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New Town and Edinburgh: A City of Two Worlds

By Asha Trivedy

According to Sir Geoff Palmer, “Relative to population, Scots owned more slaves, plantations, and had a higher share of the transatlantic trade in plantation goods, such as tobacco and sugar, than England and most other European countries."

Scotland does indeed have a dark history with Empire and slavery that often goes ignored. However, our relationship with the Scottish past is becoming confronted in a way unbeknownst before. The global discussions on the use and presentation of our public spaces within the city are central to how we choose to remember our history.

Edinburgh’s New Town is often cited as the centre of Scotland’s links to slavery and Empire. The wide roads and grid-like organisation of New Town are what makes this area so admired and calming, and at the centre of each junction stands a towering statue to honour a prominent figure from Edinburgh’s past. In recent weeks, there have been several campaigns to take down the statues of those who had a leading role in the transatlantic slave trade. This follows the pulling down of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, an infamous slave trader from the English city.

Currently, there are a number of campaigns to remove the model of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville. It dominates St Andrew’s Square atop a 150-foot high monumental column, looking out over the city. Petitions have also been focused towards renaming streets, such as Dundas Street. The spaces that these figures occupy in Edinburgh sit as a constant reminder of the violence and horror of an empire which was built on the backs of slave labourers. The suffering of people of colour is clear to be seen in these spaces, and we must recognise how this came to be.

If we reflect on the history of New Town, it seems that it wasn’t always an area dominated by wealthy aristocratic slave traders, lords and military officers from different corners of the British Empire. A story that is not often mentioned regarding New Town’s past is its links with the Scottish Enlightenment. So, what was it like to walk around New Town in the 19th century? To navigate this space as a person of colour? This article will explore how our ground was utilised in the past - and why this is an area that we should celebrate and come to know, rather than represent through figures like Henry Dundas.

Waterloo Rooms, 29 Waterloo Place

When we look into Edinburgh's black history we can uncover a story that is rarely told: the status as an ‘enlightened city’. A powerful contradiction exists when an area of the city, built off slavery's economic capital, becomes a key space in the development of the emancipation movement. Widespread public engagement for the cause meant that lecture rooms were regularly “crowded to suffocation in every part, by a highly respectable audience”. During this period, several freed former slaves came to Edinburgh to deliver lectures, plays and performances of music and poetry. The packed lecture halls were filled with the growing middle class of the city, who paid a sixpence to enter the crowded rooms. Attendees would often be members of societies, such as the Edinburgh Ladies Emancipation Society.

One of the most well-known visitors to Edinburgh from the 19th century was Frederick Douglass. Douglass was a social reformer and abolitionist who had escaped from slavery in Maryland, USA, and became central to the global Abolition movement. He toured the UK in the 1840s, speaking in dozens of cities and even lived in Edinburgh between 1846-7. Douglass spoke highly of Edinburgh as an ‘enlightened city’. He often expressed this fondness, and in particular, of the New Town area where he spent a majority of his time:

“I enjoy everything here which may be enjoyed by those of a paler hue – no distinction here. I have found myself in the society of the… first people of this city and no one seemed alarmed by my presence”

From his residence at 33 Gilmore Place in the West of the city, he wrote of the Edinburgh's “architectural beauties” and says that, “The Carlton Hill, Salisbury Crags and Arthur Seat” gave “the city advantages over any city I have ever visited.”

Douglass certainly viewed Edinburgh as a city that was welcoming to the cause of abolition. So much so that in a letter dating April 27th 1846, he wrote: “Scotland is all in a blaze of antislavery excitement – in consequence of our exposures of the proslavery conduct of the free church of Scotland.” During his presence in the city, he held dozens of talks, such as his address at the Assembly Rooms on George Street. The lecture famously pulled an audience of 2000 people, where he captivated crowds with his public speaking and told illustrating stories of the lives of people who had escaped bondage.

The Assembly Rooms, George Street - engraving from 1829 by A. McClatchie.

On another visit to Edinburgh in January 1860, Douglass made a speech at Queen Street Hall, 5 Queen Street. Previous gatherings were held at Rose Street Chapel and the Waterloo Rooms, among other spots in New Town. Douglass was often joined by various reformers and radicals from both the UK and the US, such as George Thompson and Henry Clark Wright. The actions of these individuals set a precedent for many more prominent abolitionists to pay visits to Edinburgh. Speakers like Douglass aimed to draw Scottish support to the cause due to their proposed “national moral superiority over England."

During this brief period of the 19th century, New Town became a centre for black activism in the UK, where men and women would meet to discuss and share ideas. One such activist was Ida B. Wells Barnett, who visited Edinburgh in 1893. At the Edinburgh Ladies Emancipation Society on 5 St Andrew’s Square, she delivered speeches detailing her life story and her escape from slavery in Memphis, Tennessee. She went on to become one of the most famous abolitionists and anti-lynching activists in America, and even a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Ida B. Wells Barnett, Courtesy of Special Collections Research Centre, University of Chicago

With few existing records of her visit to Edinburgh, we cannot begin to fathom what it was like for Barnett to exist and move around the city. Nonetheless, what we can recognise is that the culture of the city during this time meant that people wanted to listen and hear her story.

Edinburgh was a city of two worlds - one where statues of slave traders lined the streets of New Town, and one where Frederick Douglass was “treated as a man, an equal brother." His anti-slavery campaign in Edinburgh is a moment in time that highlights and captures the strangeness of Enlightenment Britain. Whilst the violence and atrocities of the Empire continued abroad, Britain saw itself as heading into a progressive and egalitarian era. Other cities, including London, Bristol, Glasgow and Manchester, drew prominent black activists to their streets. This eventually led to the development of the Pan-African movement which concluded the 19th century.

While the middle classes engaged with this discourse, they continued to support a government that forcibly imposed British rule on dozens of colonies and protectorates. These contradictions would continue long into the 20th, and arguably, the 21st century. As to how we historically used our public spaces continues to be discussed globally and locally, and it is vital that the erased side of history comes to light.

Written by Asha Trivedy Connect with Asha on Instagram

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