Henry Dundas, the Scotsman who delayed slavery abolition, under history's microscope
Published Sunday, August 19, 2018 10:00PM EDT
His name is all over Ontario – including in the heart of downtown Toronto -- but most Canadians are likely unfamiliar with the complicated legacy of Henry Dundas.
The powerful Scottish politician, sometimes called “the uncrowned king of Scotland,” was on board when, in the late 1700s, British reformer William Wilberforce sought to abolish the slave trade.
Dundas rallied behind abolition, but with one condition: that the word “gradual” be added to the bill, thereby delaying the slave trade by 15 years.
The bill passed, leaving a considerable time frame for Britain’s transition away from its slave-based economy.
It also meant that approximately 630,000 slaves were forced to wait more than a decade for their freedom.
In modern times, Dundas’ vast influence can be seen across Ontario. Toronto’s Dundas Street, Yonge-Dundas Square and the town of Dundas, about 70 kilometres southwest of Toronto, are all named after him.
In Edinburgh, a prominent statue of Dundas stands 42 metres tall. But the plaque at the bottom of the statue will soon be replaced to include more details about Dundas’ politics. The city has formed a committee to discuss the change.
Among those committee members is Sir Geoff Palmer, Professor Emeritus at Heriot-Watt University, who says the modern update is appropriate.
“To not tell people what, in fact, this man is infamous for is completely unacceptable,” said Palmer in a Scottish documentary.
But historian and newspaper columnist Michael Fry, who has written a book about Dundas, said Dundas’ decision to insert the word “gradual” had economic concerns.
“There was no point in having an economy which had previously been based on slavery collapse. That would have served nobody’s interests at all,” he said.
The statue in Edinburgh is the tallest in the city. Joel McKim, a senior lecturer in digital media and culture at Birkbeck University, says revisiting history in this case is warranted.
“Because this is public space for everyone, and it needs to reflect the sentiments, the political views, the values of the community in which it exists. And those change over time. And as a result, monuments also have to change,” he said.
Earlier this month, a statue of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was removed from the steps of Victoria City Hall. Indigenous groups had long called for the statue to be removed due to Macdonald’s support in forming the residential school system.
With a report from CTV News’ London Bureau Correspondent Daniele Hamamdjian