Historians' Watch

Henry Dundas: Naming Empire and Genocide

Until recently, few Scots who stood under Edinburgh’s Melville monument or sauntered along Dundas Street; Canadians who walked down Toronto’s Dundas Street or gathered in Dundas Square; and residents of Dundas, Ontario, knew or cared about Henry Dundas, first Viscount Melville, (1742-1811) and his support for the slave trade.

This summer, in response to a public campaign, Edinburgh City Council voted to install a plaque on the Melville monument acknowledging Dundas’s role defending the slave trade. The City of Toronto is currently determining its response to a petition, signed by 14,000 people, to rename Dundas Street, one of the city’s oldest and longest thoroughfares. Others, notably some of Dundas’s descendants, claim that Dundas actually opposed the slave trade. Where does the truth lie? Was Dundas a corrupt scoundrel who deserved his impeachment in 1806 and his nicknames, ‘The Great Tyrant’ and ‘The Uncrowned King of Scotland’? Was he responsible for cynically delaying the slave trade’s abolition? Or did his pragmatic intervention during one of British parliamentary history’s most important debates rescue abolition from certain defeat?

Melville Monument, Edinburgh. Wikimedia Commons.

For a historian of Caribbean slavery and abolition, these questions are easy to answer. In the 1790s, faced with the epoch-defining choice to align Great Britain with either freedom or slavery, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and his ministers unequivocally chose slavery. As Minister for War and Colonies (1794-1801), Dundas prioritised seizing France’s Caribbean slaveholding empire, especially the profitable colony of Saint Domingue, “with the view of enlarging our national wealth and security”. Between 1793 and 1798, across the Caribbean, 40,000 British troops, most of them sent there by Dundas, died or were incapacitated in a bloody struggle to expand British slavery. What stopped Pitt and his government were not their own misgivings, parliamentary abolitionists, the French, or the British public, but enslaved rebels in Saint Domingue – the British empire’s Vietnam.

In 1795, MPs presented evidence that British forces had committed atrocities against the Jamaican Maroons of Trelawney Town, a free black community with whom Britain had signed a treaty in 1740. Dundas defended these actions, stating that “[t]he Maroons had been treated with humanity and attention.” Meanwhile, Dundas’s forces brutally suppressed an abolitionist uprising in Grenada that lasted from 1795-96.

Not far away, in the island of St. Vincent, lived the Garifuna, the descendants of African fugitives from enslavement and the indigenous people for whom the Caribbean region was misnamed. Britain had seized St. Vincent from France in 1763, planning to expand slavery and sugar production, but the Garifuna controlled about half of the island. In 1795, Dundas threw Britain’s military might against combined French and Garifuna resistance, massacring entire villages and destroying Garifuna autonomy. The colonial government ordered the transportation of thousands of indigenous Vincentians to nearby Balliceaux Island, where British troops held 4,476 Garifunas prisoner for months. Half of the prisoners died and the survivors were exiled to Central America. The word ‘genocide’ was not available in the eighteenth century but, even by the low standards of amoral political pragmatism, Dundas’s St. Vincent policy was a shocking orgy of violence and racial hatred.

Dundas had nothing to do with abolition’s eventual success. Britain slunk out of Saint Domingue in defeat as Napoleon rose to power in 1798-99. Napoleon re-imposed slavery across the empire in 1802, but was also unable to defeat Saint Domingue’s rebels. In 1804, Saint Domingue became independent from France as Haiti, becoming the second independent state in the Americas after the US. Financially devastated by the war, France sold the Louisiana Territory to the US. Haitian independence (which the UK did not recognise), the Louisiana Purchase and the end of the Pitt era in Parliament are the backdrop to British slave trade abolition in 1807.

As evidence of Dundas’ abolitionism, apologists point to his role as an advocate representing an Afro-Jamaican man, Joseph Knight, in his freedom suit in Scotland. The case led to a 1778 ruling – similar to the more famous 1772 decision in the freedom suit of James Somersett – in which an English judge ruled that there existed no positive law in England empowering a slave owner to force an enslaved person back to a slaveholding jurisdiction. Enslaved people like Knight and Somersett, along with Black and white abolitionists, had long challenged slaveholding in metropolitan Britain. However, the Knight decision had no direct impact on the Atlantic slave trade or slavery in any jurisdiction besides Scotland. It was entirely possible to oppose slavery in Great Britain while supporting human trafficking and slavery elsewhere in the empire. Then, as now, lawyers’ arguments in court cannot simply be taken as evidence of their personal beliefs.

Much of the discussion about Dundas is narrowly focused on the 1792 parliamentary slave trade abolition debate, when he inserted the word ‘gradual’ into William Wilberforce’s abolition bill, which passed in the House of Commons. Quite predictably, this bill died in the House of Lords. Some of his defenders have pointed out that, during the 1792 debate, he also made recommendations to improve conditions for enslaved people. However, these essentially echoed the goals of the 1788 Consolidated Slave Law, passed by Jamaica’s slaveowner-controlled House of Assembly, which aimed to preserve slavery, not abolish it.

Dundas proposed a date for abolition eight years in the future – an eternity in politics even in the eighteenth century – which was amended by other MPs to 1796. In 1796, he opposed immediate abolition as politically inconvenient in the context of Britain’s war against emancipation, racial equality and democracy in France and the Caribbean. Parliamentary abolitionists certainly did not see Dundas as one of them; in 1806 abolitionist Charles James Fox described Dundas as the man “who took a lead in constantly opposing our attempts at a total and immediate abolition” even though he knew the trade “to be adverse to policy, humanity, and justice”.

Far from contributing to slave trade abolition, Dundas’s ‘gradual abolition’ resulted in an immediate and unprecedented escalation of transatlantic human trafficking. The period from 1793-1807 – after Parliament agreed to ‘gradual’ abolition’ – witnessed the most consistently high volumes of Africans transported to the British Caribbean in the trade’s history (a total of 574,370 people, or an average of 38,391 per year). Just over half of that number was transported while Dundas was colonial secretary.

Sound historical analysis cannot just take historical figures at their word. An individual’s historical relevance is also about their actions, and the reasonably foreseeable consequences of those actions. The intentions of a figure like Dundas, dead for more than 200 years, are rarely knowable after the fact. It is irresponsible revisionism for certain historians to assert, on the basis of no sound evidence, that – had it not been for the unfortunate business of the war with France – Dundas would have supported abolition. We can never know whether or not that might have been true; to pursue counter-factualism as truth is to enter the realm of “alternative facts”.

These kinds of superficial arguments suggest a selective reading of complex historical materials. Such claims, when they appear in news media, unsupported by actual evidence, do disservice to the public’s intelligence and exploit the presumed ignorance of ordinary people, few of whom are taught this history. Arguments defending the necessity of Pitt’s efforts to expand British slaveholding in order to undermine France echo comments by US senator Tom Cotton, who described US slavery as a “necessary evil”.

Every one of Dundas’ interventions into the abolition debate, and his policies as colonial secretary, served the immediate interests of slave owners and slave traders and committed Britain more deeply to slavery. Diana Paton, William Robertson Professor of History at the University of Edinburgh, accurately summed up the debate among serious scholars of the slave trade about whether or not Dundas was an abolitionist by stating emphatically that there is no such debate. The weight of the evidence – that Dundas was dedicated to a vision of empire built on the mass enslavement of Black people and the mass slaughter of Indigenous Americans – is overwhelming.

To be Black or Indigenous in North America and Europe is to live in the built environment of white supremacy, the physical embodiment of the apocalypse of colonisation and slavery. Every day we move through streetscapes, pass under the shadow of monuments, learn in buildings and live in towns named for the architects of the structural forms of violence that continue to shape Black and Indigenous lives, limit our choices, destroy our health and kill our children. These men were celebrated not in spite of the fact that they were white supremacists and, in some cases, mass murderers, but because of it.

Will it undo the past of Indigenous genocide and Black enslavement if city officials in Toronto and Edinburgh publicly acknowledge Dundas’s role as one of British slave traffickers’ most powerful supporters? The answer, obviously, is no. But I would say – to those who think that what ‘matters’ is so straightforward – that my first ancestor in this hemisphere probably came over in the hold of a slave ship, likely to Barbados, where I was born. I am a historian by profession. I have spent countless hours in the archives of the British empire. Even with my training, I could go through the cargo lists of a thousand slave ships and see the name of my first ancestor in the Americas and never know I had read it. I can never find that name, it is lost to history, it is lost to me. I have men like Dundas to thank for that.

So, does the name of a street matter? Does the name Dundas matter? My answer is simple: change has to begin somewhere and names mean everything.

Versions of this article were first published by Open Democracy and Stabroek News


  1. What a wonderful and informative article. Some of my ancestors came to America in the early 1700’s from Scotland. When I started doing serious genealogy 20 years ago I discovered the line took great pride in killing indigenous people to take their lands. Also during the early 1800’s some of them had jobs with the title “oversee-er” which meant they were the white people who worked slaves sometimes to their deaths. Horrible to find this out.

  2. Where is your evidence of these accusations in this article? Did you forget to include them?

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