Skip to main content

The Scottish slave-masters
We never know who will appear in our genealogical research.  In researching my own family I unearthed two relations whose involvement in the West Indies slave system made me reflect profoundly on this Scottish connection.
James McKill, a moderately prosperous tailor in late 18th century Dumfries, was my fourth great grand-father.  His grave stone, in St Michael’s Kirkyard in Dumfries, notes his son, Robert, my 3x great -uncle, died in 1821, aged 31, at Concord, Tobago.
I found information about his son Robert Mckill in Tobago in the slave registers, available on  Robert McKill is noted on the Tobago Slave Registers of 1819 as ‘Robert McKell’ at Lucy Vale Plantation, Tobago, where there were 71 slaves. The 1819 return lists the slaves individually, by name, sex, colour, age, country of origin, employment and remarks.
Two years later, the 1821 returns note him as ‘Robert McKell  Manager’ of the Concordia Estate, within St George’s Parish, Tobago, on which there were 169 slaves.  McKill neither owned the estate nor the slaves but managed them.  The 1821 register indicates only aggregate slave numbers but details births and deaths.
Robert McKill’s Testament, recorded in Edinburgh, available on , notes him as a planter in Concordia, Tobago, at his death in 1821.  His Inventory, – for which the Executor was his brother, Alexander, my 3x great grandfather – was lodged with the Commissary Court in Edinburgh in 1822.  He left an estate valued at £200 but less than £300.

Scots who died overseas frequently had a Testament which was proved in Scotland.  This will carry details of their wealth, their lives and their families.  You can dowloadScottish Testaments from the ScotlandsPeople site, .

I had never unearthed a baptismal record linking my 3x great grandfather, Alexander McKill, with the James McKill on the gravestone in St Michael’s.  Unearthing the Testament however, definitively proved that the Robert McKill who died in Tobago was the brother of Alexander McKill and, since the gravestone proved that James McKill was Robert McKill’s father, he was also therefore, Alexander McKill’s father.

Understanding slave terms
Various terms to denote the racial and ethnic mix of non-whites are used in West Indian slave records and Church records.  The meanings vary but the following definitions frequently apply.
Mestee: a person of mixed racial origins
Mulatto: a person with one white and one black parent
Quadroon: a person with one black grand-parent
Octoroon or octroon: a person with one black great grand-parent
The terms were used in law and government to provide a precise code of discrimination and the determination of rights. It should be borne in mind that slaves could be freed and might then be described as ‘a free mestee’ or ‘a free woman of colour’.

Robert McKill left a son in Tobago.  The Baptism Records of St. Andrew’s Church, Scarborough, Tobago, in March 1822, four months after McKill’s death, show the baptism of Robert McKill, son of son of Robert McKill, Manager at Concordia, and of Betsy Tait, ‘a free coloured woman’.   Betsy bore children to three different white men over several years.
West Indian baptismal registers indicate however that many white men were involved in relationships with black or mixed-race women which almost never led to marriage.
Another example from my family tree of the role of Scots in the West Indies is Francis Ramsay, my distant cousin, from Birse in Aberdeenshire.
From Robin Callander’s ‘History of Birse’, I found out that Francis Ramsay was born in the early 1780s, the eldest son of Francis Ramsay, a merchant at Haugh of Birsemore.  In 1798 he was awarded a Bursary to study at Aberdeen University.”
The records of Marischall College, Aberdeen, show him as a student graduating in 1802.  He then left for Jamaica as an apprentice surveyor.
Callander’s book describes Francis’s Jamaican life from letters home.  He mentions his shipping rum home to Scotland.   A blockading French fleet in 1805 and rumours that Parliament was about to abolish slave trading depressed business.
Francis believed abolition would ruin Jamaica. He insisted that slaves were well fed, clothed and lodged.  The law explicitly forbade more than 39 lashes.  These, Francis insisted, were laid on lightly and he had witnessed almost no instances “of a Negro receiving a more severe flogging than he himself had received from his old schoolmaster in Birse, Mr Cromar”.
By 1807, when the British Empire abolished slave trading (slavery itself was not outlawed until 1833), Francis returned to surveying.

Michael Fry, in ‘The Scottish Empire’, indicates that one in three eighteenth century, white Jamaicans were Scottish and Scots largely ran the Tobago plantations.  Robert Burns nearly sailed for Jamaica beforehis poems were published

Shortly afterwards his brother John arrived from Scotland.  In 1814, Francis bought a property at St David, which he named ‘Birse’, a financial gamble that almost failed because Frank broke his leg soon after.
When I googled ‘Francis Ramsay Birse’ I stumbled upon  a reference to the Jamaican Family Search site (  ).
Francis Ramsay, was listed as living at Birse estate, St David’s Parish, Jamaica, in 1840.  One further reference, on Google books, was to ‘Jamaica Surveyed: Plantation Maps and Plans of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’ by B W Higman, in which a surveyor, Edward McGeachy, was noted as apprenticed to Francis Ramsay.  Francis Ramsay had named his Jamaican home after his native parish in Aberdeenshire.
The Jamaica Almanac for St David’s Parish shows Francis Ramsay residing at Birse from 1820 to 1840. The Slave Registers for 1817-1833 show the number of slaves and of stock held.
In 1817 he possessed two negro slaves and two further slaves, registered to him in his capacity as “Guardian of William Smith a free child of Colour”.  I haven’t yet found out who this who William Smith was (perhaps Francis’s son).
In 1824 Francis, with his ten year old son, Thomas, returned to Scotland.  Thomas was to remain in Birse to remedy his neglected education.  Francis himself stayed for a year during which time he was witness to the baptism of his nephew, William Ramsay, in Birse.  A letter dated London 23rd October 1825 indicates that he was waiting for a passage back to Jamaica.
Thomas was not however Francis’s only child. now provides access to the Jamaica Parish Registers.  Francis obviously sustained a fairly lengthy relationship with one Rebecca Tucker, variously described as ‘a free Mestee’ or ‘a free quadroon’.  That son, already mentioned, Thomas Craig Ramsay, named after Francis’s maternal grandfather, was born in 1814.

Francis and Rebecca then had Andrew in 1817, William in 1819, Catherine in 1821 and Janett Craig Ramsay in 1824.  As well as having named his first son after his Scottish grandfather, the names of each of his other children reflect back to his Scottish family.  Francis’s immediately younger brothers were William and Andrew.  He had a younger sister Catherine and his mother was Janet Craig.
By 1832, the slave registers show that Francis Ramsay owned 46 slaves and six stock.  In 1833 Parliament abolished slavery in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape.  The slave trade had been abolished in 1807, but it had taken another 26 years to emancipate the enslaved.
After the British government abolished slavery it compensated the former slave-owners.  In St David’s Parish, Jamaica, on 25th July 1836 Francis Ramsay is noted as seeking a claim for nine slaves valued at £170 10s. according to theUCL records ( ).
The 1840 record shows Ramsay’s estate as covering 200 acres.  By 1845 it is his son Thomas Craig Ramsay who is noted at Birse which, by then, is reduced to 64 acres.  Francis Ramsay does not appear on the 1860 voters’ roll and it may be assumed therefore that he had either left the island or had died.
Scots also constituted a significant part of the absentee slave owners.  An analysis of the compensation claims indicates that while Scots comprised just 10 per cent of the total British population at the time, they represented at least 15 per cent of all British absentee slave owners.  Merchants in Glasgow were one of the largest regional groups to receive compensation. There were over 100 claims made from 1834-1838, with the majority for slaves resident in Jamaica, British Guiana, Trinidad and Grenada. They claimed an estimated £400,000 (as much as £2 billion in today’s money) in compensation for around 14,000 slaves.

Records of the slave estates and the compensation statistics certainly assist the contemporary genealogist trace their British relative’s movements and activities in the Caribbean.  They also remind us of Scotland’s shameful role in this brutal business.   The tragedy is that with their minimal personal details they are much less helpful for Britons of West Indian descent, in respect of tracing any ancestry back to the enslaved population.




  • Margaret Hills de Zarate says:

    Thank you for this article. I have recently been working in Jamaica with a colleague from Trinidad Tobago.
    Every second person I met had a Scottish surname, Gordon, Alexander etc. I don’t think the Scottish presence in the West Indies is properly addressed. The Scottish history I was taught presents the Scots as the oppressed when in fact we were also oppressors.

  • Sarah Hervey says:

    William Ramsey is my great grandfather, my grandmother Doris Violet harmen Ramsey married my grandfather Robert Hervey, My Dad David Hamilton Hervey was born in Kingston Jamaica and moved to the states when he was a little child. This is all so interesting. I knew she was of “scottish” descent. This answers so many questions for me. Thank you.

Leave a Reply