Posts tagged ‘racism’

Jan 22, 2021

The Shame Game: an embarrassment of Scots

‘Nor are the many languages the enemies of humankind

But the little tyrant must mould things into one body

To control them and give them his single vision

(Zulu poet, Mazisi Kunene’s poem On the Nature of Truth from The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain, 1982)

This blog was provoked by a Twitter storm over the activities of a young Scot on social media. She wasn’t advocating drowning kittens but had the audacity to recite her own poetry in Scots and highlight Scots vocabulary. For her crime Miss PunnyPennie aka @Lenniesaurus became the target of inciteful barbs along the lines of Scots is ‘just English spelt wrong.’

In the Sunday Times Tony Allen-Mills told readers her ‘ditties’ were recited “in a barely understandable Scottish burr.” Cliché heaven. He described her as a “controversial” linguist – in translation she speaks like many fellow-Scots speak when not talking to non-natives. In short she isn’t speaking proper English. Now it’s a funny thing that journalists and media commentators making a living commenting on others are very thin-skinned when it comes to their own behaviour coming under scrutiny. And so it was with Mr Mills or @TAMinUK as he is known on Twitter who became quite defensive and a little angry when his prejudices were pointed out to him. Then he inadvertently insulted the Gaelic language.

There’s a lot of it about. Last April The Scotsman (sic) newspaper ran a piece on 50 Scottish slang words translated: funniest and best sayings and slang phrases from Scotland and what they mean in English which began “Though English is the first language in Scotland” and listed as ‘slang’ Scots language words such as bonnie, braw, gallus, heid, lugs, ken. It was the 1960s Parliamo Glasgow all over again. And again.

50 Scottish slang words translated: funniest and best sayings and slang phrases from Scotland – and what they mean in English | The Scotsman

In 2014, the year the British state discovered a region called Scotland on its northern periphery, the Guardian newspaper printed a scoop exposé that Scots spoke differently from elsewhere in the UK. The article began with a joke which was apt because the whole piece was a joke. You know the kind of joke that starts, there was this Irishman or there was this Pakistani or there was this Scotsman. Scots speech is bloody incomprehensible! was the gist of it. Demeaning nonsense.

“It [Scots] even has its own dictionary” the author wrote. His mention of Scottish culture was  restricted to a single example – predictably Robert Burns. The expert on Scotland hailed from Cheshire, a son of a Scottish father. Presumably we have to take Mr Smith seriously because in common with lots and lots of ‘experts’ on Scots and Scotland he has holidayed in Scotland. Perhaps he should spend more time here for he exhibited considerable ignorance of his subject. Sassenach, he as erroneously explained was a derogatory term for an English person. It isn’t derogatory, it simply means southerner. Teucheter once a disparaging term Lowlanders used for a Highlander is very much still in common usage, in northeast Doric, and refers to a countra chiel.  

Scots: do you know your teuchters from your sassenachs? | Scotland | The Guardian

Also inaccurate was his assertion that Scots is spoken in the Lowlands, central belt and Grampian – Grampian?? I dinna hink so, min. He went on to mention Scots is really English, traced back to Anglo Saxon in the 11th century. That is true. As it is true that present-day English has its roots in the same Anglo Saxon. But it does not occur to the writer, Mark Smith, that since the English spoken today evolved from then, changing and adapting, with input coming from later invaders to these shores, mainly French and Norman so, too, did Scots – which developed as a language with those same influences plus Norse and Gaelic. So why is English regarded as a legitimate language but Scots having emerged in a similar way, not?  The answer is it is nothing to do with roots but the power structure of the Union. – beautifully encapsulated by Kunene as the little tyrant seeks to take difference and create sameness, uniformity. The uniformity of the tyrant’s values and, vitally, language.  

Unity through conformity has been the battle cry of every tyrannous power since the 16th century. It’s a simple enough dogma. Overpower. Dominate. Centralise. Subdue.   

Emerging nation states imposed unity through centralisation and suppression of potential rival cultural symbols and languages – demanding acceptance and adherence to those officially sanctioned by the state. In the UK the British state is essentially defined by the English language and England’s cultural traditions … afternoon tea on the lawn, cricket on the village green, red London buses – none of which have much relevance to Scotland. Would the British state be content to isolate the cultural mores of one of its other parts, let’s say Scotland, as emblematic of Britain or the UK – Burns, Irn Bru, tartan and ceilidhs? The short answer is no. English people would not accept Britishness defined through these symbols alone. And in tandem with symbolism comes language. The English language was imposed as the lingua franca, if you’ll pardon the expression, of the United Kingdom – an instrument intended to integrate all parts of the UK and eradicate difference.

Life for Scots was increasingly Anglicised. Scottish culture, languages and dialects systematically suppressed; in the early 18th century by legal penalty, later lifted, and then through the drip by drip of ridicule, sneering and derision that has also been experience by Ireland and Wales.

Scotland is not a nation of a single language. There is Gaelic, mention of which nowadays is always accompanied by an outcry along the lines of – they didna spik it here. It’s a dead language. Gaelic was spoken across Scotland from the 5th century. In common with the other nations of the UK, Scotland is a mongrel nation absorbing the languages of migrants. The different people who landed on our shores brought with them their languages to add to those already spoken in Scotland. Some ancient languages once spoken in Scotland have been lost altogether and others blended over time. Gaelic has largely preserved its distinctiveness but in common with probably every language, has absorbed new words to keep it relevant.

James VI outlawed Gaelic in 1616 when he decided Inglis (English) would be the language spoken in Scotland. Gaelic in retreat was disparaged by Lowlanders and has struggled ever since. Get them young applied then as now and schools were set up throughout Scotland, in every parish, to teach children English. Enforced uniformization was underway in the 17th century. A century later came the Union of the United Kingdoms, shortly followed by the brutal repression following the Jacobite risings. All aspects of Highland life were undermined.  Language is a powerful weapon in the mouths of people and the reason centralising powers feel compelled to control them.

In Scotland Gaelic suffered under the pressure of the capitalisation of society – common languages of commerce were Scots and English because those were the languages spoken in Lowland areas where trade was greatest. The same forces that came for Gaelic came then for Scots and Doric (although Doric’s roots in the countryside of the northeast was able to survive well into the 20th century.)  On a wave of Anglicisation the words that came out of Scots’ mouths changed. Much braid Scots words and expressions were expunged from ‘polite’ society that was complicit in undermining the language that had served the people very well since the 11th century and now branded, uncouth.  Scotticisms, as they were sneeringly termed,  were best dropped by any Scot with ambition who was advised to adopt the language of South Britain. The first Scottish MPs to sit in the Union parliament at Westminster in London were openly mocked for the way they spoke.

Across the many and disparate nations of the British Empire, English became the language of government; to enable commerce and trade and maintain greater control from London. Diversity, seen as potential weakness in Britain’s overall command.

All modern empires have used language to impose their values on conquered peoples. Suppress native languages, and by dint of this erode native culture, and impose the centralising power’s own language as the only official language of government and authority – and sometimes the only language permitted to be spoken or written. Spain banned all languages but Spanish throughout its empire in the Americas. Native languages were banned in Mexico from the start of the 20th century until 1935. The Portuguese behaved the same way in Brazil and France within its empire. Always the most effective means of imposing the official language of the oppressor was through schools, denigrating native languages spoken locally and thrashing the message home when resisted. In Wales, for example, speaking Welsh in schools was rigidly banned. Any child who dared speak his or her own language was humiliated and punished – some were made to wear a wooden collar with the letters WN for Welsh Not or Welsh Note carved into it.  

Following Union with England Scottish pupils were increasingly taught in English. Children speaking and writing in the language they communicated in at home were ‘corrected’ and forced to use English terms. By the middle of the 19th century Scottish names were standardised in registrations of births, deaths and marriages. By the 1872 Education Act the overwhelming use of English in Scottish schools was rampant or ramming up, in today’s parlance. In 1886 the Scotch Code made English mandatory in schools.   

In 1924 William Grant, a lecturer at Aberdeen Training Centre, editor of the Scottish National Dictionary and authority on braid Scots argued for teaching Scottish culture through the Scots language in schools. He denied the vernacular was vulgar, that Scots was in any way a corruption of standard English.

Grant understood the vital link between language and its literature. He deprecated the tendency to substitute English words for Scots ones and the loss of so much of the richness of expression of the language. We have a prime example of that today with the majority of the Scottish press adopting the English word jab in the context of a vaccination against Covid-19. The Scots equivalent is jag and it is this word the majority of Scots are familiar with however there are elements in Scotland who deride the term  – for purely ideological reasons. They see it as Scots trying to assert their difference from England – which it is and what is wrong with that? Why substitute a good – no better and more descriptive word for an injection because England has a different one? It’s the perverse reasoning of the extreme Unionism that everything English is by its nature superior to its Scottish equivalent. Their prejudice has roots that stretch back to the earliest days of incipient imperialism.  

William Grant died in 1946, the year in which a report on primary education in Scotland insisted English was the language of the educated person, not Scots. A fine example of how colonies are brought to heel – impose by punishment and law a set of values that are artificially defined as representative of the whole unified state and said to be its ‘norms.’

Deference to the English language and to England became ingrained into Scotland but perhaps the recent revival of interest in Scotland’s languages and dialects is a product of Scots new found confidence in who we are. Who we are is no second-rate people whose identity has been totally crushed and undermined over three centuries but a population that recognises we are the equals of everyone else – and so are our languages.

The Covid ‘jag’ promises hope, not only for escape from a dreadful pandemic but escape, too, from long years of humiliation and oppression as a nation with much to offer the world. But we need our voice to do it.              

Jun 8, 2020

Racism kills. Turning away is not an option.

Samantha Francine

Samantha Francine is a strong young woman facing down a vicious racist bully. (Whitefish, Montana – photographer Grace Jensen)

Jan 5, 2020

The Rampant Kelt

Pall Mall Gazette 30 May 1896

A familiar sight to Aberdonians Rob Roy MacGregor at the Culter burn

Those pesky Scots (Welsh and Irish), complained a writer in a London newspaper called the Pall Mall Gazette on 30 May 1896. Pesky, uppity Scots – just when Britain thought the ‘Kelt’ was dead and a stone added to ‘his cairn’ the pesky Scot – that nuisance who has ruined the English language ‘by mis-spelling’ blah, blah, blah refuses to go away.

Speaking for England Pall Mall insists they are heartily sick of these pesky, ‘scant kilt’ wearing Scots reeking of Glenlivet and the rest of their ‘eccentricities.’

Just as well kilts are water-resistant the amount of abuse hurled at their wearers. Tongue-in-cheek, of course, that relentless racist ranting – and yet and yet.

Their language – not the racist’s you dope – is deplorable. Deplorable! Like Welsh. As for Gaelic with all those consonants! How is an Englishman supposed to be able to understand that! I bet the same was said of just about every other language on the planet apart from God’s own tongue, English. But don’t mention the origins of English … German, Italian and Scandinavian from migrants landing their boats on proud England’s xenophobic shores.

Steer clear of Scotland Pall Mall warns its readers or you’ll have to speak English adulterated by Scots and the local lingo – go to Blairgowrie and you’ll have to be proficient in Scot-English and Blairgowrie babbling. Ach, that rich vein of bigotry and intolerance has always been the mark of the Union.

Determined the reader is left in no doubt to his views the green-ink contributor goes from ridicule of the contamination of the English language by the Welsh and Scots into full-throttle racism explaining the chances of any quality Welsh and Scots literature is as likely as the ability of ni***rs to develop sophisticated society.

Picts –  the race whose stone-built heritage amazes, impresses and confounds us – he dismisses as fairies. His inkwell of green ink is fathomless. Abdy frae Scotland is by definition contemptible. Keep the Scots out of England, behind Antonine’s Wall; banish the Irish from ‘the sacred precincts of Westminster’ and ‘shut up’ the Welsh in Wales – or best of all – shouldn’t England be able to ‘abolish’ these pesky Celts?

The House of Commons a year or two earlier was facetiously referred to as having become a “Scotch Assembly” in which too much was heard from Scots members. They were boring, these Scots, their debates “duller than an Irish” debate. And then, as now, Scots opinions scarcely tolerated were irrelevant at the end of the day because on every occasion they could be outvoted by English MPs whose interests lay in what benefited England not Scotland.

Abuse and prejudice tarted up as journalism drew a response from a Donald MacGregor writing from London. Clearly a Scot, he refused to rise to the bait over the use of the term ‘Kelt’ but agreed that, yes indeed, the ‘Celt is Rampant’ and a good thing, too. He was stirred to write because Celts have for too long been too passive, forbearing, and forgiving of attacks from south of the border. He guessed the frothy-mouthed green-inker was English, but wrote he might have been one of those Lowland Scots who revels in belittling fellow-Scots. Finally he decided the writer was, in fact, a Sassenach with a grudge. As for green-ink wanting to ‘abolish’ Celts – MacGregor wrote that this had been attempted – by the most successful empire builders of all time, the Romans and some pushy Anglo-Saxons but they couldn’t hack it though a ‘goodly number of them’ (Anglo-Saxons) were ‘lodged’ around Bannockburn.

The essence of his letter was that Celtic culture can match anything produced by Anglo-Saxons; that Scots heroes and champions are demonised as degenerates and outlaws by English commentators e.g. Rob Roy (a MacGregor like him) driven off his land is dismissed as a cattle thief while the perpetrators of land clearance – nobility who having acquired lands through nefarious means trade them as they would any speculative venture. A practice evident throughout the British Empire when Johnnie Foreigner’s lands were there for the taking by rogues such as Cecil Rhodes who had he been a poor native in what became Rhodesia would have been shot for his audacity.

What is Pall Mall, I hear you ask. A place, aye, but what was it originally? A game, readers, a game. Can you think where that game started? Go on – take a punt. England? Nah. England? Nah. England? Nah. Pall-mall, palle-malle or pelemele was a Scottish and French pastime. It was the Scottish King James VI aka James I in England – a man too lazy to get off his horse to pee (allegedly) who encouraged the English to play it. And they loved it so much they named a street after it. The Duke of York was very keen on pelemele – but you probably don’t need me to tell you that.

Pall-mall, palle-malle, pelemele are reminders that Scotland’s thousand-year-old Auld Alliance with France is way longer than an embittered, xenophobic, corrupt Union. Lady Violet Greville wrote that, or words to that effect. French and Scottish Celts – we are all Celts. And in a Celt union we’d like to stay.

Jun 21, 2019

From Scotland to Australia: Ben Boyd was a nasty piece of work

Benjamin Boyd

Walk around any town any place and it is extraordinary who does and who doesn’t get honoured – with statues, streets and squares named after them, public parks and so on.

I stumbled upon one Benjamin Boyd in the way that is usual for me –by reading about something entirely different. In this latest instance I was fair enjoying a rip-roaring melodrama written and set in Aberdeen in the 1800s called the King of Andaman. Incidental to the story is a reference to an adventurous fellow called Ben Boyd who started up the Royal Australia Bank. I didn’t know if this was fact or fiction so checked him out and discovered it was true and that old Ben was a bit of a scoundrel. Let me tell you about him.

Benjamin Boyd was born on 21 August 1803 in Wigtonshire and met his unexpected death not a day too soon in October 1851, in the Solomon Islands. During the intervening forty-eight years Benjamin Boyd made a fortune, lost a fortune, dabbled in politics and wrecked many a life. In short Benjamin Boyd was a truly nasty and despicable piece of work.

Born in Scotland to an English merchant and his wife at the family’s country estate in the southwest Ben was ascribed Scottish nationality while his brother, Mark, who was a writer as well as brother-in-crime is said to be English. This is all pretty well besides the point.

The Boyd children, there were more of them, grew up in the expectation that life was about getting rich. Benjamin who became a stockbroker in London soon cast an eye towards Australia which he viewed as the place to make his fortune. Australia had been claimed as British in the 18th century because it could. But what use was all this land so far from Britain if there weren’t skilled people to work and develop it? Obviously the racist British dismissed Australia’s indigenous population as being nothing less than a nuisance with no claim to the place they had occupied for tens of thousands of years.

The first British colony there was established in 1788 in what was named New South Wales – an area covering over half of mainland Australia. The first imported labour comprised American Loyalists, Chinese and South Sea Islanders but in a light bulb moment it was decided that transported prisoners from Britain would make ideal captive workers to establish agriculture and industries. Unlike the popular image of these unfortunates torn away from their families the people shipped thousands of miles were not uncouth vicious criminals but skilled artisans, farmers and the like convicted of petty misdemeanours. Before long fleets of ships brought consignments of men, women and children to turn this far off land into profit.   

 Australia was regarded as the ideal place to acquire fortunes on the cheap. Ben Boyd certainly thought so. He tried to buy up land in New South Wales but was resisted by the British authorities who were unwilling to sell to an individual; leasing was his option. As a merchant trader Boyd established harbours and coaling stations for his vessels in Australia. The finance he needed to setup came from the Royal Bank of Australia – Boyd’s own bank. He and his brother Mark had taken the precaution of raising money in London in 1839, prior to Ben’s move to Australia. They gave the bank an appropriate name, Royal Bank of Australia, and sold debentures of £200,00 – that is they raised funds through promises of good returns for investors and so suitably financed Ben Boyd sailed to Australia aboard his luxury schooner, Wanderer.

I should say just prior to this Boyd set up two businesses in addition to the bank; The Australian Wool Company and Boyd Brothers. As with dodgy companies today these two were essentially the same but under two names.

Boyd dispatched several vessels filled with merchandise prior to his journey so his arrival in Australia meant he had items to trade. Once landed in Australia Boyd established a branch of his Australian bank in Sydney, along with fellow entrepreneur, Joseph Phelps Robinson. At the same time, c.1844, he became a squatter – taking over huge tracts of land for grazing thousands of sheep and cattle. Boyd’s bank stayed buoyant long enough for the pair to add to their livestock holdings several times over and enabled them to lease extra millions of acres of land. The money Boyd used to pay for land, sheep, cattle, horses, houses etc was borrowed from his own bank – in short he was speculating with bank money.

Having acquired the land for next to nothing Boyd also expected labour to come for a song.  His plea to the British authorities was to provide cheap labour, virtually slave labour, to enhance profits from investing in Australia but despite having access to transported convict labour Boyd remained dissatisfied.

He suggested to the government and it agreed that he take (take as in compel)people from nearby island communities including Tanna (New Hebrides) and Lifu (Loyalty Islands.) Ships were sent and bullies hired to kidnap and ship to Australia fit men and women, blackbirding, who would be indentured to Boyd for 5 years. As for pay that was set at 26 shillings a year along with meat, trousers, two shirts and a Kilmarnock cap (non-islander shepherds were paid £10 annually plus meat and flour but no luxuries such as tea and sugar.) Nervous British authorities recognised Boyd’s kidnapping activities were illegal. Some islanders ran away and tried to return to their homes. Others became ill. All in all these unfortunate people suffered dreadfully and despite their distribution across a wide expanse of land an organised uprising occurred with bids for freedom. Boyd saw people only in terms of profit and having lost some of the original islanders he tried to replace them by kidnapping others. At this point the New South Wales Legislative Council stepped in to stop him. While this was progress it didn’t help islanders already abandoned in Australia unlikely ever to get back home. White settlers and the press demonised victim islanders – describing them as wild savages which is extraordinary given the savagery of Ben Boyd’s behaviour.  He, in turn, was furious that the authorities had denied him and that the very people he was exploiting failed to appreciate the opportunities he provided them with.

Boyd’s ruthless approach to making money attracted a large amount of criticism at the time but that hasn’t dented the apparent admiration later generations of Australians felt for the guy.

The town he set up was called, naturally, Boyd Town or Boydtown and established on Twofold Bay on the south coast of New South Wales. It was used to service Boyd’s farming interests. Here his livestock was butchered and processed by boiling and salting. In addition to houses and the essential stockyards the town had a hotel and church and, of course, a jetty several feet long as well as a lighthouse for the safety of Boyd’s merchant ships carrying mutton, beef, wool and skins to Britain. Always on the lookout for yet another source of cash Boyd also set up a whaling station with 9 or 10 sperm whalers.

Boyd’s house

Boyd’s decision to enter politics appears to have been pragmatic; to smooth the way for his business interests. Australia was attracting attention for its economic potential and Boyd got himself into a position of representing big farmers like himself. It’s clear he was ambitious and his ambitions ran away with him. He had fingers in numerous pies and he was secretive about his business activities which were obviously shady enough to be criminal. When his financial ship ran aground he was found to have lied about the business profits and in 1847 he was ousted by angry shareholders and replaced by yet another brother, William Sprott Boyd. This Boyd proved as unreliable as Benjamin and a couple of years later a liquidator took over. When in 1848 the debenchers who had funded the Royal Australian Bank were due to be paid back it was discovered the money was gone and Boyd’s property was seized as some kind of recompense. I’m fairly certain that the bulk of monies taken out of the failing bank were sent back to London to Boyd’s accounts there. Boyd’s murky financial deals were described by one of his contemporaries as a Chinese puzzle. It cannot be but argued that the bank he set up was a shell company to advance the Boyds. Both Ben and Mark were made bankrupt.

Smarting from his downfall in Australia Benjamin Boyd turned his attention to America and the lure of California’s gold rush in 1849 but when that didn’t work out he jumped back onboard his ship Wanderer to set up a republic in the Pacific Islands. As you do.

The deeply ingrained racism and hypocrisy that drove European colonisation was never far from Boyd’s thoughts. The Wanderer docked at Guadalcanal in the Solomons at San Christobal Island and early one morning Boyd disembarked for a spot of shooting. And disappeared.

Shots had been heard, presumably fired by Boyd. Who or what he shot at is not recorded but it was supposed that islanders dealt with this usurper – “wandering, perhaps, among antipodean savages, naked and tattooed, or perhaps tomahawked, or probably eaten!” A tough bite. During the day, before it was realised Boyd had disappeared, islanders had tried to coax the ship’s crew ashore. When they refused some attempted to board Wanderer but were fought off and killed. An armed party went ashore and found Boyd’s footprints surrounded by other prints along with a piece of his double barrelled rifle. They searched every house for miles but didn’t unearth Boyd. On its return to Australia Wanderer was wrecked in a storm.

Rumours persisted that Boyd still lived and was a prisoner. It was said his initials were seen carved on trees. Guadalcanal islanders claimed he was alive. A search was undertaken in 1854 but to no avail. More stories emerged – that Boyd had been killed by native islanders after their own folk were attacked by the crew of Wanderer; Boyd was said to have been hanged in the canoe house of King Tabula. Such accounts led to a reward being issued for Boyd’s skull and an enterprising native produced a skull. By the time it was realised the skull belonged to a long dead Papuan with perfect teeth, as opposed to Boyd’s false teeth, the payment of 20 tomahawks had been paid.

During his lifetime Boyd made a great show of his wealth but it was built on criminal schemes and borrowed cash. He lived the life but like his bank it was an empty shell. All the money that slipped though his fingers he spent on a lavish lifestyle that was enabled by the very labourers on whom he depended and ruthlessly exploited. He was a man on the make without the acumen to succeed without cheating.  When he died Boyd was worth less than £3000.

The town he established, Boydtown, became a ghost town after his business empire collapsed until the 1930s when it underwent a revival. Boyd has been commemorated in other ways including the Ben Boyd National Park, set up in 1971. Frankly it seems gauche and extraordinary that Australia regards Benjamin Boyd worthy of honouring. I’d have thought Australia’s indigenous population or those kidnapped and enslaved Pacific Islanders were far more deserving.

Ben Boyd National Park

https://www.smh.com.au/national/blackbirding-shame-yet-to-be-acknowledged-in-australia-20150603-ghfn9c.html

Dec 17, 2016

Murder and Mayhem at Justice Port

John Simpson, a black drummer, was murdered in Aberdeen on the night of Thursday 3 September 1807. Was it a racist crime? Well, there were surely racist elements involved. After all, slavery with all its connotations was rife then so it would be surprising if something as simple as that did not influence attitudes.

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Two years earlier, in 1805, a bill to abolition slavery went through the House of Commons but the House of Lords stopped it. Needless to say lots of countries abolished slavery years before Britain, ever cognisant of the wishes of propertied and wealthy bigots, so it was only in 1834 that most but not all British slavery was ended.

What happened that night in Aberdeen might have had no direct links to racism. It is very difficult to say but there was a hint of it.

The local paper described the incident as “a dreadful affray” that occurred at a brothel kept by Margaret Creek near the Justice Port involving John Simpson (sic) a drummer with the 29th regiment and other soldiers.

I put ‘sic’ (as it is written) after the name of the murdered drummer because that is how it is recorded in the Aberdeen press but this may be an error for Simpson is a familiar local name whereas it is as Sampson he is recorded in other documents – but then again this might be an error.

Simpson or Sampson was born in Barbados in 1782 and enlisted as a 16 years old. When he died in Aberdeen the 25 year old was one of several from his regiment touring Britain to recruit men into the military in the period of the Napoleonic Wars when there was a desperate need for men to fight overseas.

Black troops were not uncommon in the British army. From the end of the 18th century large numbers of African slaves and the sons of slaves were bought up to serve in British regiments. The going price for a male slave in 1795 was around £80. Simpson joined the army in 1798 when the British army were in the Caribbean – and looking to recruit, as always. Although these black recruits were mainly treated like their white counterparts they were still subject to slave laws until 1807. Even then black recruits signed up to the army were there for life while whites could leave after 7 years. Not all joined so much as were abducted e.g. several young boys at Guadeloupe in the Caribbean in late 1700s – permission to hold onto them was given – by the King of Great Britain.

Some black boys were taken on specifically to be drummers and later bugle boys. The 29th Regiment of Foot to which Simpson was attached had several black drummers in its ranks. Black soldiers in the British army were mainly foot soldiers either incorporated into mixed regiments or segregated ones such as African Corps and 1st and 2nd Black Garrison Companies.

The same month that Simpson was killed another black drummer was verbally attacked in a London street, “Well Blackie, what news from the devil?” someone shouted at him. The drummer retaliated by knocking down his abuser with the words, “He sent you that. How do you like it?”

geo-iv

George IV debauched, fat, profligate, racist

Racism went right through society. It was reported in 1825 that when the leader of the Royal Band planned to take on a black man to beat the kettle-drum he was thwarted by the king who had “an unconquerable antipathy to blacks being near his person.” The band leader, a man called Cramer, was a little put-out and gave the role to a European with a dark skin. When the king first saw him in the music room he was startled and said to Cramer, “I see, Sir, you wish to accustom me to a black drummer by degrees.” The king in question was George IV, best known for being debauched, fat and profligate to which we should add – and racist.

Drummers, by virtue of their ability to beat a drum presumably, were also charged with carrying out corporal punishment – whipping colleagues facing punishment and were not always liked for that reason alone. In the case of Simpson there were other circumstances which might have influenced his attackers which I will come to later. What is clear is that the extent of violence perpetrated against him suggests strong antagonism towards the man by others stationed at the barracks in Aberdeen.

Put simply Simpson was stoned and butchered; his head and face were slashed and his skull fractured in two places. The wound that killed him was a long blade, possibly a bayonet, run through his back with such force it pierced his heart.

Three members of the Argyleshire Regiment of Militia stationed at Aberdeen barracks – James Graham, Donald McCallum and Daniel McPherson were subsequently arrested and charged with the murder of Simpson, described in the charge sheet as “a negro and drummer in the 29th Regiment of Foot” and they appeared at the High Court the following January. All pleaded not guilty.

It was not only Simpson’s appearance that made him a weel kent face in pale-skinned Aberdeen early in the 19th century. He was a big man, powerfully-built, and described in the Aberdeen Journal as ” a very formidable character” whatever that was meant to mean. He had a reputation as a boxer who exercised his prowess with a punch that fellow soldiers were keen to test themselves against; Simpson invariably won these contests. During one such challenge he ran at his opponent and pushed his head between the man’s legs then stood up with the unfortunate challenger hoisted onto Simpson’s shoulders. Then he chucked the man down on the ground fracturing his skull and killing him as a result. This episode made Simpson enemies.

Why he reacted so violently is not explained in the local press but it was noted he bore them a grudge. Why would that be? Racist taunts could be the answer. He probably discovered there is no reasoning with racists and responded the way that came easiest to him, through the power of his punches.

On the night of the 3rd of September around ten soldiers were allowed out of their barracks in the early hours and they headed straight for a brothel owned by Margaret Creek. Some of these soldiers took their weapons with them which suggests premeditation although that was denied in court. Those charged claimed only to have gone to the house to buy drink – albeit the middle of the night- but then as soon as they got to the house a window was smashed and bedding slashed in the search for Simpson. The rampaging soldiers shouted for Simpson to appear, “put out the black ——–.” This taunt succeeded and Simpson emerged to face his assailants but was immediately knocked over by a stone thrown at his head. As he lay unconscious he was dragged from the house and badly beaten and slashed and his skull fractured in two places.

At the trial the defence lawyers for the three charged with murder proceeded to tarnish the character and honesty of the two witnesses – brothel-keeper, Margaret Creek and a man called Peter Skinner.

A Counsel for the defence told how Skinner had three years earlier pleaded guilty to robbing a corpse. Skinner had come upon the body of flax dresser Francis Mollison at the beach and stole the deceased’s silver shoe buckles. He was subsequently placed in the pillory but made the best of it by pulling funny faces to the amusement of the public. After this he was transferred to prison before being banished for seven years but when he returned to the city before the end of that term he was given a public whipping. In his defence it was revealed that Skinner had been tried without a jury and was summarily sentenced by magistrates and that sentence was considered harsh.

As for Margaret Creek her word was questioned because of her occupation as keeper of ” a disorderly house” but she was allowed to give her account of events.

We know Simpson had enemies at the barracks, men who used racist language, but we do not know the attitude of members of the jury towards him or how they regarded the two witnesses. We do know the jurors rejected the not guilty pleas of the men charged because they did not return a not guilty verdict instead the jury found the case not proven. As a result the three accused were released.

A racist murder? Perhaps, but whatever drummer John Simpson got no justice in Aberdeen.

Refs:The Black Kalendar of Aberdeen

http://www.worcestershireregiment.com/wr.php?main=inc/em_drummershttp://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/work_community/fighting.htm

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