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8 Dec 2020

Colonial power and profit at Leith Hall

Written by Jennifer Melville, Project Leader for Facing Our Past
A view of the exterior of Leith Hall, from across some manicured lawns. It is a large stately home, with grey walls and a slate roof, with little towers and turrets at each corner.
Leith Hall, Kennethmont, Aberdeenshire
As part of our Facing Our Past project, we take a look at the Leith-Hay and Leith families of Leith Hall, and their links to the West Indies.

Leith Hall is today well known for its links to the British Raj; it contains many items seized after the Siege of Lucknow in 1857 by Colonel Alexander Sebastian Leith-Hay (1818–1900). However, before this period, the Leith and Leith-Hay family were linked to another part of the British Empire – the West Indies – where several generations of the family served in government posts, upholding the British rule of law.

Col. Alexander Sebastien Leith-Hay, who later served in the Crimea and in India, was born in Grenada, in the West Indies, in 1818. Four years earlier, on 15 February 1814, his great-uncle Sir James Leith (1763–1816), a decorated war hero of the Napoleonic campaigns, had been appointed Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Leeward Islands. [1]

Once there, he continued to defend British territory from supporters of Napoleon Bonaparte on Martinique and then Guadeloupe. In April 1816 his troops quashed a slavery revolt on Barbados, known as Bussa’s Rebellion. Rather than seeing the revolt as an understandable reaction to the appalling plight of the enslaved people, Governor Leith blamed the free black community on the island for corrupting their otherwise peaceful state with dangerous notions of equality and freedom. He lamented the ‘mischievous delusions of those who have availed themselves of every circumstance to influence the minds of the slave’ and the ‘wicked attempts’ to indoctrinate the enslaved masses. [2] Governor Leith also feared the influence of the international abolitionist movement and wrote of how ‘discussions which have so generally taken place on the question of Slavery, attended by the misconception, heat, and exaggeration of many individual opinions’ could not ‘have occurred to such an extent without producing dangerous effects’ and causing the enslaved to question their ‘natural’ condition. [3]

Reporting back on the actions of his troops, Leith estimated that 50 rebels had been killed during the fighting, and 70 were executed soon after. However, in late September he reported that the number of those condemned to death had risen to 144, while another 170 were sentenced to be transported. [4] The executions were carried out in public and across the island in what has been described as ‘an exercise in “psychological terror” designed to create the strongest impact upon the innocent enslaved’. [5] Within two weeks of the uprising, Governor Leith issued a proclamation – unusual in that it was addressed directly to the enslaved people – reiterating their unchanged and ‘unchangeable’ condition. He dismissed any notion of emancipation and called upon them to ‘return with cheerfulness’. Otherwise, he threatened, they would force him to use his ‘ample power’ to ‘crush the Refractory and punish the Guilty.’ [6]

Governor Leith was fêted as a hero, in both Britain and France. In November, the recently restored King of France, Louis XVIII, awarded him the Grand Cordon of the Order of Military Merit, for his role in securing France’s West Indian colonies. But it was too late; Leith had contracted yellow fever on 10 October and died six days later. His body was returned to England where he was given the great honour of being buried in Westminster Abbey, on 15 March 1817.

Meanwhile, back in the Caribbean, Governor Leith’s nephew (the father of Alexander Sebastien Leith-Hay), Andrew Leith-Hay (1785–1862) was serving as a British Army officer. Andrew had served as his uncle’s aide-de-camp in Spain and in 1816 had accompanied him when he was appointed Governor of the Leeward Islands, serving as military secretary, assistant quartermaster-general and assistant adjutant-general. He remained in the West Indies after his uncle’s death, as captain in the 2nd Foot regiment until September 1819.

Before leaving England in 1816, Sir Andrew had married Mary Margaret Clark. Portraits of both, by James Northcote, still hang at Leith Hall. In his portrait, Sir Andrew Leith-Hay is depicted as a grand military leader, whilst Margaret is seen in the guise of Una, from Edmund Spenser’s 16th-century poem The Faerie Queene. In the poem the beautiful young princess Una subdues a fierce lion which, captivated by her innocence and beauty, becomes her protector and companion. In her classically styled, flowing white dress, it is tempting to see Mary in the guise of Britannia, and the lion – a traditional symbol of Britain – representing the way in which the British subjugated the colonies and their subjects.

The symbolism of Una and the lion was also used on a famous Victorian coin. Queen Victoria was Una and the subdued lion represented England on the reverse of the Una and the Lion £5 gold coin, struck in 1839 to celebrate the young queen’s accession to the throne in 1837. Both the coin, designed by William Wyon, and Northcote’s portrait of Mary Margaret Leith-Hay, which was also widely circulated as a mezzotint created by William Say, can justifiably be interpreted as powerful, early 19th-century images of the right of the British to subdue and conquer.

As Liberal Member of Parliament for the Elgin Burghs, Sir Andrew ultimately supported the vote for the abolition of slavery, albeit reluctantly. In his speech of 30 May 1833 he described how enslaved people ‘were not yet prepared for the gift of freedom. They were at present an indolent and idle race, and it could not be expected that they would work unless there existed some means of making them.’ [7]

Whilst there can be little doubt that all the members of the Leith and Leith-Hay family resident in the West Indies would have had enslaved people in their service – probably as domestic servants – the Leith family’s more extensive involvement in enslavement has also been revealed. Legal documents disclose that in 1816 General Alexander Leith-Hay (father of Sir Andrew Leith-Hay and older brother of Sir James Leith) is recorded as a ‘commissioner’ in the ‘bankruptcy’ of Mrs Elizabeth Leith, the heiress to the Tobago property of John Leith. [8] In fact, Elizabeth was unmarried and was not bankrupt but had been declared insane, and therefore unable to be responsible for her goods and ‘chattels’, which would have included the enslaved people whom she owned. General Leith-Hay was claiming the right, as her closest relative, to administer (and presumably benefit financially from) her assets. Thus, John Leith, who had either owned or managed several plantations in Tobago, all worked by enslaved people, must have been related to the Leiths of Leith Hall. [9]

The wider involvement of the Leiths of Leith Hall in the West Indies is also indicated by the fact that there was a plantation in Jamaica named Leith Hall (now giving its name to an area in the town of Prospect, Saint Thomas, around 50km east of the island’s capital, Kingston), although quite how its naming came about is not known.

A simple map of the island of Jamaica, with various places labelled. All the place names have a Scottish connection.
Scottish place names in Jamaica

A final chapter in the Leith family’s associations with slavery comes with Rear Admiral John Leith, the younger brother of Sir Andrew Leith-Hay, who served in the Caribbean at the time when slavery was finally coming to an end. He was Commander of HMS Belette and sailed to the West Indies in 1825; he returned home in September 1827 with the 5th Duke of Manchester, who had been Governor of Jamaica from 1808 to 1827. During his term as Governor, Manchester oversaw the implementation of the abolition of the Slave Trade in Jamaica.

A half portrait of a middle-aged man in naval uniform. He has dark sideburns although is bald on top. He wears a navy jacket with gold trimmings, and a white waistcoat underneath.
Captain, later Real Admiral, John Leith-Hay – his son would go on to buy Fyvie Castle | © National Trust for Scotland, Leith Hall

A decade later, Leith was appointed to command the Barbados naval station, a post he held until 1841. Slavery had ended in the British Caribbean in 1833 but this had been followed by a period of ‘apprenticeship’ – formerly enslaved people were still bound to remain with their former enslaver, and to continue labouring for them for a period of four to six years, in exchange for board and provisions alone. Freedom did not come until 1838.

So when Sir John Leith arrived in Barbados in 1837, he would have been there to preserve the peace during this transitionary period. [10] Leith also installed the Royal Navy ship HMS Romney in Havana, where from 1837 to 1845 it housed African people awaiting the verdict of the trials of the Havana Mixed British-Spanish Commission Court for the Suppression of the Slave Trade. The ship’s presence was opposed by the Spanish Governor of Cuba, Miguel Tacón y Rosique (1775–1855), who was an ardent defender of the slave trade. He viewed the ship as a potent symbol of British abolitionism and a threat to the prevailing order in Cuba, where the trading of enslaved people did not end officially until 1867 and slavery was not abolished until 1886. [11]

My sincere thanks to Dr Désha Osborne and leith-hay.org for their assistance with this article.


[1] See the Leith-Hay Family website

[2] Letter from Colonel Codd to James Leith, 25 April 1816 (CO 28/85 British National Archives); Proclamation enclosed to Earl Bathurst from James Leith, 29 June 1816 (CO 28/85)

[3] Letter from James Leith to Earl Bathurst, 30 April 1816 (CO 28/85)

[4] 264 Letter from James Leith to Earl Bathurst, 21 September 1816 (CO 28/85)

[5] Lilian McNaught, The 1816 Barbados Slave Revolt, Masters thesis, September 2017, p.94

[6] Proclamation of James Leith, 26 April 1816 (CO 28/85)

[7] See the Hansard record, 30 May 1833, vol 18

[8] David Hume (ed.), Decisions of the Court of Session 1781–1822 in the form of a Dictionary, Edinburgh, 1839, pp. 194–195 – shown on UCL Legacies of British Slave-ownership website

[9] For more on the Leith family in Tobago, see Susan Elizabeth Craig-James, ‘The evolution of society in Tobago: 1838 to 1900’, unpublished PhD, London School of Economics, 1995

[10] See the Leith-Hay Family website

[11] Jennifer Louise Nelson, ‘Slavery, race, and conspiracy: The HMS Romney in nineteenth-century Cuba’, Atlantic Studies, Volume 14, Issue 2, 2017, pp. 174–195

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