one of his own, noting how in Devine’s own 2015 book, Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past, Devine had claimed, “[Dundas’] Parliamentary intervention in 1792 arguing for gradual abolition of the slave trade effectively killed off reform for a generation. Not surprisingly, he received grateful thanks from influential members of the West India interest [slavers] for his support for their cause” (p.31). No efforts have since been made to adjust the wording for the new plaque as far as I can tell. Game, set and match to Sir Geoff?
Far from it. Whatever possessed Sir Tom recklessly to throw around such inaccurate superficialities in 2015, he was to a large extent right five years later. Dundas’ biographers, and several of those of Pitt and William Wilberforce (the driving force behind slave trade abolition), make very clear that Dundas was far from the imperialist reactionary he is portrayed as in the new Edinburgh plaque, even if it is astonishing that Michael Fry skipped over any discussion of the role of Dundas in delaying abolition of the slave trade in the later 1790s. Viewed over his life as a whole, Dundas was very much a man of the Enlightenment, and – the message of this blog piece – Dundas’s life’s work and mentality has to be seen in the round. Even while Stephen Mullen has very recently given us a far fuller picture of the role of Dundas in the abolition of the slave trade, his article is confined to the period from the early 1790s. If it is honest and scrupulous in its detailing of the evidence for and against Dundas, nevertheless his lack of contextualisation is to be regretted, and it is hard to agree with his assertion that it is “irrelevant” whether Dundas was sincere when pushing a motion through the House of Commons in April 1792 in favour of the gradual abolition of the slave trade. On the contrary, in any crime, the mens rea of the accused has to be taken into account, especially when it comes to pulling together a plaque on Dundas in which word space is at a premium.
So, what did Henry Dundas stand for? In matters of religion – a key concern of the era – Dundas sought to break the bigoted confessionalism of Scotland and Ireland: he failed in his efforts to ease discrimination of Catholics and Episcopalians at the end of the 1770s, but he did get it through for Scotland by 1792-93, even if he was defeated in his efforts to do the same for Irish Catholics, for whom he had deep sympathy to the point of supporting Catholic emancipation. He also eased the severe post-’45 restrictions on highland dress and on proscribed Jacobite families in the early 1780s. Furthermore, Dundas was no supporter of the clearances, and in the 1790s was concerned just as much with keeping a lid on populist conservative disorder as on squelching homegrown revolutionaries. There is, all the same, a good case for saying he clamped down too hard and for too long on political radicals, much more than was justified in hindsight. After failing at a small measure of electoral reform he became the arch-manipulator, though in part his autocratic approach in Scotland was also a way to reduce obstruction from a tiny and often reactionary electorate to enlightened policies (the Scottish electorate was, proportionate to population, miniscule in comparison with that in England, perhaps twenty times smaller).
On judicial and political reform, on religion and on the slave trade, Dundas supported change but was scarred by witnessing or personally feeling repeated defeats at the hands of unenlightened, diehard, change-blocking, vested interests who needed to be persuaded to give way over time. This obduracy came too often from within the ranks of the royal family. Any reform attempts, as William Wilberforce testified all too readily, faced a cliff of suspicion and resistance, especially after 1789 when events in France provoked colossal anxiety that small reformist chipping might cause a revolutionary landslip. As we examine Dundas, empire and slavery we need to bear his pre-1792 track record firmly in mind, as even Mullen’s recent work does not do. We should not be judging Dundas on the basis of a couple of letters, a few parliamentary manoeuvres, the views of often-deluded and self-interested West Indies lobbyists, and one intractable situation he tried to unjam. Moreover, while keeping within the Edinburgh city brief of explaining monuments by reference to their imperial associations, any wordings of public plaques ought to explain, even if briefly, WHY Dundas at times sought to delay abolition of the slave trade.
When it came to empire – and here the new plaque lacks crucial subtlety – it might surprise modern citizens that Dundas was indeed a believer in a significant overseas presence but not a supporter of dominion, meaning the rule of a small number of Britons over other races: in the aftermath of the American Revolution he was decidedly not a supporter of colonisation by masses of British emigrants but instead argued for an open trading empire of commercial interchange, whether in the Americas or India, which would, in effect, be legally open to foreigners in an unprecedented way. With India he sought to bring the East India Company under greater crown control to stop its aggressive expansionism and avoid its exploitative excesses, though he was forced to compromise by the reality that too much weakening of the Company’s position and forcing too much restraint on the ground would damage Britain in an era of highly predatory European international relations. He even tried to develop Indian shipbuilding capacity, hardly the action of a colonial despoiler. It is ironic that the hardline abolitionists, Wilberforce and his ilk, inspired a very different 19th-century sense of empire: a view that heathen (and yes, slaving) nations elsewhere in the world required “civilising” through a moral crusade and, if necessary, rule by superior Britons. Dundas, however, did not think this should be British policy. Who, here, is the real progressive?
But it is on the issue of abolition of the slave trade that the new plaque is egregiously unfair. While plaques must be brief they should be balanced and they should explain the whys as well as whats when controversy abounds. In no sense does the new plaque convey that Dundas was absolutely no friend of slavery, something Mullen’s recent article does not acknowledge either. As a young Lord Advocate in 1777-78, he championed in the Court of Session – the highest Scottish court – the case of the slave Joseph Knight and won his freedom, establishing the principle that slavery was illegal in Scotland and provoking the Scottish judges into a direct attack on the injustice of slavery in Jamaica too. Moreover, in 1775 he had given considerable assistance to ensure the passage of an Act to emancipate Scottish coal-miners and salt-panners from serf-like conditions. The new plaque gives no acknowledgement of this but seeks simply to pillory Dundas for delaying the abolition of the slave trade. At the very least, this apparent paradox of hostility to slavery and obstructing the abolition of its trade would pique the interest of passers-by if his earlier actions were mentioned on the plaque.
At heart, beyond the lack of fair explanation of Dundas’s demonstrable hostile acts against slavery, there are two major problems with the new plaque. First, it fails to recognise that opposition to abolition was extremely strong in Parliament, especially the Lords, in which sat the future William IV who was utterly in cahoots with the West India planter interest. It is also worth noting that not many outside Parliament appreciated the real horrors of Atlantic slavery before the early 1790s, and many leading abolitionists thought it required several years of managed phase-out to end the slave trade. After Wilberforce had failed to get a motion to abolish the slave trade through the Commons in April 1791, British elite opinion was hardened by horrific tales coming out of the revolution in Haiti. Even so, supporters of abolition pressed their case harder and with more support on their own side than before, with Wilberforce reintroducing his motion in April 1792. Dundas – admittedly working too hard and persuasively to win over faint hearts and minimise West India planter obduracy – nevertheless was determined to thrust a wedge into the doorway so it would never close again by proposing gradual abolition within less than a decade. Dundas himself then proposed near-immediate abolition of the international trade in slaves between British and foreign colonies. If Dundas’s parliamentary manoeuvring in spring 1792 can be accused of cynicism, it was not for helping the slave traders but primarily because it was conducted in the full knowledge that opinion in the House of Lords was still a very long way from embracing abolition. Yet he felt a successful Commons resolution would achieve a significant first hit against the interests of slaving, and the Melville plaque ought to reflect this. When the House of Commons resolved on abolishing the slave trade in 1792 it gave a considerable endorsement to the campaign of Wilberforce and his allies, even if little further progress was made for over a decade. Wilberforce may later have felt cheated (though even he at various times advocated for delaying abolition), but his opponents in the West India interest felt bitterly at the time that Dundas had dealt them a decisive blow.
If progress towards abolition of the slave trade was subsequently delayed more than Dundas wanted this was partly because of majority opposition in the House of Lords, but largely because of the existential pressures of the revolutionary wars that saw Great Britain and Ireland isolated against France – even Wilberforce’s biographers who are most critical of Dundas accept that abolition of the evil trade would have come much earlier had not war dominated. And this is the second deficiency of the new plaque – it offers nothing on the beleaguered state of Britain at war in the 1790s. When Dundas later opposed Wilberforce’s abolition Bill in Parliament in March 1796 it was as the principal director of a war effort who was concerned with both national unity and imperial stability, including in the Caribbean (an approach that Mullen’s article acknowledges). It really should not be forgotten that Britain was at war with a staggeringly aggressive, destabilising, and viciously secularist foreign power in the shape of France under the Directory, still posing a significant military threat in the Caribbean in the late 1790s where ongoing revolutionary rule was as bloody as in the Vendée. Dundas did indeed around 1795-96 move openly from being a supporter of gradual abolition of the slave trade to a more conservative position, though why this was so must be explained on any plaque. If Dundas was truly guilty of anything, it was of sincerely fighting to preserve British freedoms and traditions – which were valued right down the social scale and would have been destroyed by defeat at French hands – if necessary at the expense of those of others, especially Africans. Tragically, war – and notably wars of survival – often throws up these kind of clashes of interest. One can, however, suggest legitimately that Dundas had an exaggerated sense of what was needed to prevent British defeat, and (to my mind) consequently he was too ready to abandon the moral high-ground, unlike Pitt.
In 1804 it is harder to understand why Dundas, now Viscount Melville, should have continued to stand in Wilberforce’s way after his Bill cleared the Commons. Most likely it is because of tensions on this issue within the government that Melville, the old fixer, and Pitt, in spite of his support for abolition, would have wanted to keep under control at a time when invasion by Napoleon remained possible before Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. It was also still far from clear the Lords would have passed the abolition Bill at that point, as several royals in that House remained implacably opposed.
Dundas’ sin is now, in effect, to have put practical political management ahead of a futile frontal assault on evident evils, an assault that would have been based on principle but likely in 1792-1805 only to stir division inside government and the empire during a war of survival, while still not achieving the desired goal of abolishing the slave trade. What Dundas did, however, was get the ball rolling and even Wilberforce was at least somewhat encouraged by the first big step Dundas had effected in 1792, though he later felt aggrieved by the subsequent lack of progress. By mid-1796 even the West India interest knew that by now abolition could not be stopped, merely delayed and (for their needs) mitigated.
According to Stephen Mullen, one can accept Dundas’s intentions might have been altruistic, but the consequences of his actions were not and, furthermore, cannot be disputed. Is this a tenable approach? Dundas might well have inadvertently given succour to the West India planters and traders, and influenced Scottish MPs (largely in his pocket) to vote against abolition or abstain in the late 1790s and early 1800s. But if one accepts that other, more powerful forces in the Lords would have totally blocked any form of abolition, then Dundas cannot be blamed as the primary cause of delay to the abolition of the slave trade. To offer a parallel, if George III’s refusal to countenance Catholic Emancipation forced out Pitt’s government in 1801, then it is entirely plausible to contend that royal and lordly opposition to abolition, even if Dundas and Pitt had made it the big issue of the day, was also a near-insurmountable obstacle before 1805. Moreover, if one accepts that Dundas had both a progressive track record up to 1793 and his primary concern HAD to be the British war effort and imperial defence, then as historians we have to bring together both intentions and consequences with concrete achievements.
Is it too much to hope that the Edinburgh Review Group might revise this plaque to provide a better balance on the life, mind and work of Henry Dundas? Sir Geoff Palmer and Edinburgh Council should weigh Dundas’s later obstructiveness and evident propensity to expedient political management after 1794 against his earlier body-blows against slavery and religious intolerance, and with an explanation of how his primary concern was to maintain an unprecedented war effort against the greatest of threats. Our contemporary attempts – however feeble – at righting the appalling injustice of the slave trade should not be built on doing reputational injustice to a man who first struck a major blow against slavery in Scotland and then opened the door to the abolition of that vile trade. We are better than that.
 “Henry Dundas: a ‘Great Delayer of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade” in The Scottish Historical Review 253 (August 2021), pp. 218-48. Mullen’s work is the most important yet on Dundas and the slave-related events of the 1790s, presenting a wealth of solid evidence in a focussed way. But he conjectures several times without hard evidence that Dundas was in some kind of conspiracy with the West India interest(s) without appreciating the need for any Home Secretary or War Secretary to keep his door open to all significant interests, and his duty to maintain good relations with all major stakeholders in the British state at the time. As a former Westminster staffer, I can testify that sometimes one has to have dealings with, and take papers from, people and groups one finds distasteful. And not all praise from these people is necessarily welcome. Nor does Mullen, who confines his remarks on the nature of blood-soaked and hyper-aggressive revolutionary France to noting slyly it was anti-slavery when the British state was not, seem to appreciate just what a titanic danger France was to other countries’ sovereignty, freedom, stability, religious life and individuality at the time.