Plantation doctors and the birth of racist science: Edinburgh University’s colonial history

“This was all built at the expense of black bodies”

With the rise of the global Black Lives Matter movement, cities across Britain have begun to examine their own role in colonialism and slavery. A city like Edinburgh, with its grand architecture and ship-building history, is undoubtedly guilty for exploiting black people in the name of its own wealth. However, more than the city of Edinburgh, the University itself can owe much of its own success to its role in colonialism. In fact, Edinburgh students can find the legacy of slavery and the dehumanisation of black people in one of the University’s oldest and most prestigious organisations: the medical school.

Princes Street in Edinburgh

Edinburgh owes its wealth to the slave trade

While taking in the beauty and wealth of a city like Edinburgh, it can be hard to see the ugly backdrop of slavery and colonialism the city was constructed with. However, money from the slave-trade built much of the city.

Many Edinburgh figures that the city still holds monuments to were avid proponents of the slave trade. James Gillespie, who has a Marchmont school named after him, made his fortune selling Virginia tobacco. Additionally, St Andrews Square still holds a statue of Henry Dundas, the Melville monument. He delayed abolition by 15 years.

Edinburgh was also the home of many slaveholders that contributed to the city’s wealth and beauty. Take posh New Town, for example. Britain paid former slave owners £20m when slaves were emancipated in 1833. Many of those receiving this compensation lived in New Town, Edinburgh. Examples of these residents are Peter McClagan, who lived on Great King Street and John Blackburn, who lived on Queen street.

The National Hall of Records in New Town

Even Bute House, the First Minister of Scotland’s official residence, has its ties to the slave trade. The building’s first resident, John Crawford, owed his wealth to a sugar plantation in Jamaica. The house’s subsequent resident, Sir John Sinclair, made his money from emancipation compensation.

Slavery in Edinburgh is even closer to students than they might think. The Pear Tree, a beloved student pub, was once the sight of a brewery run by Andrew Usher, a man who also received compensation for his freed slaves.

The student pub was once a site of slave holders

Edinburgh University was brought forward by colonialism

More than the city of Edinburgh, Edinburgh University was deeply involved in British colonialism. UncoverED, a decolonial research project within the University, has outlined Edinburgh’s colonial involvement. This involvement included everything from gain of wealth and resources to the supervision of plantation slaves by Edinburgh doctors.

For one, much of Edinburgh University’s current wealth can be attributed to the slave trade. UncoverEd said recently in a statement on Twitter: “A number of donors to Edinburgh’s Old College had connections to the slave trade, including (but not limited to) Lieutenant General Melville, who had substantial properties in Grenada and Tobago, and Alexander Crichton, who was a surgeon and owned a number of estates in Jamaica.”

Old College Edinburgh

In addition to money, Edinburgh trained doctors were instrumental in furthering the ideological mission of colonialism. In the late 1700s, many Edinburgh doctors went to work on plantations where they treated slaves. One of the primary reasons they did so was to keep an eye on their investments and ease agitated slaves. Many doctors were invested in the slave trade both politically and financially. Therefore, any medical work they did for these slaves was primarily to save their own financial wellbeing.

Additionally, the writing of these doctors became foundational texts for racial stereotypes that placed white people as superior. For example, William Wright, an Edinburgh-educated plantation doctor and slave holder, wrote in his memoir that African slaves were “rescued from … a state of barbarism” and referred to Africans as a “dark race.”

UncoverED explains in their statement: “Edinburgh … produced some of the key intellectual foundations that facilitated empire and race science.”

Edinburgh medical students on a white coat pub crawl

A spokesperson for BAME medics Edinburgh told The Tab: “We were given no formal teaching on this during our time on the MBchB course. Further, the majority of patient presentations we are taught focus on the white population while we remain unable to identify the manifestations of the same diseases on BAME counterparts.

The spokesperson adds: “Everyone stresses the ‘great’ medical achievements of Edinburgh medicine but fail to realise that this was all built at the expense of black bodies.”

Edinburgh is not innocent

As protests continue and cities and communities begin to evaluate their own complacency in the atrocities of colonialism and the slave trade, Edinburgh and Edinburgh University are good places to start.

A spokesperson for the University told The Tab: “The University of Edinburgh takes the legacy of slavery and colonialism very seriously. Our academics have helped deepen the wider understanding of Scotland’s links with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. A recent example includes our UncoverEd project, which saw researchers and students retell the stories of graduates from Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and the Americas, who studied in Edinburgh between 1780s and 1980s.

The University is also addressing its connections to slavery as part of ‘Universities Studying Slavery’ – an international group of higher education institutions which have come together to address historical and contemporary race and inequality issues.

As we gain a better understanding of our history, we will engage with communities who have been affected by the legacies of slavery and colonialism to help ensure the process of reparative and restorative justice.

We have today launched a cross-disciplinary hub, RACE.ED, for research and teaching on race and ethnicity, which is the product of more than two years of academic work and engagement across our community. This hub brings together academics and students to explore issues of racism and be part of a University network taking forward anti-racist initiatives within our University.

These are just the initial steps in what needs to be a fundamental change in the way institutions such as ours think about and confront such major societal problems.”

If you would like to read more, UncoverED has resources on colonialism and graduates of colour from the University.