Fife town’s historic links to slavery investigated in new student project

In 1770, 13-year-old David Spence sat in the Dysart Tolbooth, waiting to find out whether he was a free man, or if he was to be sent to the West Indies as a slave.
St Andrews.St Andrews.
St Andrews.

Two years prior, Manasela Embanka, given the slave name Black Tom, arrived in Fife. His owner, David Dalrymple, had purchased him for £30 on the island of Grenada, and brought him back to Scotland.

But in 1769, Manasela was baptised, and took the name David Spence (or Spens).

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He fled before he could be sent to the West Indies, arguing that a Christian could not be a slave in Scotland.

The case went before the court of session, and David was sent to jail to await the verdict.

The families and miners of East Wemyss learned of the case and organised a collection to cover the lawyer fees.

But, before a decision could be made, Mr Dalrymple died.

David was a free man. He would later settle down and start a family.

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It is stories like that of David which has inspired a group of St Andrews students to start a project looking at the town’s – as well as Fife and Scotland’s – links to slavery and unfree labour.

The Spence Project aims to uncover the hidden stories of slavery and make them accessible.

“We’re a group of undergraduates at the University of St Andrews, and we all knew each other from class and extracurriculars before we started the project,” said Charmaine Au-Yeung, who is working on the project.

“One of our members was formerly part of the College of William and Mary in the United States, and there they run the Lemon Project, which is an undergraduate-led research project that researches into William and Mary’s own connections to the slave trade. We felt like it might be interesting do something similar here, because we feel like slavery isn’t talked enough about.”

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The last few months, after the death of George Floyd in the US, has seen a fresh discussion open up about Britain’s long and uncomfortable history with slavery.

The public has debated how we remember people like Edward Colston and Henry Dundas.

The project members were eager to show that St Andrews has not been insulated from these historical events, and, as an important town and port, played its part.

“As a port town, and as the centre of the Scottish Reformation, a lot of history is connected to, and has taken place in, St Andrews,” said Charmaine. “The same can be said for a lot of Fife; these places are more global than we realise.

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“With our project, we want to target this gap-in-the-knowledge to change the way people understand, engage with, and think about the places they live in.

“We hope that by getting staff, students, and the wider public to think globally, they’ll gain a deeper and richer understanding of St Andrews and Fife’s history, an understanding that connects our shared home to the wider world.”

All of the students who are involved with the project are now in their final year, and have held discussions with the university about its future.

As well as researching anybody linked to St Andrews, the university or Fife who profited from the slave trade, the team are also organising Covid-19 friendly events to discuss local connections to slavery.

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Speaking about the future and the aims of the project, Charmaine said she hopes it will make the topic more accessible, so non-historians can get involved in discussions.

She added: “Academic history can be a really ivory-tower subject, or super unapproachable to non-historians, and this is something that my team-mates and I have been really frustrated with.

“What is the point of writing history if nobody reads and/or understands it?

“How can people learn from history if they are unable to engage with historians?

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“It was thus a non-starter for us that the Spence Project be more than just another research project. We also wanted it to focus on public engagement and education. Consequently, through our research, we hope to get more people thinking about these issues in the hopes that it’ll broaden their understanding of St Andrews and Fife.

“We hope to achieve this by presenting our research in interesting and interactive ways, and also by encouraging non-historians to engage in conversations about slavery with us.”

If you would like to watch the video about David Spence, search for the Spence Project on YouTube.

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