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February 21st 1729

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Slavery comes to Perthshire

Sir John Wedderburn came from a Jacobite family and after Culloden he was forced to flee the country. He managed to reach America and after the passing of the Indemnity Act he moved on to Jamaica. Here he followed the profession of “surgeon practitioner in physick and chirurgery.”  He was an energetic and able man and also found time to run a sugar plantation and engage in a number of trading ventures. When he finally returned to Scotland in 1768 his fortune had been sufficiently restored for him to purchase the estate of Ballindean in the Carse of Gowrie.

He brought with him to Ballindean a personal servant by the name of Joseph Knight. Joseph received his name, not from his parents, but from the captain of an African slaving ship who brought him from Africa and sold him to Sir John at the age of thirteen. Joseph was therefore more than a servant. He was a personal slave and continued in that capacity when he was brought to Ballindean. In due course he grew up and married Anne Thomson from Dundee. Anne had worked as a servant in Wedderburn’s employment but after the marriage the two set up house in Dundee.

The reaction from Wedderburn was immediate; Joseph was arrested and brought before the local J.P.s who confirmed Sir John’s right to his services. But Joseph was not prepared to accept such a finding and appealed to the Sheriff of Perth. Sir John argued his own case but in spite of his personal intervention the court found that “the state of slavery is not recognised by the law of this kingdom”  and dismissed the case.

Sir John made one last bid to secure his ‘rights’. He took the case to the Court of Session where it attracted much interest. Joseph Knight’s lawyer described some of the conditions which existed on the slave estates in Jamaica such as “branding, bone crushing, amputation, castration and blinding. Slavery,”  he said, “was repugnant to the first principle of justice and morality. The law of Scotland will not give fetters. The plains of Scotland shall not be dishonoured by the labour of slaves, her mountains shall continue the asylum of liberty; and the solitary ray that has cheered her cottager amidst the darkest storms, shall remain unquenched.” 

By a large majority the court supported Joseph’s case and agreed that “the dominion assumed over the negro under the law of Jamaica being unjust it could not be supported, that therefore Wedderburn had no right to the negro’s services for a space of time nor to send him out of the country against his consent.”  It was an historic judgement and a death blow to negro slavery in Scotland.

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