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27 Sept 2017

Exploring Culzean Castle: The Life of Scipio Kennedy (Part 5)

A close-up of Culzean Castle seen from the lawn in front.
This is part five of our blog series about the life of Scipio Kennedy at Culzean Castle.

In the previous blog post, we discussed Scipio’s manumission. We also discussed ways of thinking about histories of enslavement with a multi-dimensional, critical eye. There are few physical objects or writings that stand testament to Scipio’s life and unique experience as an enslaved, then freed, African man in rural Scotland. Although we should try to fill in the gaps to create a larger picture, we must do this responsibly.

In this post, we will be discussing an important aspect of Scipio’s life that did change due to his signing the manumission contract: he was now able to marry. But first, in 1728, records show that Scipio was found guilty of ‘fornication’ with a local woman named Margaret Gray. Fornication is not such a common term today but legally it means that two unmarried people have sexual relations. Such an offence would have been much more significant in 18th- and 19th-century Scotland. A Compendium of the laws of the Church of Scotland from 1837 states that ‘Fornication is committed by the carnal knowledge of unmarried persons. The canon law […] commands such abusers of virgins to marry them, the parents consenting thereto; and if they refuse to do so, his body is to be chastised, and himself excommunicated.

Scipio and Margaret’s subsequent marriage (within months of the fornication charge) would suggest that they were following the consequences laid out by canon law. Thus, it is difficult to understand the true nature of their relationship. Did they love one another? The threat of excommunication becomes more grave when we remember that Scipio was granted his freedom from slavery based on his becoming a Christian. We can hope that their marriage might have been an opportune consequence to their ‘transgression’.

When I relayed to a friend the story of Scipio’s marriage, they were taken aback by the fact that there seemed to be no discernible reaction (at the time) to the fact that Scipio and Margaret were in an interracial marriage. Race, as we conceptualise it today, is a social construct largely meant to categorise people into groups based on physical characteristics, social relations, ancestry, etc. However, this was not the widely held view in 18th-century Britain even though Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote of racial difference as biological reality in 1742 (when Scipio and Margaret had been married for 14 years): ‘I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all the other species of men, to be naturally inferior to the whites.

Black people had lived and worked (and married) in Britain for hundreds of years before Scipio and Margaret’s time, yet interracial marriages even in 21st-century Britain are sometimes still targeted for abuse. So, what might Scipio and Margaret have experienced almost 300 years ago? Were Hume’s views the views of the day? Interestingly, perhaps not. As neither Scipio nor Margaret left any account of their lives (that we know of), we must again speculate based on similar contemporaneous experiences. David Olusoga writes about Georgian couples in Black and British: A Forgotten History [1]:

Through the biographies of many of the best known black Georgians, we can see that interracial marriage was a seemingly unremarkable feature of life. Olaudah Equiano, James Gronniosaw, Bill Richmond, Francis Barber all married white women. […] We know from the black Georgians who left us their own accounts that they did experience racism on the street. […] [But] the focus in much of the propaganda on the dangers and immorality of racial mixing, combined with the vicious cartoons that lampooned black sexuality, seem not to have convinced some people that relationships with black people should be taboo.’

The experience of African people in Britain is varied and complex, a viewpoint that I hope is supported by this blog. The next instalment will follow Scipio into fatherhood.

[1] David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History, Pan, 2017