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4 Oct 2017

Exploring Culzean Castle: The Life of Scipio Kennedy (Part 8)

A close-up of Culzean Castle seen from the lawn in front.
This is the eighth and final part of our blog series sharing the story of a young, enslaved, African boy named Scipio at Culzean.

In the previous blog post, we discussed how Scipio’s responsibilities evolved at Culzean. After getting married, he and his wife Margaret became skilled textile workers. Additionally, a house was built for him near Culzean Castle for the then-hefty sum of £90. Although it is impossible to know what he felt about his day-to-day life in Scotland, these changes seem to signal an ever-evolving relationship with the Kennedy family. In this post, the last of the series, we will reflect upon the end of Scipio’s life.

But first, to understand where we have arrived, we must understand where we began. Let’s cast our minds back – around 300 years – to the coast of Africa. It was here that we first met a young boy unaware of the life that he would lead across the oceans. When thinking about these times, we should reach beyond dates and geographical locations, and instead contemplate the often-unanswerable questions that humanise and illuminate his experience. What was Scipio’s birth name? What did his home look like? Did he have brothers and sisters? Did he get to say goodbye to his mother? Did glimpses of his life before enslavement slip into his mind throughout his life? Or perhaps he didn’t remember them well at all. Were his family’s faces seared into his mind – or did he forget them at a young age?

Fast forward several years, and cross the ocean to the Ayrshire coast, and we meet Scipio working for the Kennedy family at Culzean Castle. He provided domestic services to the family (most likely to Lady Jean Kennedy in particular), much like a page boy. He worked in this capacity until he was 25, when he was manumitted. A few years later, he married and had children. Later still, he was trained in textile manufacturing and moved into his own house in the Culzean grounds. As far as we know, this was how life passed for Scipio until his death in 1774 at 80 years old.

It seems that Scipio’s life was not as traumatic as the experiences endured by many enslaved Africans across the British empire, or even in Britain itself. Evidence suggests that the Kennedy family very much cared for Scipio; some people even think that he was considered a beloved family member. This claim can be supported by the fact that Lady Jean Kennedy left money to Scipio upon her death in 1767, which rivalled the amount of money left to her grandchildren. In her will she wrote, ‘to Scipio Kennedy my old servant, the sum of ten pounds sterling’. Her three children, by comparison, each received a third of £40.

However, as mentioned in this blog series before, we still cannot presume that Scipio was happy. It is important to contemplate the unanswerable questions – to dislodge us from our comfort zones. Why is it comforting to think that Scipio was happy? Why might he have been unhappy? Why is it important that we consider the possibility that he was unhappy?

Heritage or historical sites across the world, unless they are sites that are specifically intended to provoke the public to contemplate uncomfortable questions (such as concentration camps), are often used to stir positive sentiments about a country, event or notable person. But what if they did more than that? What if heritage sites also asked questions that transcend our comfort zone? Could we then see ourselves in a history more complex and multi-dimensional, more human?