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Statue of Henry Dundas will have a plaque detailing his role in delaying the abolition of slavery

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. 

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

Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville

The statue of Henry Dundas 1st Viscount Melville on top of a 150ft column, known as the Melville Monument, stands in St Andrews Square, Edinburgh

The statue of Henry Dundas 1st Viscount Melville on top of a 150ft column, known as the Melville Monument, stands in St Andrews Square, Edinburgh 

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

A top the Melville Monument in St Andrew Square stands the imposing figure of Henry 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.’

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.’

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