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26 Jun 2017

Exploring Culzean Castle: The Life of Scipio Kennedy (Part 3)

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

Hello again! I am back with the fourth instalment of a series following the journey of a slave named Scipio Kennedy from Africa to Culzean Castle. Last week we discussed the realities of Scipio’s sea voyage from Africa to the Caribbean as a young slave, a journey often referred to as the Middle Passage. We also looked at why he might have been given the name Scipio. Thus far in our instalments, Scipio has not yet set foot on Scottish land. He has been sold into slavery in Guinea and then bought by Andrew Douglas in or on the way to the Caribbean islands.

Although we don’t know a lot about Scipio’s life after being bought by Captain Douglas, we do know that he lived with him for about three years before moving with Douglas’ daughter Jean to a home in Edinburgh and then Maybole with her new husband Sir John Kennedy, 2nd Baronet of Culzean (married in 1705). It is presumed that Scipio, during these years in the Douglas home, was Jean’s page. A page at this time was usually a young, male and African household servant. They were often personal servants, a less arduous job than a hall boy (the male equivalent of a scullery maid). There was also a fashionable element to owning a page – they would be dressed nicely, perhaps in livery, and would stand in attendance when the family was entertaining guests. Scipio probably worked in this role with Jean in various locations until 1710 when Sir John inherited Culzean Castle and they moved there.

Painting of an aristocrat and young servant - Henrietta of Lorraine (1634)​
Painting of an aristocrat and young servant - Henrietta of Lorraine (1634)​

Various sources have claimed that, at some point while living at Culzean, Scipio was assisted in becoming literate. The term ‘literate’ has often been debated in historical contexts. Today, we define literacy as having the ability to read and write, but historically such a definition is not always fitting. Dr R A Houston explains in his work Scottish Literacy and the Scottish Identity that many historians accept that being literate was having the ability to sign your name to a document. However, he also introduces a counter argument: ‘[Yves] Castan argues … that sign-literacy does not mean anything apart from a desire for social prestige or simple business requirement, and should not be used as an indicator of the presence or absence of cultural possibilities.’

With this in mind, it is likely that Scipio Kennedy was ‘sign-literate’ and could not read or write extensively. The greatest evidence for this is the lack of Scipio’s writing – there is no surviving documentation that illustrates Scipio could write much more than his own name. We have direct evidence that Scipio could sign his name, as he signed his manumission contract (the contract freeing him from enslavement). However, his signature seems painstakingly written – particularly compared to Sir John’s underneath it. Scipio’s signature is shaky, uneven and his name is misspelled ‘Shipio Kennyy’. It looks as if it were signed by someone very old or very young, but Scipio was around 30 years old at the time.

Scipio’s signature
Scipio’s signature

It should be noted that even ‘sign-literacy’ among servants in Scotland in this period was very low, as reading and writing were neither necessary to their daily responsibilities nor reasonably accessible to them due to a variety of factors (financial restraint, limited time and the societal norms that held back those of certain socio-economic classes and genders).

Sometimes the most important part of exploring the lives of slaves – or any person that did not have the opportunity or ability to leave evidence of their thoughts, experiences and lifestyle – is to speculate. I wonder what Scipio might have written had he the chance. Would he have written a letter to someone? Perhaps he fancied himself a poet or could he construct great riddles? What would he have said and how would he have expressed it? Again, these questions are unanswerable. But the renowned abolitionist and former slave Olaudah Equiano became literate (as we might define it today) and gave us a glimpse of his own early yearnings for literacy in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789):

‘I had often seen my master and Dick employed in reading; and I had a great curiosity to talk to books, as I thought they did … I have often taken up a book, and have talked to it, and then put my ears to it, when alone, in hopes it would answer me; and I have been very much concerned when I found it remained silent.’

Join me for the next post as we discuss Scipio’s manumission from slavery.