Current events often inspire an itch in me to go back to history. Given the global situation, this means going through my own library, or diving into the internet for digitised offerings.
One such gem is The Singing Campaign for Ten Thousand Pounds by Gustavus D. Pike. This 1875 book covered the journey of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a choir of former slaves who toured the world to fundraise for education for freedmen and other black Americans:
And yet again, I found myself surprised that Scotland – Gourock itself – plays a tiny role in this amazing story.
A longer documentary can be found here:
While the documentary only mentions Scotland in passing, Mr. Pike devotes an entire chapter to the Singers in Scotland. Of particular interest to me is my hometown Gourock, which has a special mention:
Many persons at Castle Wemyss assured us of their readiness to aid, and several donations were made for the Jubilee fund. It had been nearly settled by our friends that it would be contrary to the proprieties of the Presbyterians to allow services like ours to be held in their churches, and especially if an admission were charged. I was therefore relieved when the Rev. Mr. Kinross, pastor of the Established Church at Largs, invited us to visit his parish, and not only charge an admission at the door of the church, but to take a collection as well. Mrs. Gamble and party, from Gourock, proposed also that we should give our first concert at the U. P. church in her village, assuring us that her pastor was very much interested in America, and would certainly welcome us. She even agreed to fix the next Wednesday as the time, promising to telegraph at once if she found on her return any obstacle in the way of the proposal. The Rev. David MacRae, her pastor, had travelled through the United States, and had visited many of the schools of the American Missionary Association. He had even devoted a chapter, in his work, entitled ‘Americans at Home,’ to an account of its missions among the Freedmen.
On our arrival, he gave us a cordial reception, and the sight of the American flag, with which he had gracefully decorated the platform prepared for the singers in the church, inspired an enthusiasm not readily forgotten. That flag meant liberty to the poor slaves during the war for their emancipation; when it was seen unfurled in front of the moving battalions, the bondsmen knew emancipation was near; the camp over which it waved was his city of refuge, – the day he entered it he became disenthralled. He had looked to the country of the Queen, hundreds of miles away, as his only land of rest, but the flag of the Union brought to the very door of his cabin a land of liberty. For him it meant a new era, a golden age, a millennial morning. The sight of that flag at Gourock revived fond memories in many a heart, and gave new strength for days to come.
Rev. David MacRae is one of Gourock’s most important figures: traveller, writer, patriot, campaigner, reformer, person of interest, radical. His Notes About Gourock, Chiefly Historical remains the most important volume on our wee toun’s history. It is not a surprise that he would push all the boats out for American visitors. (The U.P. Church is sadly no longer with us, having been demolished to make room for what is now Ashton Court).
A comment from Provost Dugald Campbell, Provost of Greenock,* was particularly notable given current debates:
The second concert at Greenock, if possible, was a greater ovation than the first. The chair was taken by Mr. J. J. Grieve, M.P., who gave a fine opening address. During the intermission, Mr. Bailie Campbell said he had in his possession a document which showed that, at the beginning of this century, the Scotch people were very much involved in the trade which America had so recently abandoned, and which made it evident that the British people ought to forward the work represented by the Jubilee Singers. The paper, a bill of lading, was as follows:
“Shipped by the Grace of God, in good order and well-conditioned, by Irving and Fraser, in and upon the good ship called the “Byam,” whereof is master, under God, for this present voyage, George Martin, and now riding at anchor in the Respongo; and, by God’s Grace, bound for the West Indies. To say – ” Two hundred and eight slaves,” and to be delivered in the like good order and well-conditioned at the aforesaid port of the West Indies (the danger of the seas, mortality, and insurrection only excepted), under order of their assignees. Freight for the said slaves, paid, vessel belonging to the owners, with primage and average custom.”
‘In witness whereof, the master and purser of the said ship have affirmed to three bills of landing, all of this tenor and date, one of which bills being accomplished, the other to stand void. And so God send the good ship to her desired port in safety. Amen.” ‘George Martin.” ‘Dated at Kessing, 14 May, 1803.’
“‘That shows,’ continued Bailie Campbell, ‘how much we are bound to help them; and I hope when it is known how we in this country sympathize with them, that they will not require to record, as they have had to do, that when they came to some railway stations they were ordered out of the waiting-rooms, and that they were refused accommodation in hotels on account of their colour; and that America would not only have the stigma of the slave trade removed, but would take them by the hand and treat them as fellow citizens, entitled to every privilege possessed by their white fellows.
It’s interesting how the discussion of Scots’ roles in the Transatlantic Slave Trade was being held even in the 1870s: one wonders how on earth we got to the point where that history became obscured to the point that Tom Devine wrote a book about it. It is all the more perplexing given the enthusiasm shown towards the Freedmens’ plight:
“Successful meetings of welcome to the Jubilee Singers were held about this time at Largs, Dunoon, Killcreggan, and Hellensburgh. At the latter place Mr. Kidston, of Ferniegair, kindly made very acceptable arrangements for the service, issuing cards of invitation to the people of his town, who were abundantly able to aid our work.
“The remarks of Mr. Kidston, during the service, exhibit something of the feeling which exists among Scotch Presbyterians respecting musical entertainments. ‘ This sacred music,’ he said, does not, I think, partake of the nature of the oratorio conducted by mere professional singers, which I disapprove of (hear) ; but on the contrary, solemn words are uttered, I believe, from the heart of every singer. Permit me to say I cannot help thinking God has some purpose to serve with the African race. The furore for education at present in South Africa is extraordinary. Having been for some years the representative of Africa in the Free Church Assembly, I have had my attention especially drawn to this circumstance.’
With many other English people, Mr. Kidston seems to believe in the vitality of the African race; that they are destined to wear out the other races, and will yet hold a very prominent place among the children of men. At this Hellensburgh meeting the handsome sum of £73 was realized for the singers, and a host of friends secured. Scotland was now unquestionably an open door, and we determined, while waiting the return of the people to the large towns, which would take place about the 1st of October, to pay a brief visit to Ireland.”
You would think that this would all be common knowledge after almost 150 years. Yet despite cyclopean effigies of Dundas and Milligan and the like striding like colossi among our cities and landscapes, we do seem to have forgotten our history. The common response to the resurgent calls to remove their memorials from public places – “if we remove them, then we’ll forget our history” – seems utterly hollow in retrospect. If they are to stay “so we remember,” then they’ve done a singularly terrible job of it, and we clearly need a better way of making sure we don’t forget – again. Far better to remember that this conversation is not, by any means, a new one – just one that needs to be resolved.
That we seem to have largely forgotten the amazing story of the Jubilee Singers in Scotland shows that it is not just our terrible past which has been neglected. Campbell’s intermission speech only has meaning when it acknowledges the role Scots played in the cruel trade: by ignoring the dark, we lose the light. Far from damning or destroying Scottish history and heritage, it contextualises it, making it whole and real.
*As an aside, Mr Campbell also had interesting opinions on the Highland community, noting especially that “the Highlanders had no chance of bettering themselves or providing means to support a gospel ministry, as they were driven from the finest of the land – the fine straths and glens, which were now occupied by deer.”