Statue of Henry Dundas will have slavery plaque added

Statue of politician Henry Dundas in Edinburgh will have a plaque added detailing his role in delaying the abolition of slavery after it was targeted during BLM protests

  • Statue of Henry Dundas sits atop the Melville Monument in St Andrews Square 
  • BLM activists left signs at the monument saying ‘Bring down Dundas’ in June 
  • Scotland’s first black professor called for plaque detailing his role in slave trade
  • Now council chiefs have approved the installation of a plaque on the monument

A plaque will be added to a statue of controversial 19th Century politician Henry Dundas – detailing his role in delaying the abolition of slavery.

The monument to Conservative politician Dundas at the Melville Monument in St Andrews Square, Edinburgh, became a focal point for discussion during Black Lives Matter demonstrations in June.

Activists left signs at the monument saying ‘Bring down Dundas’, ‘Their lives mattered’, and ‘Hope’ – and some called for a plaque to be added explaining Dundas’ role in delaying the abolition of slavery while Home Secretary in the 1800s

Academics say his actions in deferring the abolition resulted in an additional 630,000 people being transported from Africa to Britain’s colonies in the West Indies. 

But Dundas’s seven-time great-grandson hit back – claiming his forefather should actually be praised for his role in ending slavery.

Bobby Dundas, the 10th Viscount Melville, said that far from being a racist supporter of the slave trade, his ancestor played a key role in ending it. 

The current Viscount, a professional polo player, entrepreneur and friend of Prince Harry who once rowed 3,000 miles across the Atlantic in a tiny boat, said those who claim the 1st Viscount supported slavery do him a ‘profound injustice’. 

The monument to Conservative politician Dundas at the Melville Monument in St Andrews Square, Edinburgh, was graffitied during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in June

Scotland’s first black professor, Sir Geoff Palmer, called for a plaque detailing Dundas’ role in the slave trade more than two years ago, but talks with the City of Edinburgh Council ground to a halt due to a dispute around the wording.

HENRY DUNDAS: LAWYER, POLITICIAN, AND FRUSTRATOR OF ABOLITION

Henry Dundas (1742 – 1811) was a Conservative politician, Scottish Advocate and the first Secretary of State for War – some historians claim that he delayed the abolition of slavery in 1792.

During his time as Home Secretary Dundas is said to have proposed that slavery be abolished in ‘three stages’ over a decade.

The Scottish advocate gained the nickname of ‘The Uncrowned King of Scotland’ and ‘The Great Tyrant’ which he lived up to when he was caught misusing public money in 1806 and impeached. 

Atop the Melville Monument in St Andrew Square stands the imposing figure of Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, also known as ‘King Harry the Ninth’, the ‘Great Tyrant’ and the ‘Uncrowned King of Scotland’.

Dundas, a trained lawyer, was a highly successful politician, rising from MP for Midlothian in 1774 to Home Secretary – a position he used to frustrate efforts to end slavery until The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act finally became law in March 1807.

In an article for History Workshop, historian Melanie J Newton, Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto, writes: ‘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.’

Historians have also attributed much of the lack of organisation and muddled planning for war with France to Dundas, who was the effective Minister for War at the outbreak of the Wars of the French Revolution.

He was later impeached for the misuse of public funds in 1806 and never held office again – despite being found not guilty. 

But Dundas was a skilled politician during the era of Georgian politics and an important confidante of the king. 

He also sought to use his influence to further the recognition of Catholics in Ireland.

The plaque at his monument notes how it was paid for not through government funds, but ‘by the voluntary contributions of the officers, petty officers, seamen and marines’.

Source: Edinburgh History World Heritage  

Now council chiefs have approved the installation of a plaque on the Category A-listed monument, which will pay tribute to the African slaves.

The planning application for the plaque attracted more than 2,200 comments from members of the public.

The plaque reads: ‘At the top of this neoclassical column stands a statue of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville (1742-1811).

‘He was the Scottish Lord Advocate, 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, and 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 was funded by voluntary contributions from British naval officers, petty officers, seamen, and marines and was erected in 1821, with the statue placed on top in 1827.

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

Last year, Bobby Dundas spoke out about his seven-time great-grandfather.

The present Viscount argued that as the bill had already been rejected by the House of Commons, slavery would not have been ended at all without Dundas’ intervention.

He said was a pragmatist who realised the only way to pass the bill and ban slavery was to add the word ‘gradually’.

The Viscount said: ‘Henry Dundas was an abolitionist. He was for the abolition of the slave trade. That has been written about by countless people. But you have to understand in the current climate, what was UK politics and the British Empire.

‘There was one failed attempt to get it through Parliament and the realistic and pragmatic approach that Dundas took was the only way – which many historians have written about – to make sure that the vision and final goal was achieved.’

Council Leader Adam McVey said: ‘It’s important that a more appropriate and factual description is in place so that people who visit the area can read about the monument and get an appreciation of Edinburgh’s history, and particularly the City’s role in the slave trade and the delay to its abolition.

‘I’m grateful to the Councillors on the committee for approving permission for the final plaque.

‘It is an important first step, to finalise a long-running process to tell a part of our City’s history honestly.

‘I look forward to the findings of the Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group who will provide recommendations on next steps in addressing other features in the public realm across the City later this year.’

My ancestor Henry Dundas was an ABOLITIONIST and he is being unfairly targeted, says great-grandson

Bobby Dundas, the 10th Viscount Melville, says that far from being a racist supporter of the slave trade, his seven-time great-grandfather Henry Dundas played a key role in ending it.

Henry Dundas, whose statue towers 150 feet above Edinburgh, has been blamed for amending William Wilberforce’s 1792 abolition bill to ensure a ‘gradual’ end to slavery.

Detractors argue he delayed a ban on human trafficking for 15 years which saw more than 600,000 people transported into slavery.


Bobby Dundas (left), the 10th Viscount Melville, says that far from being a racist supporter of the slave trade, his seven-time great-grandfather Henry Dundas (right) played a key role in ending it

However the present Viscount argues that as the bill had already been rejected by the House of Commons, slavery would not have been ended at all without Dundas’ intervention.

He sees Dundas as a pragmatist who realised the only way to pass the bill and ban slavery was to add the word ‘gradually’.

The Viscount said: ‘Henry Dundas was an abolitionist. He was for the abolition of the slave trade. That has been written about by countless people. But you have to understand in the current climate, what was UK politics and the British Empire.

‘There was one failed attempt to get it through Parliament and the realistic and pragmatic approach that Dundas took was the only way – which many historians have written about – to make sure that the vision and final goal was achieved.’

The current Viscount, a professional polo player, entrepreneur and friend of Prince Harry who once rowed 3,000 miles across the Atlantic in a tiny boat, says those who claim the 1st Viscount supported slavery do him a ‘profound injustice’.

He intervened last year, as debate raged on whether the subjects of some of the country’s most prominent statues were heroes or racists. 

The present Viscount argues that as the bill had already been rejected by the House of Commons, slavery would not have been ended at all without Dundas’ intervention

It was funded by voluntary contributions from officers, petty officers, seaman and marines. The column was erected in 1821, with the statue placed on top in 1827.

The present Viscount admits Dundas — an MP and Scottish Lord Advocate — was a contentious figure, who both defended and expanded the British empire, imposing colonial rule on indigenous peoples.

He said: ‘He certainly wasn’t a saint and was a very controversial figure. But currently there is only one side of the man being shown. And fundamentally he was a politician and in the Admiralty quelled all-out war and kept Scotland in the Union. So there’s a lot that Scots do not know about a man whose done a lot, I think, for Scotland.

‘What I’ve always been in favour of is a wider conversation and education on it. It’s so important for people to be educated to form an opinion – the two sides of a coin and two sides of a debate.’

Viscount Melville said: ‘After one failed attempt already made by Wilberforce to get the abolition bill through parliament, and with so much power and financial interests involved in the West Indian plantations and the slave trade as a whole, the only way to get it abolished and a majority vote through parliament was to insert the word ‘gradual’ into the legislation.

‘Had it not been for Henry Dundas’ amendment to the legislation, the slave trade could have been about for decades to come.’

Asked how Dundas would view the current protests, the Viscount said: ‘I genuinely think he would be on the streets. One hundred per cent. All lives matter. I think this was a man who would say all lives matter.

‘I think it’s absolutely horrific what happened to George Floyd. I think racism is systematic and it’s institutional within politics and culture, our social environment in the 21st century.

A statue of Henry Dundas, the 1st Viscount Melville, can be seen towering over Edinburgh

‘I think it’s great what’s going on and it’s great that it’s being shown. What’s not great is the thuggery and extremism that takes to spray cans and vandalism.’

There is currently very little information on the monument — a column topped by Dundas’ statue — to say who it commemorates and why.

Three years ago plans were drawn up to put up a plaque with more information but the controversy around Dundas’ role in ending slavery delayed its addition.

A plaque approved by the council last year dedicates the monument to ‘the memory of more than half a million Africans whose enslavement was a consequence of Henry Dundas’s actions’.

Viscount Melville said the wording contained ‘historical inaccuracies’.

Dundas Street is named after Henry Dundas 1st Viscount Melville. His detractors say he delayed the abolition of slavery

He added: ‘In particular, it is untrue that the postponement of the ban on the slave trade to 1807 was the result of any executive action by Henry Dundas notwithstanding the fact he left government in 1801.

‘He had no personal involvement in the slave trade and when asked by William Pitt to support the abolition it was his motion that is the reason millions were spared a part in a horrific trade and dark period in UK history. Any attempt to inscribe words on the statue giving people the idea he was in favour of slavery would be a profound injustice to a man who did his utmost to ensure that progressive politics were realistically promoted in a uniquely difficult period of British, European and global history.

‘To retain public respect for its own decision in the matter, the City of Edinburgh Council should not ignore such plain facts but make sure the inscription respects them.’

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