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Edinburgh to add new plaque to prominent Dundas statue after Black Lives Matter protests

As statues of prominent racists topple around the world a huge, controversial monument in Edinburgh is to acknowledge its subject’s connections to slavery.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
10 June 2020
The Melville Monument
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photo: webbaviation.co.uk. All rights reserved.

The largest statue in Edinburgh will bear a plaque describing its subject’s links to slavery, the city council has announced. 

In the wake of the deplinthing of Edward Colston in Bristol and the Black Lives Matter protests around the world, the statue of former Home Secretary Henry Dundas will now stand above an inscription detailing Dundas’s role in delaying the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade.

The plaque, to be placed below the statue in the city’s central St Andrew Square, will say it is “dedicated to the memory of the more than half a million Africans whose enslavement was a consequence of Henry Dundas’s actions".

Council leader Adam McVey passed the wording agreed today to openDemocracy because of this website’s long-running association with calls for an honest plaque to Dundas. The new plaque will say of Dundas that “he was instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Slave trading by British ships was not abolished until 1807. As a result of this delay, more than half a million enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic.”

It goes on to add that “Dundas also curbed democratic dissent in Scotland” and that he “both defended and expanded the British empire, imposing colonial rule on indigenous peoples”.

While some commentators have welcomed the new plaque, others have called for the statue to be ripped down entirely.

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Geoff Palmer, who was Scotland’s first Black professor and who was involved in drafting the wording of the plaque, has argued that the statue should remain, arguing that “if you remove the evidence, you remove the deed”.

In 2015, I glued a plaque to the monument highlighting Dundas’s connections to slavery, and later secured agreement from the City Council to affix an honest plaque, but negotiations over wording became bogged down. In the wake of protests across the world, and the toppling of the statue of slaver Edward Colston in Bristol, the City Council pushed the new wording through this week.

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Original plaque glued to the statue by Adam Ramsay in 2015. | Photo: Adam Ramsay.

McVey had previously said in an interview with BBC radio that he would feel ‘no sense of loss’ if the statue was taken down, while I argued this week that the Dundas statue should be removed from its column and placed, face down, at the bottom, with a plaque detailing his role in enslaving hundreds of thousands.

Dundas (1742-1811) was one of the most powerful politicians in Scottish history. He was known as “The Great Tyrant” in his own time, and his contemporary, Robert Burns, protested against his deportation of pro-democracy activists to Australia  in the song ‘Scots Wha Hae’ The deportations led to his effigy being burned in protests across the country. 

He served as president of the board of the East India Company, leading to the common saying in his lifetime that he ran both Scotland and India, and fed the one with the other. 

He served as Minister for War and First Lord of the Admiralty, and was deeply involved in the wars with France, and with attempts to crush the slave revolt in Haiti, for fear it would spread to British colonies. 

Most controversially, Dundas was Home Secretary when abolitionists were pushing for the banning of the trade in people across the Atlantic. Dundas organised against them, and ultimately succeeded in inserting the world “gradually” into legislation, delaying the abolition for more than a decade – a period in which more than half a million more people were kidnapped and transported to the Americas for enslavement.

The full wording of the plaque is as follows:

“On the plinth at the centre of St Andrew Square stands a neoclassical column with a statue at the top. This represents Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville (1742 – 1811). He was the Scottish Lord Advocate and an MP for Edinburgh and Midlothian, and the First Lord of the Admiralty. Dundas was a contentious figure, provoking controversies that resonate to this day. While Home Secretary in 1792 and first Secretary of State for War in 1796 he was instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Slave trading by British ships was not abolished until 1807. As a result of this delay, more than half a million enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic. Dundas also curbed democratic dissent in Scotland.

“Dundas both defended and expanded the British empire, imposing colonial rule on indigenous peoples. He was impeached in the United Kingdom for misappropriation of public money and although acquitted, he never held public office again. Despite this, the monument before you to Henry Dundas was funded by voluntary contribution from officers, petty officers, seamen and marines and erected in 1821, with the statue placed on top in 1827.

“In 2020 this was dedicated to the memory of the more than half a million Africans whose enslavement was a consequence of Henry Dundas’s actions."

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