Henry Dundas – lofty hero or lowlife crook?

Melville Monument

Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville – no-one stands higher in Edinburgh

He’s the man I walk past every day but never get to see up close. That’s because he’s 140 feet up in St Andrew Square – easily the tallest statue in Edinburgh. Far, far above His Royal Highness (William IV) down in George Street and even Sir Walter Scott – at eye level in his monument in Princes Street.

He was the man who opposed Wilberforce and delayed abolition of the slave trade for nearly 20 years. And his own career ended in the stench of corruption as the last British politician to face impeachment.

So why does Henry Dundas, the first Viscount Melville, have such prominence?

No great surprise that he was a lawyer turned politician – a very capable and ruthless one, commonly known as the Governor General who effectively ruled Scotland for over thirty years.

But the power he exercised as William Pitt’s fixer in London was much greater.  He was variously Home and War Secretaries, First Lord of the Admiralty and Treasurer of the Royal Navy. Above all, he was the critical figure in the expansion of  British trading empires in India and the West Indies through “pillage and patronage” as Canning described it.

My interest in him was triggered by an engrossing talk given by Geoff Palmer on the Jamaican panels he and his daughter had stitched for the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry.

Geoff Palmer

Geoff, now Sir Geoff Palmer retired grain scientist and recent historian of Jamaica with his Scottish Diaspora Tapestry panel

Scotland grew very fat on the slave trade. Dundas gained from that directly through family connections but he was also the man who made it all possible through a vast network of patronage built on favours like finding posts for younger sons of the nobility. Just as Edinburgh was playing a leading role in the Enlightenment it was simultaneously also raking in enormous profits from the sugar and tobacco trades built on chattel slavery and its routine indulgence of rape, murder, and systematic torture of fellow human beings.

Henry Dundas as young lawyer

Henry Dundas as young lawyer. Courtesy Scottish National Portrait Gallery

So what was Dundas like as a person?  He married Elizabeth Rannie (when she was just 14) for her £10,000 fortune which he then lost in the failed Ayr Bank. His long absences in London probably led to her affair with an army officer whom she later married.

Vengeance was harsh from the divorce in 1778 – Dundas, as was the law then, acquired her wealth, goods and chattels. These included their four children. She never saw them again and she lived until the age of 97.

James Boswell described him as a “coarse, unfettered, unfanciful dog”  when Dundas was appointed Lord Advocate.

Lady Melville (2)

Elizabeth Rannie who married Dundas when she was 14. Courtesy Scottish National Portrait Gallery

But earlier he had praised Dundas’s advocacy skills when he represented Joseph Knight, a slave brought to Scotland from Jamaica who had the temerity to want freedom from his master, John Wedderburn.

His case was vindicated by the Court of Session. This provided the material for a novel by James Robertson.

Dundas changed his tune on slavery in his later Parliamentary clashes with Wilberforce.

Then he argued that the West Indian trade was so profitable and important to Britain, particularly in a time of war, that it could not be surrendered without consent of the slave owners. Thus was born “gradual” abolition when moral principle was sacrificed on the altar of greed.

Nor was such inconsistency unusual. Boswell was a defender of the slavery trade – so too was John Stewart the first black MP in Westminster So what’s the legacy? Slavery funded a boom in land purchase and buildings.

The slave trade was abolished in 1807 but many grew even richer when slavery itself was finally abolished in 1834 and slavers compensated with today’s equivalent of billions of pounds for the loss of their earnings.

Then there are the people. For Campbells alone we have Sol, Naomi and Joel, the wee Costa Rican striker in the World Cup.

You only have to look in the Jamaica phone book to find 2500 Campbells – four times the number listed in Edinburgh and Lothians. The Empire Café provided a focus for Scotland’s slavery legacy at the Commonwealth Games. This subject is now getting far more attention from journalists and historians, particularly in the Highlands.

Jamaican panel from the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry

Jamaican panel from the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry

Henry Dundas, meanwhile, still towers over over St Andrew Square.  His downfall arose from controls on Royal Navy expenditure he himself had introduced in 1785 but neglected to follow. The charges related to his use of fellow Scot Alexander Trotter, the official Navy paymaster, as his private agent to withdraw public money from the Bank of England and deposit it in his private bank, Coutts (also run by Scots) for speculation – primarily in the East India Company in which Dundas also had frequent Parliamentary interest.

The sums involved were astronomical – some £15 million over two decades then – beyond calculation now.  As his accusers remarked: “It was infamous that the pittance wrung from the necessities of the poor should be sported with in the hazardous game of stock jobbing”

Dundas had conveniently destroyed all his records so the case was largely based on Trotter’s testimony. Dundas was formally censured by the House of Commons on the casting vote of the Speaker. Rather than face a criminal trial, he chose to be tried literally by his peers in what became the last impeachment at Westminster. In the event, he was acquitted by the House of Lords in 1806 but the damage was done and his career was in ruins. Even if he did not trouser profits himself (highly unlikely, I think, given his earlier penchant for speculation) he was Trotter’s boss and at least had been grossly negligent.

Update (July 2015): I have gone into more detail on the Navy commissioners’ dogged work which brought Dundas to account in this opinion piece for Public Finance.  A pretty fearless bunch.

So how come a statue after all that? It may be the only way up he saw from the depths of disgrace was to elevate his form for posterity. There are two other statues of him in Parliament Square, Edinburgh and an obelisk at Comrie near his country seat.

And whatever his considerable failings, Dundas was the boy who’d done good – easily the most powerful Scottish politician in Westminster since the Union.  Prime Ministers and Kings were frequent visitors to Cannizaro House, his mansion in Wimbledon. He did have friends and supporters – a public subscription for a memorial had already raised £3000 five years before his death in 1811.

melville monument (2)

An inscription by the monument says it was paid for by members of the Royal Navy.  Dundas had overseen many naval reforms including building new ships used at Trafalgar. But I can’t really see many jolly jack tars emptying  from the Pompey pubs and putting their pennies towards it.

And it was truly monumental.  Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather even had to design a new crane to build it with 1500 tonnes of stone. The final cost was £8000.Stevenson

Yet there is still doubt about whether his statue was intended to be put on top. It may have been an afterthought.

What would have tickled Dundas is that Melville Monument liability  came before the Court of Session nearly two centuries later in 2010 in considering what constitutes a contract.

The original case of 1823 was about a complaint from owners of another site in Edinburgh where the monument was due to be erected. More answers may yet come from historians looking at Melville’s papers.

We are stuck with the historic monuments and statues left by past generations – unless it is a living memorial like the hospital for mothers and children for Elsie Inglis which was just blithely flogged off. As the Damned Rebel Bitches history group points out, there are more than 200 hundred public statues in Edinburgh but only two are of women and another two of dogs.

Looking up at the Melville monument, you can’t really see his features clearly, even with a long lens. But in a final irony Auld Reekie’s sooty revenge after two hundred years has turned him……. unmistakably black.




Update (June 2020:  It now looks like there will be a new plaque at the foot of the statue – and that’s down to Geoff’s campaigning.  Another thought…  only in Edinburgh could a city’s tallest statue remain effectively hidden history for two centuries. St Andrew Square was (and still is) a private garden owned by the properties around it. It’s only in the last 20 years that it has been opened up for the general public to get close enough to read the plaques…

Further reading

An excellent resource from David Alston on Slaves and Highlanders in Guyana

Two very good academic projects: UCL’s project on the legacies of British slave ownership  and Northeastern University’s Caribbean Digital Archive

An Enlightenment Abolished by Geoff Palmer, Henry Publishing, Penicuik, 2007.

Henry Dundas biographies: in the History of Parliament and DNB (by Michael Fry)

Steve McKenzie of BBC Highland chronicles here outstanding black African and Caribbean contributions to Scotland, including Andrew Watson the first black international footballer. On his debut in 1881 he captained Scotland to a 6-1 win over England at the Oval, England’s heaviest defeat on home soil.

Hansard report on Melville’s impeachment and fuller account of the process.

Categories: digital history, history on the web

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26 replies

  1. Just as interesting is Home Popham and David Baird. Popham devised the system of signalling by flags which enabled Horatio Nelson to send that famous message to the Fleet in October 1806 or do the iconoclasts doubt thta as well? However, in January 1806 Popham lead the Royal Navy which placed Baird and the Scottish Regiments ashore at Big Bay to fight the battle of Blouberg and defeat General Janssens who when he reported to Napoleon Buonaparte was admonished that French Generals did not surrender; only for Janssens to do so in Batavia Java 1811 again.

    After capture of the Cape Colony Popham took the Scottish Regiments off to Buenos Aires, which he captured from the Spanish, and then was in turn captured and another force sailed to Montevideo to free the captured soldiers under Popham. Popham was court martialled but not punished.

    Perhaps Popham’s adventure was a Scottish attempt to reverse Cullodden?

    Charles Edward Stuart was pretty free with his favours and had a byblow from a Douglas woman. This was Charles Edward Warden who served as a military office in the Tower of London.

    In 1800 Charles Edward Warden fathered Douglas Henry Warden, who in due course after the Battle of Boomplats founded Bloemfontein, the headquarters of the Orange Free State Republic and the Orange River Colony and the Orange Free State Province.

    Can anyone help with fuller details ?

    Errol Callaghan

    ho sn nbGnn me t ma bair

  2. So so interesting! I never knew much about this. Excellently written, I’m definitely wanting to read into this more. I should really know more about Scots history, Scottish born and bred. Thank you for this insight.

  3. Wrong, there are at least three statues of women in Edinburgh, 2 of Queen Victoria and 1 of “Saint” Margaret

  4. Born and bred in Edinburgh had absolutely no clue about the slavery in Scotland didn’t even know about Dundas, very interested now really opened my eyes I feel as if I have been so ignorant

  5. Wow such a lot of information, no wonder we were not taught anything about him at school. There must be hundreds of stories like this all over the Empire. But, having said that I would still prefer his statue not to end up in a canal or river but the truth to be given as much honour and prominence as the statue itself.

  6. Curious that the attention is all on Henry Melville at present. particularly over his advance of an amendment to Wilberforce’s Abolition of the Slave Trade Bill. The amendment was supported by a majority in the Commons so Wilberforce’s Bill as it stood would not have passed (amendments are taken first). In fact Dundas supported the main clauses of the Bill which curtailed sales to foreign nations and restricted the age of slaves that could be taken, the first intended to make the Bill appear an Anti-French, Spanish etc measure, the second to encourage the slave owners to breed their own labour, and therefore take some care of it, and not rely on a constant resupply from Africa.
    The whole New Town is a monument to the Hanoverians, there are statues of George IV and William Pitt in George Street, there’s the famous one of the Duke of Wellington another supporter of the Planter interest, in front of Register House, and, of course, there is the one to William Ewart Gladstone in Shandwick Place, a man who was gifted a seat in the pre-Reform Parliament by his father specifically to defend the West Indian Interest in the compensation debates. His father was the leading Plantation Owner in the ‘West Indies. In all his subsequent Liberal career Gladstone never returned a penny to those from whom his wealth originated.
    Scotland can hardly escape Melville’s legacy, it was crucial to the escape from penury of much of the late-18th early-19th century gentry, with their large families. Almost no family of lairds and above was not in some way indebted to his patronage web particularly in obtaining posts in the EIC.
    The final abolition of slavery and the massive compensation scheme had an almost Keynesian effect pumping huge amounts of Government money into the economy to prime the second stage of the industrial and commercial revolution. A Government debt incurred to finance it was huge and not paid off until 2015.

  7. I’ve been looking into Dundas as well. Although not a historian, I have found Geoff Palmer’s argument to be based largely on hearsay and opinion. The facts don’t support him. For example,
    I’ve seen the Clarkson comments that Dundas was the first to propose a gradual abolition of the slave trade. That is not true. Burdon and Sumner both raised it in 1791 when Dundas was not present.
    The gradual amendment in 1792 had the effect of overturning a 163-88 defeat into a 230-85 victory for the abolition bill. But when the Lords killed the bill they also killed the gradual amendment and it had no effect. How can that be held to delay the abolition?
    In 1796 Dundas is accused of arguing against the abolition, yet he did not vote against it.
    As I say, not a historian but these facts above give another side to the argument.

  8. So your taking the statements of the loser as being the correct version and dundas one the case.he wasnt aloud to represent himself or cross examine mr trotter.

  9. So your taking the statements of the loser as being the correct version and dundas one the case.he wasnt aloud to represent himself or cross examine mr trotter.
    His words and case that actually got him aquited because the lords believed his accounts and could see he was being framed….


  1. Henry Dundas – lofty hero or lowlife crook? | The DRB Scottish Women's History Group
  2. Nye 007 Henry Dundas: from slave trading to empire building
  3. Sniffers of the stench of corruption…. | The History Company
  4. EU Anthem shock | The History Company
  5. 10 Streets Helpful Street to Know When Visiting Edinburgh, Scotland – Restless Wanderer
  6. Oh Scotland, Jamaica! – DESTINATION UNKNOWN
  7. Statues, history and commemorative intent | Indigenous Reconciliation Group
  8. Two Centuries of Frederick Douglass | A Wilderness of Peace
  9. Digitally remastering Dundas – The History Company

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