From island nation to Atlantic archipelago: re-assessing Scotland, Britain and Atlantic slavery

Independence offers Scots and Britons an opportunity to shift their self image from insular islanders to inhabitants of an Atlantic archipelago - and, in doing so, to remember the depth of injustice found in that ocean's history.

Michael Morris
25 June 2014

Boreray, Stac Lee, and Stac an Armin (left) from the heights of Conachair, St Kilda, Scotland: Stephen Hodges

One of the most appealing things about the campaign for Scottish independence is the way that it has opened up a space where fresh ideas have more air to breathe. From the economy, to the military, to social institutions, a growing number of people are questioning the received wisdom to argue that ‘it does not have to be like this’. So, whichever way the vote goes in September- either Yes or No- it seems that Scotland is currently going through a process of re-assessment. It is re-assessing its place within the United Kingdom and the wider world. In this spirit, this article argues that this is an ideal opportunity to embark on a re-assessment of Scotland’s received narratives of identity around issues of empire, race and slavery. There are a number of advantages, at this moment, of replacing the concept of Britain as an ‘Island Nation’ with the concept of an ‘Atlantic Archipelago’. Re-considering ourselves as inhabiting an ‘Atlantic archipelago’ not only moves forward to undo Anglo-centrism, but also opens up Scottish history to an oceanic scope where its amnesia around Atlantic slavery can be more easily overcome. In truth, the idea of the ‘Atlantic archipelago’ has been around for a while, though its time may only now be about to come.

An archipelago is a geographic term for a group of islands. Originally it referred to the scattering of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea which are at once individual entities themselves, but also exist as part of a greater whole. Over the past 30 years or so, there has been a broad orientation away from the primacy of the nation-state unit—the idea born of Herder that each nation has its own internal spirit that should correspond to an independent state. As part of this movement, in areas like the Caribbean, scholarship has theoretically infused the term ‘archipelago’ as a spatial metaphor which advances a vision of world cultures that are at once independent and interdependent. Individuals, nations and peoples exist in a series of dialectical relationships: like islands in an archipelago we are both linked and divided, particular and universal, independent and interdependent.

Rather than a singular polity with a cohesive mono-culture, we might re-imagine Britain (and Ireland) as a collection of islands. These islands are nodes of arrival and departure, separation and connection within a broader zone. Scottish independence is not about turning our back, or ‘balkanising’ the people who inhabit these islands. A single government across all these islands is not a requirement for social organisation or cordiality. In reality, the cultural interplay and cross-fertilisation that have always existed around this Atlantic archipelago will continue to circulate, no matter how many parliaments there are.

For somebody like myself, who was raised in a socialist household in Glasgow, the kind of socialist household which viewed political nationalism with a species of horror, this is an attractive and energising way of thinking about Scottish independence. I believe I am fairly typical in that my family is drawn from various corners of these islands and beyond, including the Highlands, Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Russia and Mexico, while my surname is Welsh. Although I retain a great deal of scepticism towards nationalism as such, I am persuaded—thanks to organisations such as the Radical Independence Campaign and the National Collective— that voting Yes in the Independence Referendum is the best way to advance some kind of socialism. I am one of those—and we are quickly becoming a cliché—non-nationalist, pro-independence supporters.

The Better Together campaign pretends that a Yes vote relates to regressive, narrow nationalism. But a No vote does not avoid nationalism, it simply endorses the kind of British nationalism that has little to recommend it. Yet, we must be wary of the nationalism that can develop in aggressive, imperialist states like Scotland. The concept of the archipelago opens a space to protest elite Britishness, without simply replacing it with Scottish nationalism.


  Abraham Ortelius, 1601 map of Britain:

We are familiar with the metaphor of Britain as the ‘Island Nation’— the sea protects a nation that is independent, single-minded, small but unconquerable and impenetrable; the term ‘island’ shares origins and derivations with ‘insular’ and ‘isolated’, an isolation that is, of course, ‘splendid’. This idea, which would become particularly marked in the nineteenth century following the defeat of Napoleon, has an illustrious heritage that runs through Shakespeare’s Richard II to John of Gaunt. Where national differences are acknowledged, they are generally seen as tributary factors to this central theme. For this perspective, the arrival of new migrants tends to cause massive trauma to a supposedly coherent and identifiable set of ‘British values’.

I would like to counter-pose this idea of Britain as an isolated island, to Britain as an interdependent archipelago. In 1975, the New-Zealand historian John Pocock wrote an essay called ‘A Plea for a New Subject’. This advocated a ‘plural and multicultural’ approach wherein the dominance of England on these islands should be acknowledged but not exaggerated.1 He argued that, ‘British history denotes the historiography of no single nation but of a problematic and uncompleted experiment in the creation and interaction of several nations.’2 In the nearly forty years since, this suggestive model has been advanced by a variety of scholars, with the Irish philosopher Richard Kearney suggesting that we would do well to consider ourselves as ‘mobile, mongrel islanders’.3 In 2008, the literary scholar John Kerrigan gave a suggestive definition of NOWA- the ‘North Western Atlantic Archipelago’:

This term, as used by the historians…does three related things: it designates a geo-political unit or zone, stretching from the Channel Islands to the Shetlands, from the Wash to Galway Bay, with ties to North America and down to the Caribbean; it does so neutrally (avoiding the assumptions loaded into ‘the British Isles’); and it implies a devolved, interconnected account of what went on around the islands.4

Kerrigan’s ‘archipelagic’ vision has two main advantages. Firstly, it emphasises a vision of composite cultures that are both ‘linked and divided’, interacting culturally and politically across these islands and beyond. This suggests that a national culture is one which draws influences from local, historical, and global networks of exchange. Secondly, it re-invigorates the meaning of ocean water: Kerrigan notes, ‘the seas which we view on maps as surrounding and dividing the islands drew them together, and opened them to continental and Atlantic worlds.’5 Thus the archipelago’s trans-oceanic scope invites a focus on Atlantic slavery, allowing the slave forts of West Africa, the plantations of the Americas, and the memory of those drowned Africans of the Middle Passage, to take a more central place in Scottish (and British) national narratives.

The Caribbean therefore becomes crucial for two main reasons. Firstly, discussions of Caribbean creolization, from which we have much to learn, offer a vision of culture that is strengthened, not weakened, by processes of borrowing, fusion and interplay. For islands that are in one sense remote and disconnected—separated into individual units and nation-states— the shared water of the archipelago both holds a memory of Atlantic slavery, and provides a unity that is not necessarily discernible on the surface. Secondly, it is the collective amnesia around connections with Atlantic slavery, in areas like the Caribbean, which a mature Scotland must not allow to linger. Too often we are still using distancing strategies in order to avoid a full engagement with the painful truths of Scottish imperial practice: Scots were reluctant members of an English project; we were only foot soldiers or cannon-fodder; Scots were mostly interested in empire for economic reasons (as if others sought to impoverish themselves in empire out of sheer bloodlust); we may have been involved, but we were that wee bit friendlier towards the natives once we were there; or even most absurdly that Scotland was itself a colony.

As the athletes prepare to arrive for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, a variety of initiatives are preparing to ask more searching questions about the Scottish role in the British Empire. For example, Louise Welsh and Jude Barber are organising an ‘Empire Café’ to be held in the Briggait on the banks of the Clyde river that brought to Glasgow the circulations of peoples, materials, and ideas of a global empire. It will run the duration of the Commonwealth Games and will host a series of debates, academic papers, literary readings, films, workshops, art installations and discussions all themed around Scottish connections with Atlantic slavery. A number of poets, including many from formerly colonised countries, have been commissioned to contribute to a poetry anthology on the theme of slavery.

The presence of Scots on the slave plantations of the Caribbean does not sit easily with a nation which prides itself on traditions of liberty, democracy and equality. As Jackie Kay says, in the popular image, ‘the plantation owner is never wearing a kilt.’6 Yet, over the last fifteen years or so, new historical research is beginning to reveal the extent of the Scottish presence in the slave societies of the Caribbean. The historian Douglas Hamilton shows that Scots in the Caribbean were ‘disproportionately numerous’. He estimates that between 12-20,000 Scots went to the Caribbean in the 18th century, with Scots making up about a third of the white population of Jamaica.7 Carla Sassi has opened up the question of Scottish cultural connections with the Caribbean where the enslaved Africans sometimes danced the Scotch reel, and spoke a Scots patois.8 Sheila Kidd has discovered that in 1828 there was a Gaelic dictionary produced which drew 60% of its funding from Jamaica. This was a Gaelic dictionary, she says, largely funded by a slave-based economy.9

Tom Devine has posed the provocative question ‘Did Slavery make Scotia Great?’10 In other words, to what extent did the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century—which gives us our familiar images of booming shipyards, technological innovation and Victorian genius— rest upon the primitive accumulation of enslaved labour in the eighteenth? The question will be to follow the money to see how colonial profits based on enslaved labour combined with ‘wage slavery’ within Scotland to fund the Scottish Enlightenment and the later industrial revolution.

Pioneering historians such as Eric Graham and Stephen Mullen have begun to investigate the disproportionate number of Scots who claimed compensation when chattel slavery was ended in 1834,11 and the stories that can be teased out of Glasgow’s buildings, particularly around the Merchant City. For example, the building that is now the Gallery of Modern Art was built by the tobacco lord William Cunninghame.12 A new ‘Georgian Glasgow’ exhibition at the Kelvingrove Art Galleries seeks to foreground this kind of hidden history. Given that we have so long drawn a veil over it, post-September Scotland might make the recovery of the memory of slavery a priority in terms of research. It would form part of a self-critical re-appraisal of national and international relations that a sovereign Scotland might pursue, informed by an agenda of economic equality and social justice.


  Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art, Gary Barber, Wikimedia

But what does an archipelagic vision of these islands look like? The complex constitutional arrangements that we have indicate something of the complex interaction of peoples and polities, for which the ‘archipelago’ might provide a better explanatory model. This Atlantic archipelago is made up of over 6,000 islands, of which about 139 are permanently inhabited. There are two large islands, the easterly consists of three nations— Scotland, Wales, and England— which came together erratically and problematically to create the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain’ in 1707. Later, the Acts of Union 1800 brought in the Parliament of Ireland, creating for the first time a single political unit of the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’. This stood until the Irish Free State, later the Republic of Ireland, became independent in 1922 leaving the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’.

Sometimes known as ‘the British Islands’, the Isle of Man and the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey are self-governing and not in the European Union, though the Queen is head of state and the UK oversees defence. Since 1998, Scotland has had a devolved parliament, and Wales and Northern Ireland have had their own assemblies. The recent move towards an independence referendum in Scotland underlines the point that archipelagos resist any single model of governance. They might constitute a single state with a single currency, such as New Zealand; or they might have multiple polities with multiple currencies, such as the Caribbean.

An archipelagic vision emphasises multiplicity and constant circulations. These islands have always been multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-religious. Pre-history is a tangle of migrations, with movements of Picts, Scots, Angles, and Scandinavians, amongst others. I want to stress that this vision of multiplicity is not intended to be pacific: these interactions can be fractious as well as filial. In 1701, Daniel Defoe’s poem ‘The True-born Englishman’ was written to counter anti-Dutch xenophobia provoked by King William. He traces a multitude of heritages that produces a ‘mongrel, half-bred race’. He says ‘from a mixture of all kinds began,/ That het'rogeneous thing, an Englishman’.13 In this tradition, John Morrill writes:

Englishness is self-evidently the product of the complex interactions of peoples and cultures (Britons, Romans, Saxons, Norsemen, Normans). Scottishness, Irishness, Welshness, too are the product of the complex interactions of peoples, one of them the English.14

Linguists count around seventeen ‘native’ languages that are still in use in these islands, these include: a variety of Traveller languages such as Angloromani and Shelta, British Sign Language, Welsh, Scots Gaelic, Irish, Cornish, Manx, Scots and Ulster-Scots, and English. If including the Channel Islands, we might add the Norman French languages of Auregnais, Guernésiais, Jèrriais, and Sercquiais.15


Gaelic road sign, wikimedia

In terms of religion, the ancient stone circles, burial sites and cave art that permeate the landscape, and their accompanying myths and legends, attest to a palimpsest of beliefs. Older pagan religions were slowly displaced by a monotheistic religion that came from the Middle East. This new religion both fused with and erased pre-existing beliefs, before itself splitting into various competing forms of worship which have brought their own mixture of spirituality and slaughter. Political tensions over the best way to organise society on these islands have produced bloodshed and strife. These include those who sought to control the power of the monarch, competing claims of rightful monarchs, regicide, parliamentarians, levellers and diggers, millenarians, radical dissenters, conservatives, liberal reformers, socialists, trade unionists, revolutionaries and anarchists, fascists and imperialists. If we take this view of these islands, it means that new migrants do not arrive like a handful of rocks onto a frozen lake of Britishness. Rather, they join already choppy seas amongst a collection of islanders who have always been riven by class warfare, religious persecution and ethnic suspicions, interacting in ways both dissonant and harmonious.

However, there is also a risk connected with the model of the archipelago. In truth, this language of multiplicity and plurality connects to British-wide discussions of multiculturalism that have been prevalent since the mid-1990s. As left-wing critics of official multicultural policy have pointed out, there is a danger that putting forward a benign vocabulary of plurality can obscure continuing inequalities. Mike Phillips warns of a superficial ‘cosmetic rhetoric’ of multiplicity and inclusion which avoids more far reaching social transformations.16 Spatial metaphors such as the archipelago can help to refresh and re-think how we see ourselves conceptually, but do not solve entrenched problems such as poverty and misogyny.

We should acknowledge that we ‘mobile, mongrel islanders’ with our multitude of heritages came together to create enduring systems of economic and racial hierarchies, as well as a whole variety of oppressions and exclusions. But, in this year of re-assessment, moving conceptually from an Island Nation to an Atlantic Archipelago can inform and enable contemporary movements for equality across these islands. A re-assessment of Scotland’s imperial history, including the deprivations of Atlantic slavery, can also shift our current understanding of our responsibilities internationally.

This article is a version of a longer talk given at 'Signs of In(ter)dependence: An Archipelagic Conference' at the University of Glasgow, 25 April 2014.

1 John Pocock, ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject’, Journal of Modern History, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Dec 1975), p. 609.

2 J.G.A Pocock, ‘The limits and divisions of British History’, AHR, 87.2 (1982), pp. 311-336, p. 318.

3 Richard Kearney, ‘Britain and Ireland: Towards a Postnationalist Archipelago’ in a special issue on ‘The End of the Nation’, The Edinburgh Review: New Writing and Critical Thought, no. 103, (2000), pp. 21-35, p. 35.

4 John Kerrigan, Archipelagic English (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pvii.

5 Kerrigan, p. 48.

6 Jackie, ‘Missing Faces’, The Guardian, 24 March 2007.

7 Douglas Hamilton, Scotland, the Caribbean and the Atlantic World 1750-1820 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005).

8 Caribbean-Scottish Relations: Colonial and Contemporary Inscriptions in History, Language and Literature, Giovanni Covi, Carla Sassi, Velma Pollard, Joan Anim Addo, eds (London: Mango Publishing, 2007).

9 Sheila M. Kidd, ‘Gaelic Books as Cultural Icons: the Maintenance of Cultural Links between the Highlands and the West Indies’ in Within and Without Empire: Scotland Across the Postcolonial Borderline, Carla Sassi, Theo van Heijnsbergen, eds (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013).

10 T.M. Devine, ‘Did Slavery Make Scotia Great?’, Britain and the World, 4.1 (2011), pp. 40–64.

11 Eric Graham will give a talk titled ‘Slavery Compensation & Reparations’ at the Empire Café, 31 Jul 2014 - 10:00.

12 Stephen Mullen, It Wisnae Us: The Truth About Glasgow and Slavery (Edinburgh: The Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, 2009).

13 A preface attached in 1703 explained: ‘I only infer that an Englishman, of all men, ought not to despise foreigners as such, and I think the inference is just, since what they are to-day, we were yesterday, and to-morrow they will be like us… speaking of Englishmen ab origine, we are really all foreigners ourselves.’ Daniel Defoe: An Explanatory Preface, A true collection of the writings of the author of the True Born English-man, 1703.

14 John Morrill, ‘The British problem, 1534-1707’, in State Formation in the Atlantic Archipelago, ed by Brendan Bradshaw and John Morrill (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1996), pp.1-38, p. 2.

15 For a clear introductory article to some of the issues around counting, see Adam Ramsay (8 Jan 2014).

16 Mike Phillips, ‘Foreword: Migration, Modernity and English Writing—Reflections on Migrant Identity and Canon Formation’, A Black British Canon?, ed. by Gail Low and Marion Wynne-Davies (Palgrave MacMillan: Basingstoke and New York, 2006), p. 22.

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