Uncovering Edinburgh Rethinking Race and Empire in Scotland

In 2018, the University of Glasgow’s report into its slavery connections and the BBC documentary Slavery: Scotland’s Hidden Shame started to shift public conversation about the history of race and empire in Scotland. Student-led conferences, Resisting Whiteness and DecolonisED, alongside Edinburgh University Student Association’s LiberatED campaign, likewise, pushed an important anti-racist, decolonizing agenda. And new books like No Problem Here: Understanding Race in Scotland contested the Scottish National Party’s vision of a vanilla, cosmopolitan history in which ‘we are a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns’ with more challenging accounts of anti-Irish Catholic sectarianism and anti-Asian prejudice. In most areas of public life, however, change appears slow if not debatable. The National Museum of Scotland still champions the ‘entrepreneurial’ role of white Scots throughout the British empire; the statue of slave-lobbyist, Henry Dundas, still stands uncontextualized in the centre of Edinburgh; and the National Library of Scotland continues to uncritically reduce the country’s numerous colonial connections with the African continent to the life of one ‘liberating’ missionary, David Livingstone.

UncoverED, a student-led research project at Edinburgh University, is the latest iteration of this ongoing effort to challenge and re-shape Scotland’s understanding of race and empire. Students from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean have been coming to Edinburgh University—historically one of the leading centres in the world for the study of medicine and theology—for more than 150 years. As noted by the South African feminist, communist, Indian nationalist, doctor and Edinburgh-graduate, Kesaveloo Naidoo, students in the Scottish capital during the 1930s were:

…every tinge of black, yellow and white; Indians from India, Trinidad, Mauritius, Fiji and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Africans from the vast number of African States as well as Egyptians, Arabs, Chinese and Japanese. The world came to Scotland!

Beyond a handful of pioneers, however, these alumni have gone largely unrecognized, while the university’s broader connections with empire have been all but erased. Edinburgh University still champions the city of Edinburgh’s past as an ‘Athens of the North’ during eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet Britain’s imperial project was justified, at least in part, by ideas about colonial ‘civilizing missions’, scientific racism and ‘phrenology’ that came out of Edinburgh University. While the Scottish Enlightenment’s entanglement in imperial expansion, expropriation and exploitation continues to be erased, figures like the Edinburgh-based philosopher, historian and economist, David Hume, continue to be celebrated as ‘one of the greatest philosophers of all time’, despite his deeply prejudiced and incorrect analysis of world history (a tower-block on central campus is named after him).


UncoverED has set out to recover the voices of past University of Edinburgh alumni—like the first West African graduate of the university, James Africanus Beale Horton, who held Hume and Robert Knox (an Edinburgh-based promoter of scientific racism) in far lower esteem—and to establish that it is possible to research critical histories of race in urban Scotland. Horton’s 1868 magnum opus, West African Countries and Peoples, denounced the ‘grave errors in generalization which men of science with restricted observation have arrived at respecting the capacity of progression in the African race,’ asserting that:

[David] Hume, in his Essay on Natural Characters, says that ‘There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion (negro), nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation…In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one negro as a man of parts and learning, but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly.’ A witty writer, the late Dr Knox, of Edinburgh, [likewise] believes that the races of men, particularly the negro, as they were several centuries ago, still continue to be now […T]o insist on the broad dogma that no changes have taken place in the races of men, or even animals, as far back as historical evidences can be traced, is to insist on what is opposed to nature; and none but the unreflecting can be carried away by such a sweeping doctrine […]

44 years earlier, Trinidadian graduate, Jean Baptiste Philip, similarly argued that such ‘prejudice cannot long maintain its power’—‘people of colour, notwithstanding, as a class, have long since emerged from the gloom of barbarism […] and, springing from the gloom of obscurity, will expatiate freely in the regions of science, of sentiment, and of liberty.’

This long history of Edinburgh graduates challenging conventional ideas of race and empire, needs to be situated within the broader history of imperial expansion, heightening social Darwinism and increasing racist discrimination that played out over the course of the nineteenth century. The first black students came to Edinburgh as men of empire and, after graduating from a world-leading centre for the study of medicine, went on to work in male-dominated imperial medical services throughout the British empire. Jamaican-born William Fergusson graduated from Edinburgh in 1813 and became the only ever black governor of Sierra Leone in 1845. James Africanus Horton himself worked for the British imperial army across West Africa in the 1860s and 1870s. Jamaican doctor, Derwent Hutton Ryder Waldron, worked in St Kitts before moving to Ghana and then Nigeria. Robert Smith was a medical officer in Sierra Leone in the 1870s and 1880s. Benjamin Quartey-Papifo was a medical officer in Ghana between 1888 and 1905. Obadiah Johnson was the chief medical officer of Lagos, Nigeria from 1890 to 1897. The list goes on. When, at the end of the 1890s, the successors to these men of empire faced heightening discrimination and restrictions on their employment opportunities, however, Edinburgh (perhaps unexpectedly) became a centre of radical pan-Asian and pan-African thought.

During the first half of the twentieth century, Edinburgh graduates from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean increasingly attacked the British empire, frustrated by the heightening discrimination of imperial institutions. After black doctors were banned from the West African medical services in 1902, Nigerian law student, Bandele Omoniyi, prophetically warned in 1908:

If the black man be taught to look upon the white man as a friend and a neighbour, and not as a marauder and plunderer, and if respect for the British rule be cultivated in him rather than a dread of it, there need not be any fear for each will zealously strive to promote the interests of the Empire: but if the present state of things were to continue in which he simply lives in dread of the white man’s maxim guns, the least chance that he may have will be used in plotting against those he lives in constant dread of, and who can say what tomorrow may bring.

Omoniyi was part of a far wider, increasingly radical cohort of pan-Africanists in Edinburgh at the turn of the twentieth century. Future West African nationalist, Richard Akinwande Savage, founding member of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Albert Augustus Ayton, and Trinidadian Pan-Africanist John Alcindor, amongst others, were all part of the Edinburgh Afro-West Indian Literary Society—an organisation that was founded in 1899. The respected Jamaican pan-Africanist, Theophilus Scholes, repeatedly returned to Edinburgh (having graduated in 1884), acting as the society’s Honorary President, and drawing on Scholes’ ideas, the society’s members developed intellectual critiques of empire and scientific racism. Part of the society’s delegation to the 1900 Pan African Congress in London, Trinidadian student, William Meyer, attacked racist pseudo-science for ‘trying to prove that negroes were worthless and depraved persons who had no right to live’. By the 1920s, Richard Savage was editing The Gold Coast Leader and The Nigerian Spectator, Herbert Bankole-Bright was publishing the subversive Aurora in Sierra Leone and Moses Da Rocha had founded the Union of Young Nigerians. Calling for a ‘new solidarity’ between students and non-students, Ghanaian economics researcher, John Coleman de Graft Johnson, likewise, represented Edinburgh at the 1945 Pan African Congress in Manchester.

Pan-Africanists were no doubt influenced by the anti-colonial nationalism of Indian student radicals. Edinburgh graduate, Sarat Kumar Mullick, similarly, contested the fact that the top positions of the Indian Medical Services were monopolized by white doctors. And at the start of the twentieth century, the Afro-West Indian Literary Society held numerous joint debates with the Edinburgh Indian Association (EIA), one of the oldest Indian organizations in Britain. Kesaveloo Naidoo, a South African member of the EIA, later reported that the:

…most compelling influence was that of the Indian students who were intensely patriotic, highly critical of the British and passionately supportive of Gandhi […] Winds from the world blew around me and ideas of justice and injustice, freedom and exploitation began to excite my imagination and awaken my political consciousness.

This heightening ‘political consciousness’, however, was also grounded in students’ everyday experiences in the Scottish capital. Brand ‘Scotland’ always plays up its long-standing stereotype as a welcoming nation. The essays and autobiographies of numerous Edinburgh alumni, however, complicate this. Theophilus Scholes, who studied at Edinburgh between 1880 and 1884, remembered white Scottish students insulting an ‘African prince who had visited their university’, ‘seizing and disarranging his head-dress’. Denouncing ‘the abuse, the vilification, and the humiliations, etc., with which colourless men, on the ground of their alleged superiority, incessantly assail coloured men’, he found his fellow students’ ‘calculated and systematic bearishness and boorishness to their fellow-students of colour make the academic life of the latter all but intolerable’. The Student, a newspaper run by Edinburgh students, published reports on 26 October 1905 that ‘the ‘University Hall’ did not admit any coloured people as residents’. In 1911, university officials refused Indian students the keys of their new club rooms in George Square, fearing that they would be radicalized. Trinidadian William Besson recorded that in the aftermath of World War I, South African soldiers showed ‘hostility to West Indian students in Edinburgh, resulting in brawls late at night on Princes Street.’ In 1927, a ‘colour bar’ meant African and Indian students were banned from Edinburgh bars and restaurants—sparking international outrage. In February 1938, the magazine, Missions, again reported on ‘The Colour Bar from Atlanta to Edinburgh’. And John Coleman de Graft Johnson denounced the fact that black Edinburgh students were ‘treated with an air of suspicion’ at the 1945 Pan African Congress.

Discriminatory landlords, in particular, plagued the lives of overseas students throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Nigerian Moses Da Rocha, who started studying at Edinburgh in 1896, complained about ‘various troubles with beastly landladies’. When Kesaveloo Naidoo arrived in Edinburgh in 1928, she also noted that ‘[m]ost landladies were not keen on taking black students. I, on my part, was choosy about the landlady and the rooms she offered. The search was thus doubly difficult.’ The Student reported, in 1935, that a special of list friendly landlords had to be drawn up to ‘save these students from the unpleasant experience of applying for rooms in houses that are not prepared to receive them’. Ghanaian medical student, Emmanuel Evans-Anfom, likewise, noted in his autobiography:

Hunting for digs could be quite laborious for overseas students, especially Africans. Usually, one looked in the newspapers for advertisements for lodgings. One then telephoned to view the accommodation. However, instances abound where African or West Indian students actually arrived at the scene having made a previous appointment with the landlady or landlord, who on seeing the person with a black skin, would say, ‘I’m sorry the accommodation has already been taken’.

Edinburgh graduates, Julius Nyerere and Hastings Kamuzu Banda, were at the forefront of the global anticolonial movement in the 1950s and 1960s. But the Scottish capital itself has taken a far longer, more arduous path to decolonization. Ugandan Economics student, Semei Nyanzi, found his British contemporaries an ‘an unsatisfactory lot of people’, and was exasperated at the lack of support for campaigns against the Central African Federation at the end of the 1950s. Anti-apartheid protests were also often fragmented and faltering, with many white students supporting the South African government.

In the 60s, race still defined Scottish social life. Trinidadian literary scholar, Kenneth Ramchand, noted in 1965 that in Edinburgh: ‘One may be safe from violence, but one is exposed to a more subtle variation of the colour bar.’ Caribbean students found themselves confined to stereotypes, and were expected to be cricketers, calypso musicians or DJs (and nothing else). The politics of inter-racial relationships remained fraught. And divisions continued to become most apparent on nights out. Nigerian PhD student, Kole Omotoso, documented enduring prejudices in his 1971 novel, The Edifice, about a West African student at a British university (no doubt based on Edinburgh). In a particular scene, when Dele the main character goes out, he finds:

The floor of the night club was divided into two halves. Not that there was a line – just imaginary – like the Equator. It was there. On one side there were more coloured people and there were more girls too. On the other side there were only white men and white girls. Once I saw a black head sticking out on that side and found it was only a coloured man going to the men’s lavatory. So only the call of nature made the crossing of the line possible.

As Britain pivoted from empire to Europe, political freedom across the former British world was matched by the end of free movement, and issues over race and immigration, in particular, took on new (more recognizable) forms. In 1962, the Conservative government passed the Commonwealth Immigration Bill, only allowing those with government-issued employment vouchers to settle in Britain. Edinburgh student, Bayo Olusanya, asserted that the legislation was ‘more correctly described as the Colour Prejudice Bill’. Subsequently, in 1967, the Labour government first introduced differential fees for ‘foreign’ students—responding to the widespread feeling (captured in The Student) that ‘there is a shortage of places and Scottish students are kept out’. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, these fees were condemned as acts of discrimination. A meeting of Malaysian and Singaporean students in Edinburgh in November 1976 ‘unanimously condemned discriminatory fees and immigration controls as racist measures.’ Overseas student communities continued to offer solidarity and provide important spaces for political debate and new ideas. But the environment in which these students studied also remained heavily structured by race, and the emergence of new post-colonial national identities. William Besson noted that as ‘we approached the eighties, the number of West Indian coming up to Edinburgh began to dramatically fall off on account of the world situation which had forced the University to increase their tuition fees for overseas student.’ Since then, the fees for students from outside (predominantly white) Europe have only risen.


A key emphasis of the UncoverED project has been to move beyond the parochial perspectives of white Scots. White settlers were not the only ones who went out into the world. The ‘empire’ also came home and, from the start of the twentieth century, students like Richard Akinwande Savage were living in Edinburgh, and raising a new generation of Scottish pioneers. Born in Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh, Richard Gabrielle Savage and Agnes Yewande Savage also studied at Edinburgh University in the 1920s and are recognized as early West African doctors—but they were also black Scots who spent a considerable proportion of their lives fighting to be respected as Europeans. Scotland still needs to recognize its historic connections with numerous pioneers from the twentieth century: artists, writers, scientists, mothers, medics and musicians; anti-colonial nationalists, communists, socialists, trade unionists and feminists alike, who challenged scientific racism, colonial rule, discrimination in the labour market, or ‘colour bars’ in Edinburgh on a night out. UncoverED has found innumerable people who led remarkable lives, but whose achievements have gone unrecognized by the university they studied at. Acknowledging freedoms won and lost, and barriers that endure, this recalibration demands we be more radical about what counts as Scottish public heritage, and more critical about how we conceive Scotland’s place in the world