Henry Dundas: A ‘great delayer’ of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Ahead of next Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Dr Stephen Mullen of the University of Glasgow. On 12 October 2021, between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., Stephen will be responding to your questions about his pre-circulated paper on Henry Dundas and the transatlantic slave trade. Details of how to join the discussion are available here, or by contacting seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

Since 2015, there has been a major public debate centred around the wording of the Melville Monument in Edinburgh’s St Andrew Square, upon which a statue of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville (1742–1811) rests. He was a trained lawyer and lord advocate in Scotland and went on to become one of the most powerful politicians in eighteenth-century Britain. He was MP for Edinburgh and Midlothian, first lord of the admiralty, home secretary and the first secretary of state for war. The original inscription on the Melville Monument provides details of his career but does not mention his role delaying the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, known euphemistically as the era of ‘gradual abolition’.

Melville Monument, St Andrew Square, Edinburgh, CC Wikimedia

Much like the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, England, the Melville Monument has become a proxy for wider discussion about the role of Scots in the Atlantic slave economy. Also like Edward Colston, the published work of historians has been clear about his role. This historiographical orthodoxy around Dundas – established by Roger Anstey (1975), David Brion Davis (1975), Roger Buckley (1975) and G.M. Ditchfield (1980) – has never been revised. As Home Secretary (1791-4) in Pitt’s First Ministry, Dundas was crucial in helping delay the abolition of the slave trade in April 1792, and once again as the Scottish parliamentary manager in March 1796. In the context of the war with Revolutionary France after 1793, Dundas’ motives to delay lay in imperial defence (especially the recruitment of enslaved Africans for West India Regiments), and to placate the powerful West India interest in Parliament.

Historians of slavery and abolition such as Seymour Drescher endorse this orthodoxy, while biographers generally take a more sympathetic approach. Michael Fry’s Dundas Despotism (1992) did not really attempt to address Dundas’s culpability in delaying abolition – devoting around a page in total to the controversy without examining the entirety of his activities across the period 1792 to 1807. Fry subsequently ignored Dundas’s role in gradual abolition in an Oxford Dictionary National Biography entry (2004), and a more recent ODNB update (2021) attributed the delay to the House of Lords (who did, in fact, block abolition in the summer of 1792). This historiographical context is crucial: historians of slavery and abolition are unequivocal that Dundas was integral to the political delay of the abolition of the slave trade after 1792, whilst some biographers have taken a more positive view.

Much journalistic commentary followed around the proposed wording of the Melville Monument, including a televised debate on Channel 4 News in 2018. The Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 provided further impetus and politicians were compelled to act. Edinburgh City Council quickly agreed on 11 June 2020 to recontextualise how Dundas was represented in civic space as did Toronto City Council in Canada who voted to rename ‘Dundas Street’ in July 2021. Some of the story was covered by the BBC Scotland programme ‘Scotland, Slavery and Statues’ in October 2020. The recontextualization of the Melville Monument is broadly consistent with academic historiography, yet completely at odds with some journalistic outputs. Indeed, it was previously claimed that Henry Dundas was a ‘genuine opponent of the slave trade’, rather than someone who helped delay abolition for vested interests. If this was true, the recent civic recontextualizations were an injustice. Indeed, historian T.M. Devine called the wording ‘bad history’ in October 2020.

Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, after John Rising (1798), CC British Museum

I had no role in recontextualising the Melville Monument but had been independently researching the West India interest and gradual abolition since 2018. Aware of the controversy, I set out to test the two views of Henry Dundas with empirical evidence, as either prolonging the slave trade for vested interests, or as a pragmatic abolitionist easing its passage. I read all relevant historiography published by historians of slavery and abolition, as well as biographers. I read hundreds of pages of Hansard which contain Henry Dundas’ contributions in the House of Commons, as well as abolitionist responses. I examined holdings in Scottish archives and libraries, including the Dundas family papers. The National Records of Scotland had purchased these papers for £1.35m in 2012, and so were fully open to researchers. In England, I examined the Dundas correspondence held by the Weston Library, Special Collections at the University of Oxford and his correspondence with Prime Minister William Pitt, held by the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester.

It became clear Henry Dundas’ collaborations with the parliamentary West India interest had both substance and longevity. Whilst examining the West India Committee records in the University of the West Indies, St Augustine in Trinidad in 2016, I discovered evidence of Dundas’ collaborations with Glasgow-West India merchants. Historians Christer Petley and Katie Donington also revealed in recent works that Dundas was in negotiations with the metropolitan West India interest from 7 April 1792. I discovered important new evidence of how that alliance worked in both the metropole and the colonies, the purpose of it, and how it was perceived at the time.

Whilst Henry Dundas destroyed much of his personal archive in 1802-3, it became clear from inward correspondence that West India merchants, planters and enslavers approved of his actions at various points and they expressed this both publicly and privately. Comparing Dundas’ parliamentary actions with M.W. McCahill’s (2014) published correspondence of Stephen Fuller, Jamaica’s agent in London, added fresh insights to activities and how the alliance operated at certain points. Moreover, it also became clear that the abolitionists were not just suspicious of his actions but vehemently opposed: for example, Dundas was viciously criticised by abolitionist MPs such as Charles James Fox in the House of Commons, and by contemporary pamphleteers such as ‘Howard’ in 1795. This type of evidence undermined the view that Dundas was viewed by contemporaries as an opponent of the slave trade.

The subsequent article, which I will be discussing at the Parliaments, Politics and People seminar on 12 October 2021 therefore, took an unusual approach. The historiographical orthodoxy was unequivocal on Dundas’ culpability, and while my research added important parliamentary and imperial context, it also addressed public debates. If Henry Dundas were ever a pragmatic abolitionist, that pragmatism was designed to prolong the trafficking in enslaved people from Africa in order to support government and propertied interests. In this sense, academic historians have a responsibility to both peer-reviewed outlets but also to inform wider public debates. Even if the academic historiography is broadly in agreement, the memorialisation of individuals involved with the Atlantic slave economies still has the capacity to initiate public debate and political controversies in 21st century Britain.


To find out more Stephen’s full-length paper ‘Henry Dundas: a ‘Great Delayer’ of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade’ is available here. Stephen will be taking questions about his research between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. on Tuesday 12 October 2021.

To register for this virtual seminar, please follow this link and click on ‘Book now’. If you cannot attend this session but wish to submit a question to Stephen, please send it to seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

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