2nd March 2020

 

It Wisnae Us. If I ever thought much about Scotland’s role in the horrors of human slavery, that was probably a fair summary of my position: it wisnae us. Now, while researching something that was (I thought) totally separate from my previous work, I’m beginning to grapple with the truth about Scotland (particularly Glasgow) and slavery. Stephen Mullen’s brilliant 2009 book has served as a trusty guide, peeling back the lamina of a city that wasn’t always what it appeared to be. The first European Capital of Culture in the U.K.; the second city of the Empire. Bogle, Buchanan, Cunninghame, Dunlop, Glassford, Oswald, Stirling, Ritchie. The unnamed millions on the other end. People made Glasgow, alright.

 

I’m thinking about what would’ve happened if Robert Burns’s Kilmarnock Edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect hadn’t been such a roaring commercial success. I can vaguely see him hunched over parchment, turning lives into black figures tabulated in neat rows and columns. Abacus, numbers in the sand. Lament, lament. Mullen does a great job tearing open the imposing, glittering façade of the Enlightenment – there is so much that was rationalised away as a natural order, a greater good – and casting light on architectural and political margins. In the alleys between the mansions, the sprawl domesticated by bodies piling, there are accounts to be reckoned.

 

I’ve always felt a little uneasy with the ‘Age of Improvement’, as it was then known. Not least from the fact that I hail from Kirkcaldy, birthplace of Adam Smith, “a small Town in Scotland the place of my nativity”. I walked the same beach as Smith did, though rarely thinking of governmental riches. His name was that of the theatre where I debuted as a musical-theatre “actor” – an amateur role in Annie Get Your Gun – and I’ve always liked how hole-punched comp tickets, those market-free bullet-pierced paper tokens, were called “Annie Oakleys”. In honour of his great celebrity, one school in the town organises its pupils into the house of Adam Smith (other house including one in honour of that Dickensian anti-Semitic historian Thomas Carlyle; my school preferred farms to famous folk). Smith opposed slavery, of course, yet did so in unnerving economical terms, and still maintained Andrew Cochrane as a close friend. He, like so many other (and more vociferously abolitionist) ivory tower wards, was eventually ridiculed by the populists as a “weak interested theorist” – just as today we’re told the real country has “had enough of experts”. The rational is not enough and, in abhorrent hands, can be a devastating tool.

 

Very early thoughts of how all this relates to other work: beginning to explore new ways of interrogating the rule of mathematics and enumeration in capitalism’s transnational ‘power geometries’ – topological arrangements of tobacco, sugar, and enslaved/indentured people’s spaces in proximity to abstract rationalising matrices. Revolutionary cycles of triangular trade. Following up with T. M. Devine’s edited collection Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past; Michelle Harrison’s King Sugar; Andrea Stuart’s Sugar in the Blood; and the various works from the sugar archive of Absent Voices.

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