Recent Historical Research on Slavery and Law: Justine K. Collins and Filip Batselé

Among the regular publications on the topic of slavery, it is worth pointing to two recent pieces of research, both demonstrate the importance of reflecting on the law and slavery, both are the product of postgraduate work. 

The first is Filip Batselé’s Liberty, Slavery and the Law in Early Modern Western Europe: Omnes Homines aut Liberi sunt aut servi (Springer, 2020). This originated in a fine masters thesis and has now been turned into a book. As well as an admirably clear interaction to Greek, Roman, and mediaeval accounts, the book focuses on slavery and the law in Europe in the era of the slave trade, reflecting in particular on the attitudes of the law both in books and in courts in England, France, and the Low Countries. It is clear and thorough and full of interesting insights.

In December 2020, a colleague drew to your blogger’s attention the successful defence of a very important doctoral thesis in Germany by Justine K. Collins. The thesis was defended at the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, with the research supported through the Max Planck Institute for European Legal History. See The thesis concerned the transplantation of English law to Caribbean colonies, and then the transplantation of slave law within the colonies, taking this through to emancipation. The work raises issues of racial identities and laws and was entitled “Tracing Legal Transplantation within the British West Indies: An Analysis of the Development and Role of Slavery Legislation (1500s-1800s)”

Henry Dundas and Slavery

The Edinburgh Centre for Global History is hosting a panel discussion next Tuesday 7 July, from 5.30 pm to 7.30 pm, bringing together three historians who have worked directly on Henry Dundas’s relationship to Atlantic slavery, to develop a deeper understanding of his role. The discussion will take place online using Zoom.
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Joseph Knight and the End of Slavery in Scotland

Given current discussions, the Blog is delighted to draw the attention of its followers to the short video available on YouTube: “Joseph Knight Scenes for Survival“.

The story of Joseph Knight is relatively well known. African-born, and acquired in Jamaica as an adolescent by John Wedderburn, a Jacobite in exile trying to restore his family’s fortunes, he was brought to Scotland where he met and married Annie Thomson and sought successfully through legal means to have his freedom recognized. He had a series of distinguished lawyers act for him, including Henry Dundas, the future Viscount Melville, whose eloquent speech was quoted in the Caledonian Mercury on 21st February, 1776.

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Last Survivor of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

The BBC this morning (25 March) reported that Hannah Durkin of the University of Newcastle had traced the last survivor of the transatlantic slave trade as one Matilda McCrear, who lived until 1940, dying in Selma, later famous for its role in the civil rights movement in the U.S.A.  Dr Durkin is researching the survivors of the Clotilda, the last U.S. slave ship. Ms McCrear arrived in Alabama in 1860. This is fascinating news.

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David Armitage: George III and the Law of Nations

The second Berriedale Keith Lecture was delivered in Edinburgh on 5th December, 2019. The lecturer was Professor David Armitage of the History Department at Harvard Professor Armitage talked on “George III and the Law of Nations” The lecture was a tour de force. Starting with the “indictment” of King George in the American Declaration of Independence, arguing that this was based on principles of the law of nations, and in a sense was claiming that George had acted contrary to the law of nations, the lecture explored the king’s attitude to the law of nations. In fact despite the list of grievances, Professor Armitage, drawing on the Royal Archives at Windsor as well as the Royal Library, showed that the king was well-educated in the law of nations, and placed importance on the study of history, the law of nature and nations, the civil law, and the municipal law. He had been prepared and educated for his role as king, and was aware both of his prerogative and of his authority under the law of nations. Some of this reminded me of the education in law his tutor, the Earl of Bute, will have received at Groningen and Leiden. Professor Armitage showed how the young Prince George had assimilated and made his own Montesquieu’s arguments against slavery, leading him to produce in the 1750s an account of the law of nations, under the title, “Of Laws Relative to Government in General” (one of the documents now accessible in the excellent Georgian Papers Online), that incorporated a radical abolitionist argument. Influenced by both Montesquieu and Blackstone, the young king was aware of the foundations of the law of nations in natural law and treaties, while aware that treaties with other sovereigns fell under his prerogative and were a mark of his sovereignty.  The successful (from the British perspective)  Treaty of Paris of 1763 was followed later by the Treaty of Paris of 1783 recognizing the loss of the American colonies and Florida, which was returned to Spain. This was a hard blow for the king, who saw himself as sovereign of all the varied peoples of his Empire. A last interesting act was the protection sought from George by Kamehameha the King of the Sandwich Islands. This led to the Hawaiian flag having the Union flag emblazoned in its top left corner, which it still bears as a state of the U.S.A. In all the paper was a rich and brilliant contribution to the ongoing revision of our understanding of George III.

It is worth saying a little on the lecture series and Arthur Berriedale Keith (1879-1944). Back in the late 1970s, when working on his PhD thesis, your blogger for the first time encountered the extensive Berriedale Keith Collection in Edinburgh University Library. He was too ignorant to know who Berriedale Keith was, but found in the collection material that he needed on Quebec. Subsequently he has become very aware of Berriedale Keith’s importance both as a philologist and scholar of Sanskrit and as a (in reality “the”) legal expert on the history and constitution of the British Empire and Commonwealth. In recent years, your blogger in working on the development of comparative law in Great Britain has had occasion to consult some of Berriedale Keith’s own works to understand the legal nature of the Empire. Ridgway F. Shinn published an excellent biography of Berriedale Keith in 1990, and, with Richard A. Cosgrove, published his correspondence with A. V. Dicey in 1996. Shinn’s biography revealed that in Berriedale Keith’s house in Polwarth Terrace in Edinburgh the professor had the great good fortune to have two studies.

Colleagues in Edinburgh, Dr Harshan Kumarasingham and Dr Asanga Welikala, have established the Keith Forum on Commonwealth Constitutionalism , naming it for Berriedale Keith. Its website states: “The Keith Forum on Commonwealth Constitutionalism aims to harness the reservoir of comparative ideas from the Commonwealth for current UK constitutional debates; and conversely, to benefit Commonwealth states facing similar challenges, from a closer engagement with constitutional developments in the UK.” It adds that “Edinburgh was once the centre of this scholarship through the work of Arthur Berriedale Keith. This project places Scotland at the heart of this global intellectual reengagement.” It inaugural event on 5 November 2018 was the first Berriedale Keith Lecture,  entitled “Things Done in the Dark and in the Middle of the Night’: Nehru, Kashmir, and the Subterfuges of Building Constitutional Democracy”, delivered by Professor Sunil Khilnani, Director of the King’s India Institute. This was linked with a two-day discussion of the history of the Commonwealth’s constitutional experiences, its politics and law.

Slavery Lectures

Some months ago your blogger gave some lectures, in Memory of his Teacher Alan Watson, devoted to the topic of slavery in Eighteenth-Century Scotland. They can be found on Youtube:

Lecture 1: (Enslaved and Enslavers in Scotland)

Lecture 2: (Managing the Enslaved)

Lecture 3: (Challenging Enslavement)


Events Relating to Scotland and Slavery

On Friday 26 April as part of the collaborative research Programme of the University of Edinburgh and the National Museums of Scotland, “The Matter of Slavery”, there will be a public lecture at 17.30 p.m. in the Meadows Lecture Theatre by Professor Beverley Lemire (University of Alberta) on “Material Technologies of Empire: Tobacco, Textiles & Race in Everyday Scottish Life, c. 1660-1820”. On Thursday 6 June, 2019, there will be a lecture at the National Museums of Scotland, on “The Matter of Slavery”. See

Slavery in Scotland: Contemporary Case and Roman Law.

On 12 February, 2019, the High Court of Justiciary issued the opinion of the Apeal Court in John Millar v. Her Majesty’s Advocate [2019] HCJAC7. The appeal arose out of the well publicised trial of “travelling people” for holding some individuals in slavery or servitude. The appellant in particular was convicted for holding a vulnerable man in “servitude”. See the sentencing statement:–James-McPhee–Steven-McPhee–John-Miller. From the opinion it seems that the trial judge, Lady Stacey, said some interesting things about the property-law type definition of slavery in international law, in charging the jury, and withdrawing from them the possibility of a finding slavery.  I may return to this later, having been on the research network that produced the Bellagio-Harvard Guidelines on the Legal Parameters of Slavery. Greater reflection on the case, and its citation of Siliadin, will be necessary before I can do that. But here I just want to note that counsel for the appellant, in developing their argument, cited Justinian’s Digest in support, D. This is a text, expounding the Lex Fabia on kidnapping, in which the jurist Callistratus discusses forcing a free man to act against his will and putting him in fetters. It in fact direct reflected the situation in which the victim found himself.

The Matter of Slavery

Cross-institutional collaborations can be very fruitful. The first workshop of “The Matter of Slavery in Scotland”–a collaboration between Professor Nuala Zahedieh of the University of Edinburgh, and Dr Sarah Laurenson of the National Museums of Scotland–was was held on Friday 7 December, 2018. The workshop covered furniture, buildings, paintings, drawings and installations. It explored the use of exotic woods from the Caribbean and Americas in furniture making, the issue of the Melville Monument, a fascinating account of Sir William Allan’s painting of the slave market in Constantinople, a rich contextual discussion of the Glassford portrait, as well as the illustrations in Dr Jonathan Troup’s diary. In a full and remarkable day, it was interesting to hear about the new approaches to slavery to be taken by the National Trust for Scotland, as well as Graham Fagen’s account of his development of the performance of “The Slaves’s Lament”. The fascinating day was concluded by a quite brilliant lecture by Jennifer Anderson, of Stony Brook, on mahogany and slavery.

Your blogger has always been aware of the significance of material objects for this story, though like most historians, he has tended to focus on archival material understood in a narrower sense. Thus he participated a few years ago in the fascinating events organised by Glasgow Museums in 2014 that addressed the issue of slavery through objects, while on 3 March 2004 he gave a gallery talk at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in connection with their exhibition, Below Stairs, focusing on black servants perhaps held as enslaved. It was entitled “The Illustration of Race, Slavery and Black Servitude in 18th-Century Paintings”, and came about through the assistance he had already been given by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery  in getting illustrative material for his 6 December 2000 lecture, “The Scottish Law of Slavery”.

But this new project greatly extends the scope of discussion in a way both fruitful and stimulating. I certainly found my horizons expanded, and my thinking encouraged in new directions. All readers of this blog, interested in slavery, should consult the website of the project:

Image courtesy of The Matter of Slavery Project

AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership PhD studentship: Private reflections and public pronouncements: Caribbean slavery in the Scottish consciousness, 1750-1834

That the Blog is interested in slavery is well known. The following advertisement should be of great interest.

AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership PhD studentship: Private reflections and public pronouncements: Caribbean slavery in the Scottish consciousness, 1750-1834

Application deadline: Tuesday 8 May 2018

The University of Aberdeen, in partnership with the National Library of Scotland, is seeking to appoint a suitably qualified applicant for a full-time collaborative PhD studentship to undertake a study of the slave trade and slavery collections in the National Library of Scotland. The studentship will commence on 1 October 2018 and will last for three years. Additional Student Development Funding (equivalent to an additional 6 months funding) will also be available to allow time for further training and skills development opportunities that are agreed as part of the PhD programme.

This is an exciting opportunity to pursue an original doctoral research project within the School of Language, Literature, Music and Visual Culture, University of Aberdeen, whilst working closely with National Library of Scotland expertise and collections. In addition to producing an original PhD dissertation based on the National Library of Scotland collections, the project will include a six-month placement at the National Library of Scotland involving training in archival description and cataloguing of hidden collections, web content skills, and selection of sources for the Library website. There will also be opportunities to deliver public talks at the Library on research findings.

The studentship

In Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past (2015) Professor Sir Tom Devine highlighted the collective amnesia in Scotland with regard to Scottish engagement in the slave trade and the extent to which Scots benefitted from participation in it. This studentship will directly address that amnesia by charting contemporary Scottish attitudes to slavery. The doctoral research project will examine the extent to which Scotland attempted to distance itself from its participation and engagement with Caribbean slavery through the period of enlightenment up to the abolition of slavery in 1834. Research will focus on the National Library of Scotland’s extensive archival holdings and printed collections relating to the slave trade, and its peerless collection of Scottish newspapers.

The project will explore three key areas:

• Distancing strategies in Scottish literature: Much of Scottish literary output (1750-1834) acknowledges the wealth and the opportunities for Scots created by slavery but fails to engage with the practical realities of it. This is a feature in the work of Smollett, Mackenzie, Galt, and Scott. The student will investigate the papers of Scottish authors held at the Library to evaluate the ways in which slavery is obfuscated and evaded in Scottish literary discourse.
• Private responses to slavery: The Library possesses large collections of estate and family papers, for example: Melville, Chisholme, and the Liston papers, that detail the operational considerations of maintaining plantations. The collections also contain many journals and literary works of those who travelled to the Caribbean that address the institution of slavery. Many of these sources, which often reveal intricate and conflicting familial responses to slavery, remain under-researched and unpublished. The student will investigate these sources to provide analysis on how the families involved in profiting from slavery in Scotland viewed slavery and the extent to which they justified their engagement with it.
• Public responses to slavery: The Library has the most comprehensive collection of Scottish newspapers in the world, in addition to the printed works of Scots who wrote about their experiences in the Caribbean. Periodicals such as Blackwood’s Magazine included articles on slavery, and this is augmented by the Blackwood Papers giving additional context. The student will review these sources, searching for literary works on slavery such as poems and short stories, in addition to articles on the Caribbean to assess public attitudes to slavery as they were transmitted via print culture.

The successful candidate will have the opportunity to adapt the topic in consultation with their supervisory team as the research develops.


The student will be supervised by Dr Catherine Jones and Professor Patience Schell at the University of Aberdeen, and by Dr Ralph McLean and Mr Robert Betteridge at the National Library of Scotland. The successful candidate will join an established and supportive research community in the School of Language, Literature, Music and Visual Culture, University of Aberdeen, where they will receive training in such areas as research methodology, bibliographical searches and academic writing. The student will additionally benefit from working in partnership with staff at the National Library of Scotland. The student will be encouraged to attend and contribute to national and international conferences as appropriate during the course of their study.


Applicants must:

• Have a first or upper second class honours degree or equivalent in English, History, or a related subject.

• Be a resident of the UK or the European Economic Area (EEA).

There are residence requirements for research council funding for postgraduate research. These are based on the Education (Fees and Awards) (England) Regulations 2007 and subsequent amendments. Normally to be eligible for a full award a student must have no restrictions on how long they can stay in the UK and have been ordinarily resident in the UK for at least 3 years prior to the start of the studentship (with some further constraint regarding residence for education).

To be eligible for a fees only award:
Students from EU countries other than the UK are generally eligible for a fees-only award. To be eligible for a fees-only award, a student must be ordinarily resident in a member state of the EU; in the same way as UK students must be ordinarily resident in the UK.

The UK Government confirmed on 21 April 2017 that Research Council studentships (including AHRC studentships awarded through the Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities) remain open to EU students starting courses in academic year 2018 to 2019, and that the funding support will cover the duration of their course, even if the UK leaves the EU.

Funding details

This award is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council [AHRC] through the Scottish Cultural Heritage Consortium. Subject to AHRC eligibility criteria, the studentship will cover Home/EU tuition fees. For those settled in the UK, it also covers a stipend towards living expenses. The value for the stipend in 2018/19 is £14,777 per annum plus a £550 additional stipend payment. In addition, the National Library of Scotland will provide up to £1000 per year to contribute towards travel and related research costs.

How to apply

Applications must be made through SRAS (Student Recruitment & Support) via the University of Aberdeen’s Postgraduate Applicant Portal:
Applicants should ensure they include all documentation required e.g. two academic references, degree certificate(s), degree transcript(s) and English language test results. The University cannot guarantee that incomplete applications will be considered. Applicants should note in their personal statement that they wish to be considered for the CDP Private reflections and public pronouncements: Caribbean slavery in the Scottish consciousness, 1750-1834.

Closing date for applications: Tuesday 8 May 2018

Interviews are provisionally scheduled for June 2018. Interviews will take place in Edinburgh, though there is provision for them to be undertaken by Skype. Only short-listed candidates will be invited to interview.

Start date: 1 October 2018

Further information

Informal enquires about the project’s scope can be made by contacting Dr Catherine Jones or Dr Ralph McLean

For information on the School of Language, Literature, Music and Visual Culture visit:

For information on the National Library of Scotland visit:

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