Do you value your freedom? Or are you like me and take it completely for granted?
I have been doing a lot of soul searching, with some help from my wife Julie. In the quest to understand myself, I have been looking very closely at what motivates me. It’s a work in progress however one thing that comes up again and again is the word “freedom”.
Freedom is possibly my primary motivator. It appears I choose it over money, power and status. So it’s not surprising that when researching this article into slavery, I discovered something that upset me.
I recently watched the film “Lincoln“, which is based around the 13th Amendment to the American Constitution, which effectively abolished slavery. The amendment was passed by the House on January 31, 1865. – almost 148 years ago to the day.
Now we know that slavery was not just practised in the USA. And we may even be of the mind, that slavery was common place all over the world at that time.
So the following facts came as quite a shock to me.
My first question was, “When did The United Kingdom abolish slavery?
Answer : 1807, 25 March Abolition of the Slave Trade Act abolishes slave trading in British Empire.
To my surprise it was a full 58 years before the USA. For 58 years the USA was practising, what the other “superpower” of the world had condemned and abolished.
It’s easy to presume that people didn’t know any better back in Lincoln’s day and that only the most enlightened were aware that slavery was wrong. But clearly this was not the case. It hadn’t been the case for 58 years.
My next question was, “So who was the first to abolish slavery?”
This turned up another surprise.
Answer : 1537: Pope Paul III forbids slavery of the indigenous peoples of the Americas as well as of any other new population that would be discovered, indicating their right to freedom and property.
I can’t get over the irony that Pope Paul III specifically mentions the Americas. I presume he was referring to the South and North Americas. This was 328 years before the Christian country of USA abolished slavery.
And the first country to abolish slavery?
Answer : 1542: Spain enacted the first European law abolishing colonial slavery in 1542. Spain becomes the first country to abolish slavery.
Way to go Spain. We owe Spain a great deal of praise for taking the first step. Over three hundred years before Lincoln abolished slavery, Spain abolished colonial slavery. I’de like to see the film about that, as I bet that it took incredible courage to be the very first country to abolish slavery.
As a Scot, naturally my next question was “When was slavery abolished in Scotland?”
And this was when I made the most shocking discovery of all.
Answer : the Colliers (Scotland) Act 1799
A 1606 Act “Anent Coalyers and Salters” had placed Scottish “coalyers, coal-bearers and salters” in a condition of permanent bondage to their employer. Any such worker who absented from that employer and sought to work elsewhere was to be punished as a thief. The Act also included provision whereby vagabonds could be placed unwillingly into the same compulsory labour. Scottish coal workers existed in “a state of slavery or bondage”.
I was horrified. This brought slavery to my own doorstep. It’s one thing looking at slavery as an interesting historical exercise but this brought it all home to me.
My great uncles worked in the coal pits. To this day, I live in a community of men who all worked in our local pits (all closed now). I bump into these men when out my walk and chat with them about life in the pits.
I remember my great uncle Charlie who was bent double having broken his back in a mine collapse. A great old man with a big heart, who worked tirelessly at the Viewpark Miners Welfare, where he ran the bingo for years.
He would come and help my dad with his garden, happily walking the four miles from his house to ours. At that time we lived in a big old Victorian house and I remember Charlie telling me about the miners walk.
“I worked in various pits in this area. Most of them were wet pits” he would tell me. “so you were always filthy and soaked through. Sometimes you had to walk for miles underground before you reached the actual coalface. But they didn’t start paying you till you reached the coalface.
One of the pits I worked in was Bothwellhaugh. It was closed in the 1960’s and then in the 1970’s the entire town was cleared and submerged under the new lake, known as Strathclyde Country Park.
Bothwell was always a posh residential area and many of the pit managers and owners lived up here in Bothwell, while the miners lived in Bothwellhaugh or like me, travelled from Viewpark or even Glasgow.
But the good folk of Bothwell didn’t want filthy miners spoiling their views by walking up and down their main street, so they build “The Miners Way”.” Charlie then took me to the lane that run along the back of our big, posh house. “You see this lane? This is part of the miners way. It was built to keep the miners out of site and away from the Main street. It meets up with other lanes and paths, so that the miners, in the filthy work clothes, were kept out of site as they commuted to and from work.”
Charlie was right and you can still see these lanes in Bothwell today.
I can’t imagine anything worse than going down a mine to work and I have to admire the brave souls who do it till this day all over world.
What I never considered was that between 1606 and 1799, these miners were actually slaves in Scotland.
Slavery is still going on to this day. It comes in many forms, from the slavery was saw Lincoln tackle, to the very modern face of slavery, where our circumstances provide us with so few choices that we effectively live as slaves. It may be you are a slave to your mortgage or perhaps you are a slave to your job.
But if there is one thing researching this article has reminded me of, it is that slavery is never justifiable. It’s never right. We have known for hundreds of years that it is unacceptable. You must therefore fight for your own freedom and for the freedom of others. Slavery may have a very different face today but it’s still slavery. Be aware of anything that is enslaving you and stand against it.
Thanks for this as like others of mining heritage am so interested in the history. I read a novel decades ago about this slavery act and have forgotten the title. It brings tears to my eyes to think of the terrible hardship of their lives cut short and compromised by poor health. I still see my grandfather sitting by the fireside wheezing and that was pretty much his last years. It certainly influenced my world view and politics which are even more radical and am older than my grandfather when he died.
Great article. I came across it when trying to research my Marshall ancestors from Bellshill, who were coal miners or pit pony handlers way back when. I have only recently become aware of this systematic and inhumane exploitation of Scottish workers by the rich and powerful. My Pop left for New Zealand as a young man and it is easy to see why with this in the not too distant past. Me, I’ve come back the other way.
Too much praise for Spain i think. It did not abolish slavery in its colonies until 1873. The British paid them money to do so
Reading this in 2022, after just finishing Follett’s novel. It is amazing what the political class will allow for the sake of commerce.
Mr. Gibbons, I do not know if you are still communicating about the mines in Scotland, I am 85 yrs, old and I live in Indiana now. My dad was a coal miner in Hattonrigg, Bellshill. He had a beautiful tenor voice and was well known in the area.
My dad once told me that we lived on top of what the miners called “the Big Hitch”? He said it was granite and ran across Scotland and into Europe. All mining stopped there. I got him books from the library as he didn’t want to go there. BTW we had relatives named Gibbons in New Stevenston.
June, great to hear from you. Most of my family were from Coatbridge, which is only about 5 miles from new Stevenson, so we are probably related. I know Hattonrigg well. Used to date a girl there in my youth. Your father was right about the granite seam that runs across Scotland.
I first became aware of the slavery on the mines in Scotland reading Ken Follet’s “A Place called Freedom” very graphically written and an excellent read. I enjoyed reading your article in peoplemaps. However, it is history, and I feel strongly that it should not and cannot be erased, rather be learnt from to make a better future for all.
Thanks Antoinette. Yes, it is important that we know our history. Scottish history isn’t taught in Scottish schools (well hardly). If we don’t know how we got here, it is difficult to move forward.
Thanks for this information. I was astonished to learn of the two hundred years of Scottish slavery in the coal and salt industries, when I read Ken Follett’s book. It is akin to the ‘slavery’ in the textile mills of Manchester and Birmingham, in England. ‘Capitalism’ has a lot to answer for….
Thanks for sharing this with me Martin. It is really interesting and I had no idea about this fact. As you rightly point out though, the whole of our system is built on the principle of slavery. I am also passionate about freedom and am working on this area within myself at the moment.
Here are my experiences: freedom is at the heart of the gift we have been given. Feeling it is our soul’s journey. If we travel down the road of our life and allow ourselves to truly feel the abuse that happens and happened on all levels, we can let the anger come up. If we allow our childhood rage at being suppressed to be felt and expressed, then a river of grief comes out. It is part of the journey to feel my true self and unconditional love.
I have a blog post covering this subject of justice and freedom that you may be interested in..http://ruthstruth2013.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/economy-and-emotions-how-are-they-linked/
Look forward to maybe seeing you here sometime in 2014. We will be holding an open weekend in April or May. Dates to be confirmed.
Thanks and have a lovely weekend!
Thanks Ruth, good to hear from you. I know from the work you are doing that freedom is very important to you. I may get to pop in this year as we will be in France.