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7 Jun 2017

Exploring Culzean Castle: The Life of Scipio Kennedy (Part 2)

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

Hello again! In last week’s blog post we followed the journey of a young enslaved African boy (later named Scipio) from Guinea on a ship most likely headed to a Caribbean island. Not long after he was sold into slavery, he was purchased by a Scottish man named Captain Andrew Douglas, who probably intended him to become a personal servant. 

We should understand that the journey across the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Guinea to the Caribbean is no footnote to this story. This harrowing voyage, often referred to as the Middle Passage, killed 15% of the Africans forced to undertake it (around 2 million people). A former African slave (and later prominent abolitionist in Britain) named Olaudah Equiano gave his account of the Middle Passage in the mid-1700s, which exposed its horrors (the model of a slave ship (pictured), which now sits in the Smithsonian, illustrates the physical realities of Olaudah’s descriptions):

‘The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome … The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought a sickness among the slaves of which many died – thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers.’

Model of Slave Ship by Kenneth Lu

Dr Thomas Trotter, an 18th-century Scottish naval physician and critic of the slave trade, added:

‘When the ship had much motion at sea … they were often miserably bruised against the deck or against each other … I have seen the breasts heaving … with all those laborious and anxious efforts for life.’

Adults struggled to survive the 1­­–6 month journey (the length depended on the ship and weather conditions), but Scipio was only 5 or 6 years old. Many questions arise when I think of young Scipio on such a voyage. Were his parents with him? Or was he kidnapped from his home and sold into slavery like Olaudah Equiano? If so, did someone care for him on the ship? Did they speak the same language? Did he remember this experience for the rest of his life? Answers to such questions are lost to history, but the unanswerable questions are sometimes the most important ones. Even if we will never know the answer, simply contemplating the possibilities humanises history.

Scipio did survive the trip – whether due to the kindness of a stranger shackled to a similar fate, a family member whom he was to never see again or his own youthful resilience, we can but speculate. But we do know that, after enduring the Middle Passage and having been purchased by Captain Douglas, the 8-year-old Scipio arrived on the shores of Scotland in around 1702 – two years after he was taken from Africa.

The name Scipio is neither African nor Scottish – it’s Latin – but it was likely to have been given to the child by Douglas at some point in these two years because it fits into a slave-naming tradition of the time: using the names of powerful leaders to mock the slaves’ powerlessness. In Scipio’s case, he was probably named after the Roman general Scipio Africanus, conqueror of Hannibal and one of the greatest military strategists of all time. Olaudah Equiano was also given a name meant to humiliate – one of his many owners called him Gustavus Vassa after the 16th-century Gustav I of Sweden.

Scipio’s early life was defined by trauma and suffering that many adults could not survive. In next week’s post we follow his journey to Culzean Castle and continue to explore the reality of life for young Scipio.