Interim statement

  1. The RSE has considered links between Fellows of the Society and the transatlantic slave trade based on commissioned work[1]. It is clear that a number of Fellows participated in and benefitted from the trade in the past. While there is more work to be done, the RSE is committed both to acknowledging and to addressing these links.
  2. The evidence we have to date shows that a number RSE Fellows owned enslaved people and managed slave estates. These include several prominent founding Fellows such as Sir Adam Fergusson of Kilkerran and Sir James Hunter Blair who co-owned the Rozelle estate in Jamaica. The records show that at least twelve RSE fellows received compensation for their enslaved people after emancipation including Sir John Gladstone who received the biggest pay out in Britain, equivalent to over £90 million today, for 2,508 enslaved people on his estates in Jamaica and British Guiana.
  3. As well as participating in the trade, many Fellows also supported slavery and actively opposed abolition. This includes individuals such as William Wright who consistently argued (in public and private) for the trade, and Archibald Allison who considered emancipation to be ‘ruinous’. Their views, and those of others, not only delayed emancipation but helped establish visions of racial hierarchy which persisted beyond.
  4. There were also many Fellows who opposed slavery and were active in the abolition movement. These include John Jamieson who wrote the poem ‘The Sorrows of Slavery’ in which he declared that depriving others of freedom is treason against ‘Nature’s law’. In more prosaic terms, James Beattie drafted an abolitionist petition to parliament which declared that slavery was ‘inconsistent with the dearest and most essential rights of man’s nature.
  5. It is, however, too simple to divide people into being simply ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ slavery. Beattie, for instance, called Black people ‘savages’, considered them less affected by enslavement than whites and opposed immediate abolition in favour of gradualism.

[1] This research was conducted by Katherine Burns under the auspices of the RSE’s Africa Working Group.