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2 Aug 2017

Exploring Culzean Castle: The Life of Scipio Kennedy (Part 4)

A close-up of Culzean Castle seen from the lawn in front.
Culzean Castle
This is the fourth part of our blog series exploring the life of a young African boy named Scipio at Culzean Castle.

Last time we discussed Scipio’s literacy, and the difference between the literacy we think of today – fluent reading and writing – and the ‘sign literacy’ that Scipio likely possessed.

In this post we will be discussing Scipio’s manumission, which means to be legally freed from forced and uncompensated servitude. The manumission contract was drawn up in 1725, when Scipio was around 30 years old. Although it is difficult to discern the Kennedy family’s reason for granting his freedom, the manumission document offers some clues. The contract states that Scipio ‘might have of freedom by ye law, on account of embracing ye religion of ye country’. It seems that one reason for Scipio being given his freedom was his adoption of Christianity.

This manumission contract also gave Scipio the freedom to leave the employment of the Kennedy family as well as the right to be compensated for his work. However, Scipio agreed to work for the Kennedy family for at least another 19 years and to be paid ‘the sum of twelve pounds Scots money yearly besides my share of the drink money’. (It has been posited that this comment could mean that Scipio was involved with the smuggling enterprise occurring at Culzean at the time.) For a servant in the 18th century, this salary was not unreasonable; domestic servants could be paid anything between a few pounds a year to £20 a year. However, it was still a very low wage – around £40 a year was needed to support a family.

A signature for Scipio Kennedy is written in black ink on now-yellowed paper.
Scipio’s signature on his manumission contract | Image: National Records of Scotland, GD25/9/72, © Crown copyright, 2020

Many read Scipio’s extension of employment with the Kennedys, and indeed the manumission contract itself, as a sign of mutual happiness. And this may be the case. But it is not possible for us to understand the true relationship between the Kennedy family and Scipio based on this contract alone – it is never appropriate to presume happiness on the part of the enslaved.

The manumission contract, at its core, is indicative of the most important element of the Kennedy family’s relationship with Scipio: a vastly unequal power dynamic. Although this document grants Scipio the freedom to find employment elsewhere, this is likely tokenistic. Where would Scipio have gone? He had been brought by force as a young child to a country where his skin colour made him a second-class citizen or even chattel (chattel slavery indicates that the person enslaved was someone else’s personal property, who could be bought, sold or inherited as a commodity). In 1725 the Atlantic Slave Trade and the institution of slavery were still in full swing. In addition, the Kennedy family had immense political power in Scotland. Even if Scipio had felt maltreated by the Kennedys and wanted to leave, as a lone African man in a rural Scottish community, his fate was likely at their mercy. With no savings (since he had never been paid), his new ‘freedom’ must have felt rather illusory.

Therefore, it is likely that all parties understood that Scipio would continue in his role with the Kennedy family – Scipio could not be ‘free’ as we might think of it today. When considering elements of history that seem positive and progressive – such as the manumission of slaves or the abolition of the slave trade – it is vitally important to consider them multi-dimensionally. Even today, a change in law does not immediately signal sweeping lifestyle and perception changes; many of our actions are governed not by law but by societal norms. It is likely that Scipio experienced the same thing. Instead of viewing Scipio’s manumission as a watershed moment in his life, I would suggest that the day-to-day reality of his life hardly changed.

Rather than simply viewing Sir John and Jean Kennedy as benevolent ‘masters’ who were progressive in their treatment of an enslaved person, I would argue that there were numerous societal and legal forces in the Kennedys’ favour that allowed them to still benefit from Scipio’s displaced life even after manumission. These forces probably kept Scipio firmly in the Kennedys’ employment and certainly in a position of subservience. We should not presume to assess the relative ‘freedom’ of an enslaved person based solely on a manumission contract.

In the next instalment we will follow a newly manumitted Scipio as he takes advantage of his new status as a free man and marries a local woman named Margaret Gray.