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Edinburgh plaque 'wrongly blames politician for delaying the abolition of slavery'

A monument to Henry Dundas, the 1st Viscount Melville, was targeted with graffiti during protests linked to the Black Lives Matter movement - Universal Images Group via Getty Images
A monument to Henry Dundas, the 1st Viscount Melville, was targeted with graffiti during protests linked to the Black Lives Matter movement - Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A plaque next to one of Edinburgh’s most prominent statues wrongly blames a politician for delaying the abolition of slavery and must be removed, historians have claimed.

A monument to Henry Dundas, the 1st Viscount Melville, was targeted with graffiti during protests linked to the Black Lives Matter movement and Edinburgh Council later approved a plaque which blamed him for the enslavement of “more than half a million Africans.”

However, experts have disputed the claim and say that while Dundas did support a delay in abolition, it is hugely misleading to suggest he was solely accountable for the continuation of the slave trade.

As a lawyer, he also successfully represented Joseph Knight, a former slave, in a case which effectively outlawed slavery in Scotland.

A group which claims the plaque is historically inaccurate has launched an official bid to have it removed, lodging a formal planning application to have it taken down.

Included in the application are two papers by Angela McCarthy, a professor of Scottish and Irish history at the University of Otago in New Zealand. The campaign has also been backed by Sir Tom Devine, widely seen as Scotland’s leading historian.

Edinburgh Council approved a plaque which blamed Henry Dundas for the enslavement of 'more than half a million Africans' - Jeff J Mitchell /Getty Images Europe
Edinburgh Council approved a plaque which blamed Henry Dundas for the enslavement of 'more than half a million Africans' - Jeff J Mitchell /Getty Images Europe

Prof McCarthy criticised Sir Geoff Palmer, Scotland’s first black professor, who agreed the wording and has been handed an influential role in ongoing work to review how Edinburgh’s links with slavery and colonialism should be dealt with.

"My overarching argument is that Sir Geoff Palmer, the key figure behind the new plaque's wording, has wrongly conflated arguments about whether or not Dundas was an abolitionist with assertions that he delayed abolition of Britain's slave trade,” Prof McCarthy said.

“The heritage sector is grossly undermined by the lack of rigorous scrutiny for plaques and memorials erected to serve pressure group politics.

"Although this controversy is about one monument in one city, it has wider ramifications for how we remember and engage with the past.

"Mr Palmer has failed to accept the current historiographical and academic consensus that Henry Dundas was not solely responsible for Britain's failure to achieve immediate abolition of its slave trade".

Wording of plaque 'erroneous in all aspects'

The wording of the plaque, put up in 2020 next to the statue known as the Melville Monument, states that Dundas was a “contentious figure” and while in government in the 1790s, was “instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade” until 1807.

It adds: "In 2020 this plaque was dedicated to the memory of more than half a million Africans whose enslavement was a consequence of Henry Dundas's actions."

Sir Tom denounced the wording of the plaque as “erroneous in all aspects.” He added: “I am very pleased that Edinburgh city council will review content of the plaque at the foot of the Melville Monument.”

Edinburgh Council said it was unable to comment on planning applications which had not yet been decided. It is currently listed as “awaiting assessment” by council officers.

Sir Geoff said: "Henry Dundas’ new plaque contains statements which are derived from reports written by important abolitionists such as Clarkson who knew Dundas. Clarkson said that Dundas was the “chief instrument” against abolition and historian Sir Tom Devine said Dundas delayed the abolition of the slave trade “for a generation”. Dundas wrote that he will “oppose” abolition. Dundas supporters must produce evidence to support their views."