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29 May 2017

Exploring Culzean Castle: The Life of Scipio Kennedy (Part 1)

A close-up of Culzean Castle seen from the lawn in front.
Culzean Castle
The first part of a journey following a young African boy to Scotland.

Welcome to the first part of an oft-forgotten narrative in British history: slaves in Scotland. Many of you may have heard of the famous court case of Joseph Knight – a slave that brought a freedom suit in 1778 against his master John Wedderburn of Ballindean, Perthshire. After two appeals, Knight won his freedom, and his case established the principle that Scots law would not uphold the institution of slavery. But decades before Joseph Knight made the perilous voyage to Scotland from Jamaica, a young African boy was living a displaced life on the shores of Ayrshire.

Walking through Culzean Castle today, it looks like an exceptionally grand example of a Scottish stately home – you will recognise the familiar trappings of the aristocracy both inside the castle and on its grandiose façade outside. But if you look closely, the architecture and objects in Culzean hold other stories to be unravelled, some of which began very far away from this gilded setting. To start, there is a long list of names on the wall outside Culzean’s kitchen. These are some of the servants that worked at Culzean over the centuries, and the first name listed is unlike all the others: Scipio Kennedy.

The story of this name on a Scottish castle wall began in 1694 when a boy (whose birth name is lost to history) was born in West Africa. We know nothing of the first five or six years of his life, only that in 1700 he was captured in Guinea and sold into slavery. Given our current understanding of the route of slave ships from the Gulf of Guinea, it is likely that he was bound for a Caribbean island – a destination where the constant fear of a slave uprising (slave owners were vastly outnumbered) created an environment where cruel punishments, torture and death were an everyday reality. Thomas Thistlewood, an English slave owner in Jamaica, kept meticulous diaries that now give us one of the most detailed glimpses of the sadistic nature of Carribean slave owners in the 18th century. One of his tamer entries reads:‘Flogged Fanny for fighting with Phoebe and twice after for her great impudence’.

Slavery historian Trevor Burnard describes Thistlewood as ‘a brutal sociopath’ but he was not an anomaly in the New World during this time.

Perhaps fortunately (though such a word gets caught in the throat when used to describe an enslaved child’s fate), the little boy’s story does not end in the sugar plantations of the West Indies. At some point in the harrowing journey from Guinea he was purchased by a Scottish man named Captain Andrew Douglas of Mains, Dunbartonshire. Exactly where, when and how this purchase took place remains unknown; questions such as these continue to plague historians and descendants of slaves. But it is likely that Captain Douglas purchased him to be a personal or household servant. Young African male servants (often slaves and often page boys or footmen) were viewed as a status symbol in Britain. This can be evidenced by their presence and servile stances in many aristocratic portraits at the time.

Oak Alley Plantation
Oak Alley Plantation

So how did this young boy end up as a servant to one of Scotland’s most powerful families and given the name of a Roman general? In the next blog post we will follow Scipio’s journey to Culzean Castle and explore these questions.

The Life of Scipio Kennedy (Part 2)