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24 Mar 2021

An eventful honeymoon: Lord and Lady Aberdeen of Haddo House

Written by Jennifer Melville, Project Leader for Facing Our Past
A gravel driveway leading to a grand Palladian mansion, Haddo House. Large stone urns with pink flowers in them stand either side of the driveway on immaculate green lawns.
Haddo House
As part of our Facing Our Past project, we take a look at Lord and Lady Aberdeen and their links to Egypt.

Our Facing Our Past project sets out to discover how the properties and estates in the National Trust for Scotland’s care were acquired or enhanced through the profits of slavery. We now know that many Scots profited, either directly or indirectly, from slavery. We are aware too that, as attitudes changed towards the end of the 18th century, many Scots became ardent Abolitionists. Whilst most of this activity took place up to the point when slavery was abolished across the British Empire, we relate here an event that took place much later, in Egypt, where slavery continued throughout much of the 19th century.

Lord and Lady Aberdeen of Haddo House have been rightly lauded as philanthropists – Lady Ishbel (1857–1939) especially for the important role that she played, whilst in Canada, Ireland and in Scotland, in improving the lives of women through better access to education and housing. In fact, this remarkable couple’s philanthropy was manifest from the very outset of their marriage when, on honeymoon in Egypt in 1877, they were personally responsible for freeing four enslaved children.

When 30-year-old John Campbell Hamilton-Gordon, 1st Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair (1847–1934) married 20-year-old Isabel Maria Marjoribanks on 7 November 1877, he was joining forces with a formidable, well-educated woman, who shared his evangelical Christian views. Their lives were to be full of good deeds but first the honeymoon, which saw them spend the winter of 1877–78 in Egypt and the Holy Land.

A sepia photograph of a young couple standing together in a portrait studio. The lady on the right wears a long, black dress and rests her hand on the man's shoulder. The man on the left is reading a newspaper and stands beside a chair. He has a beard and wears a smart dark coat.
Lord and Lady Aberdeen at about the time of their wedding, c.1877, Haddo House Collection

Egypt had been under Ottoman control since 1517. Although from 1867 it existed as a semi-autonomous ‘tributary’ state called the Khedivate of Egypt, the historic practices of the Ottoman Empire, including slavery, were retained. Gradually, under foreign pressure, Egypt had relented, and in 1856 the importation and sale of enslaved white people was finally forbidden. The year of the Aberdeens’ honeymoon was significant, as it was in 1877 that the Anglo-Egyptian Convention banned the import and export of enslaved people from Sudan and Ethiopia, and allowed British naval forces to search any vessel suspected of carrying enslaved Africans in Egyptian territorial waters. Nevertheless, neither the 1856 law nor the 1877 convention actually banned the practice of slavery itself, as enslaved people already resident in Egypt remained enslaved. [1]

Egypt was becoming more and more popular as a tourist destination with the most privileged travellers. This was true in the Aberdeens’ immediate social circle: their neighbours and friends in Aberdeenshire, the Farquharsons of Finzean, often sojourned in Egypt, where Mrs Farquharson’s brother kept a boat on the Nile. The young couple followed the increasingly well-worn tourist path of travelling down the Nile from Cairo to Aswan and on to Philae, taking in the sights and sounds of this very foreign and – to western eyes – exotic country. Lady Aberdeen took time to paint the scenery and ancient buildings viewed from the deck of their luxurious dahabeah.

Johnny and Ishbel, however, could never be satisfied with merely soaking up the sun and touring around Egypt’s antiquities. In Simon Welfare’s fascinating new book on Lady Ishbel, the author recounts how their travels proved to be most unlike a normal winter sojourn. [2] Drawing on Ishbel’s diary, he chronicles how these devout evangelical Christians devoted many hours to Christian missionary work at the landing stages along the Nile, distributing ‘simple medicines and ointments’ and ‘a selection of books in Arabic, including a store of nicely bound Testaments and Bibles’.

Appalled by stories that the slave trade was still flourishing in Egypt, the couple devised a ruse to free some enslaved children. They asked to hire some as servants. When four boys, aged 8, 9, 11 and 16, were brought on deck and their strength and beauty extolled by their master, these ‘most terrified small beings’ were immediately adopted by Johnny and Ishbel. The Aberdeens ensured that they were baptised into the Presbyterian Church. The three youngest, whom they named Abdeen, Gordon and Haddo, were entrusted to the mission school at Asyut, whilst the oldest boy, whom they had named Campbell (Johnny’s middle name), became a paid cabin boy.

The Aberdeens kept in touch with the four for the rest of their lives, and Campbell, who had gone on to study, later wrote to Johnny to thank him:

‘To His Excellency our Revered and Honoured Parent Lord Aberdeen, may he be continually preserved. I cease not to feel grateful for your kindness in placing me in school-orchards to pluck the fruit of knowledge and good breeding under the care of virtuous Christian people. As to our news, we – thank God – are happy to the highest degree and we are progressing in our studies’.

Further information

[1] Africa Enslaved: A Curriculum Unit on Comparative Slave Systems for Grades 9-12, Natalie Arsenault (Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies) & Christopher Rose (Center for Middle Eastern Studies), both at the University of Texas at Austin, p.4

[2] Fortune’s Many Houses – A Victorian Visionary, a Noble Scottish Family, and a Lost Inheritance, Simon Welfare

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