Burntisland and Slavery

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    Many communities in Scotland have recently been examining their consciences and their records to see if any of their past residents were involved in the slave trade in any way - either as slave traders or slave owners, or in related activities. Here in Burntisland, it was always a well known fact that one of the town's most prominent residents, Robert Kirke, had made his money from the slave plantations which he owned in the Dutch colony of Surinam (now Suriname) on the north east coast of South America.
However, Robert Kirke was not the only person with Burntisland connections to be involved in slavery. We have been able to identify those listed below (in alphabetical order). Some owned slaves, others were themselves slaves, and one was a slave who, albeit unintentionally, became a slave owner.

     The three women listed below (Harriet Balfour, Petronella Hendrick and Classina MacDonald) were all included in the New Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, published by Edinburgh University Press in 2018.

ALVES, John (1780-1825)


     John Alves was born in Burntisland in 1780 (as recorded above in the Parish Church register). His father was a carpenter and later an Excise Officer. After receiving his legal training, John Alves moved to Kingston, Jamaica, where he enjoyed a successful career as an attorney and as Master in Ordinary in the Court of Chancery (the officer responsible for giving effect to the court's decisions). He also owned slaves. From the UCL database: "In 1829, James Fotheringham registered 4 enslaved people in Kingston as trustee to the estate of John Alves deceased; John himself had previously registered 24 enslaved people in Kingston as owner but 20 of these had, by 1829, been returned to Francis Eliott as they had previously been transferred to John Alves as security for a debt. Peter McKie and James Fotheringham registered 112 enslaved people on Salt Pond Hut in St Catherine in 1832 as executors of John Alves deceased." John Alves died at Kingston, Jamaica, in December 1825.

ANGUS, Robert (c1604-1672); and his son James
    Robert Angus was a member of a prominent Burntisland seafaring family with a reputation for dishonest dealings. Around 1643, when his financial difficulties threatened to overwhelm him, he fled to Barbados and set himself up as a sugar planter. According to researcher Sue Mowat: "At the time when he settled there the workers on the sugar plantations were mainly indentured servants, that is deported criminals and poor immigrants who were bound to work a certain number of years for a master before they were free. Robert Angus redeemed a number of Scots working for him from their indentures, but probably only because he could afford to replace them with African slaves, who were introduced into Barbados by Dutch traders in 1644." When Robert died in 1672, his Burntisland-born son James inherited the Barbados business.

BALFOUR, Harriet (1818-1858)
Harriet Balfour was the daughter of James Balfour. Her mother was one of Balfour's slaves. Harriet was also the sister-in-law, as well as full cousin, of Robert Kirke. She is not as well known as some of the other people listed here, but her story is an extraordinary one. Lilian Pickering Neede of Paramaribo, Suriname, has written a very full biography of Harriet, which you can see by clicking here. Lilian has also written a related page on the Nickerie district of Suriname. It has a link on the Harriet Balfour page, and can also be accessed directly by clicking here.

BALFOUR, James (1777-1841)
    See Robert Kirke page. Balfour was the uncle of Robert Kirke, and Kirke inherited the major share of Balfour's Suriname plantations on Balfour's death in 1841.

CAMPBELL, Murdoch; Caesar
    Murdoch Campbell was a landed proprietor from the Isle of Skye. Around 1765 he bought Burntisland Castle and renamed it Rossend Castle. It remained in his family's possession for many years. In November 1772 he inserted an advertisement (pictured right) in the Edinburgh Evening Courant. Transcript:

From ROSEND HOUSE, near Burntisland, 23d Nov. 1772.
A NEGRO LAD called CAESAR, belonging to Murdoch Campbell of Rosend, and carried off several things belonging to his Master. It is hoped no person will harbour or employ him, and that no shipmaster will carry him off the country, as his master is resolved to prosecute in terms of law.
The above Negro (called Cser) is about five feet eight inches high, and eighteen years of age: He had on when he eloped, a mixed cloth coat and vestcoat with plain yellow buttons, shamoy breeches, and a blue surtout coat. - Whoever will secure him in any goal, or give information so as he may be secured to his master, or to Mr David Erskine writer to the signet, shall be handsomely rewarded.
    There is no record of Caesar's fate. According to the National Library of Scotland: "It did not become illegal to own a slave in Scotland until 1778. Until then it had been fashionable for wealthy families to have a young 'black boy' or girl 'attending' on them."

GLADSTONE, John (1764-1851)
    Pictured left, Sir John Gladstone of Fasque (the father of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone) was a major slave owner. When slavery ended in 1834 and compensation was being paid out to slave owners, Gladstone submitted claims in respect of 2,912 slaves spread across 11 plantations in British Guiana and Jamaica. His was the largest of all compensation payments made by the Slave Compensation Commission.
   Just over a decade later, in 1847, Burntisland Town Council bestowed the Freedom of Burntisland on Gladstone.
He also had two streets named after him - Gladstone Place and Gladstone Terrace. Both names have now gone. Gladstone Place was incorporated into Kirkbank Road and Gladstone Terrace into Kinghorn Road. So what had Gladstone done to so impress the Town Council? In the early to mid 1840s, he was the driving force behind, and partial funder of, a new pier and associated facilities for the Burntisland/Granton ferry. He was also credited with securing for Burntisland 'an additional supply of good water'.

GORDON, John Sutherland (1821-80)
    John Sutherland Gordon, a Sugar Planter, was born in British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1821, probably into a family which owned and/or managed slaves. Slavery was abolished in British Guiana in 1834 (unlike Surinam, where it was not abolished until 1863), so it is unlikely that Gordon would himself have owned or managed slaves, unless he joined his cousin Gordon MacDonald (see below) in Surinam at some time - but there is no evidence of that.
    He was married twice and widowed twice. He died in Edinburgh in August 1880 and is interred in the Kirkton Churchyard, Burntisland, with the arrangements presumably being made by his friend, Robert Kirke. The 1881 census, taken in April of that year, shows two Gordon boys, aged 11 and 12, as boarders at the Lochies Academy, Burntisland. It is likely that they were the sons of John Gordon, but it is not not clear if they had been placed there by their father or, after their father's death, by Robert Kirke.

HENDRICK, Petronella (1829-1917)
    Link to Petronella Hendrick page. Petronella Hendrick was a Surinam slave who was freed and then travelled to Scotland with Robert Kirke and his family. She was nanny and nurse to Kirke's children.

KIRKE, Robert (1815-94)
    Link to Robert Kirke page. Robert Kirke is the central figure in the story of Burntisland and slavery. He inherited the major share of the slave plantations of his uncle, James Balfour, in 1841, and they remained in his family's possession until the early 1930s. There is a separate page with photos of his Burntisland home, Greenmount.

MacDONALD, Gordon (c1803-1859); MacDONALD, Classina (1855-1906)
    From the UCL database: "[Gordon MacDonald] left Scotland after 1840, possibly for Canada, where his mother is known to have moved after her husband's death, and arrived in Surinam from Demerara 20/02/1848. He became Director of Waterloo estate in Nickerie in succession to Robert Kirke (q.v.) in 1849. In 1853 he moved to Coronie where he had purchased plantation Moy with about 130 enslaved people ..... . Subsequently, he acquired a quarter of plantation Perseverance and some land in the settlement of Totness. He returned to Scotland c. April 1858, and died 28/06/1859 at Burnt Island. Robert Kirke was reportedly the only person present at his funeral. In 1855 Gordon MacDonald had a child Catherina born 15/09/1855 with an enslaved woman named Mary, a 'private [domestic] slave' of Mary C. Hamilton, the owner and administrator of plantation Hamilton in Coronie. Catherina was manumitted 09/03/1858 with the names Mary Classina Namilton [sic]; her name was later changed to Mary Classina MacDonald based on the terms of her father's will. Gordon MacDonald's estate, including Moy, Perserverance and his land at Totness were sold at auction in 1861."
    Gordon MacDonald was a cousin of John Sutherland Gordon (see above). He was also a fellow slave owner and good friend of Robert Kirke. He is buried in the Kirkton Churchyard in Burntisland.
    His daughter, who took the name Classina Mary MacDonald, was three years old when her father died. She was brought up in Nairn in a boarding house, probably with children who were members of her father's extended family. She was relatively well off, having inherited the life rent of her father's assets. In adulthood, she remained in Nairn for some time, living on her own. By 1881 she was living in Edinburgh.
She died at Strathtay, near Pitlochry, in 1906, aged 51. Her name was added to her father's memorial in the Kirkton Churchyard, Burntisland, and it is likely that she is also buried there. She never had to seek employment and she never married. She was relatively prudent, as she left behind a significant sum from her father's assets. This resulted in a court case in 1909, when distant relations claimed shares of the balance of Gordon MacDonald's estate.


Article by Iain Sommerville. Grateful thanks for input to the series of articles from David Alston, John Burnett, Philip Dikland, Helen Mabon, Lilian Neede, and Harold Rusland.

Recommended websites:
Slaves & Highlanders by David Alston. A vast amount of information about slavery in Guyana and Suriname.
University College London (UCL): Legacies of British Slave-ownership. A remarkable and invaluable database.
Suriname Heritage Guide. Philip Dikland's impressive collection contains many old plantation photos. It is largely in the Dutch language, but is well worth a visit even if you speak only English.

Webpage by Iain Sommerville;
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