The presence of African Women in Scotland


The presence of the African Women in Scotland

By Dr June Evans

This was the only workshop in the afternoon – session as the delegates decided to extend the discussion period to talk about their personal experiences in Scotland. This was an interesting workshop. It was highly educative and uplifting. The African Woman has been in (Scotland for over 400 years ). We are not newcomers. June told the stories of African women brought across during slavery to live in Scotland. As we listened to the stories and lives of these women and compare their lives with ours today after 400 years we ask ourselves. How much has changed?.

This documentary/dramatisation was written from the paper African Women in Scotland. Patriarch, sexism, racism and slavery.

The workshop was run as run a play. Various women acted out the parts of the women in the stories. Read on.


The workshop is on the presence of African women in Scotland. This presence is examined from a historical perspective. It will involve audience participation. It is done in a dramatization/documentary manner. I’ll narrate certain sections, then I will call upon individuals to read/dramatise other parts. The use will also be made of the overhead projector to show advertisements of African women found in Scottish newspapers.


Women of African origin and descent in Scotland are “hidden from history”. Their presence in Scotland like the presence of African people generally is glossed over or barely mentioned. Yet they have been present in Scotland for at least four centuries.

The presence of African women seemed to have started with the arrival of two African women at the Port of Leith, in Edinburgh after being rescued by the Barton brothers of Leith. They arrived into what can be described as the patriarchal “macho” society of 16th century Scotland. Their coming to Scotland was also related to this machoism as their rescuers the Barton brothers of Leith were engaged in a vendetta, avenging the death of the father at the hands of the Portuguese.

Available information is unable to clarify why the women were brought to Scotland.

The arrival of the two African women caused a sensation in Leith and Edinburgh. The women were presented to King James IV of Scotland who took a great interest in their welfare. At court, the women were converted to Christianity and went through a name change. They were baptised Margaret and Helen after the queen and her lady in waiting, Helen. They later became known as “Blak” Helen and “Blak” Margaret, their names denoting their colour. Blak Helen and blak Margaret worked at the Scottish royal court. In today’s context, their presence at the royal court might be seen as servitude but they were in positions considered the highly respectable and high status and were better off than most Scots. Looking at it from a gender perspective the position of these two women was extraordinary for they were in positions that were the reserve of the aristocracy. The two African women were within the inner circle. This in a way illustrates the high-status position in which the women found themselves in 16th century Scotland.

The King seems to have been at ease with Africans, generally, and their presence seemed not to have been a problem. Their presence was given royal approval.


Available information about Africans in 16th century Scotland comes mainly from court records dealing with their expenditure what Africans did collectively or as individuals existing sources do not reveal. However, there must have been some sort of social life for Margaret, Helen, Peter and the other drummers must have reached up to socialise.


However, it is through socialising at court that a little more is known about black Helen. Helen became a lady in waiting to Queen Margaret.


HELEN: I am Helen. As you have already heard I was rescued from a ship bound for Portugal. I was rescued by the Barton Brothers of Leith who were avenging the death of their father. As you can imagine there was lots of confusion on the seas when the battle started. It was cold, wet and damp. To cut a long story short we were rescued, Margaret and I, and brought to Drack Caledonia.

We arrived in Leith feeling very cold. Our arrival in Leith was sensational. In fact, we caused a quite a stir in Edinburgh and Leith. Everybody was pushing and shoving to get a view of us. I suppose the people were not accustomed to seeing black women . Anyway we took things in our strides. Later we were presented to King James IV. What an honour. The King accepted us “GIFTS” and we went to live in the royal palace. Our presence in 16th century Scotland is evidence of how long African women have lived in Scotland ( and have been walking the Royal Mile in Edinburgh). We are not newcomers to Scotland (not even to Aberdeen as you will later see).

Dunbar wrote a poem about me when I became the LADY of The Tournament. As you’ve heard before, this Tournament was reserved for the noblest and fairest of the land. What a coup it was for me then. I, a black woman in 16th century Scotland, was able to knock all those aristocratic privileges away and become the lady of the Tournament. Up to the 19th century my becoming the lady of the tournament still incensed the editor of the Accounts of the High Lord Treasurer of Scotland who felt that King James brought the tournament into disrepute by making me the lady. Dunbar’s poem about me was equally outrageous.

READER: Poem TO ANE BLAKEMORE LADY read in Scots followed by a discussion on its sexist and racist implications.


ANG heff I meaed of ladyis quhytt;

Now of ane black I will indytt;

That landet furth of the lait fchippis.

How fain wald I difcryve perfytt

My ladye with the mekle lippis!

How fcho is tute-mowitt lyk ane aep;

And lyk a gangarel onto graep.

And how hir fchort catt-nois up fkippis.

And how fcho fchynes lyk ony faep.

My ladye with the mekle lippis.

Quhen fcho is claid in reche apparall,

Scho blinkis as brycht as ane tar-barrell.

Quhen fcho was borne the fone tholit clippis;

The nycht be fain faucht in hir quarrell.

My lady with the mekle lippis.

Quha for hir fack, with fpeir and fcheld,

Preffis maid mychately in the feld,

Sall kifs, and with hir go in grippis;

And fra thynefurth hir luf fall weld

My lady with the meikle lippis.

IT Acd

98 A N C I E N T

And quha in felde receavis fchaem,

And tynis thair his knychtle naem,

sall cum behind and kifs hir hippis;

And nevir other comfort cleam.

My lady with the mekle lippis.

Luod Dunbar of one blak-moir.


NARRATOR: The record seems to be silent on African women in Scotland in the 17th century, only males so far have been discovered until they reappear in 18th century Scotland during the era of the slave trade. Although there was an imbalance in gender, females were also brought to Scotland. Through their resistance to slavery, their baptism, as well as the selling of African women in Scotland their presence, becomes visible.


A negro woman, named Ann, about eighteen years of age, with a green gown, and a brass collar about her neck, on which are engraved these words Gustavus Brown in Dalkeith, his negro

Edinburgh Evening Courant March 7, 1721; Evans 1995



I am Ann. My advertisement is evidence that African slavery existed in Scotland and that women were enslaved too. My advertisement shows that in Scotland/Britain we were also forced to wear collars around our necks like African women taken to the Caribbean. Collaring served many purposes – to the owner – of course. It displayed wealth or as mine – ownership. With this collar around my neck – you know immediately that I’m slave property. An outward sign of the “ritual of enslavement”. My advertisement also shows that collaring was not just reserved for men and boys, women were collared too.

Collars worn by African women during slavery had other significance. The torture of the collar was specially reserved for women suspected of abortion. The collar never left their necks until they had produced a child. The refusal of some African women to bear children was a silent form of protest. African women, like African men, never accepted their position as slaves and protested and rebelled in several ways.

NARRATOR: By running away Ann liberated herself from sexist and racist oppression. Sexual oppression was a common phenomenon for African slave women in the Americas and in the Caribbean. The white man’s lust for black women was one of the most serious impediments to the development of morality. Few slave parents could protect their daughters from the sexual advances of white men. The sexual life for slave women was a precarious one for they had no control over their sexuality. All slave women lived under the constant threat of rape. It was one of the ways owners controlled female slaves.

OVERHEAD PROJECTOR with Peggy’s advertisement.


A Negro Woman, named Peggy, about nineteen years of age, born and brought up in Charleston, in the Province of South Carolina speaks good English, an exceeding good house wench, and washer and dresser, and is very tender and careful of children. She has a young child, a Negro boy, about a year, which will be disposed of with mother. For particulars enquire at the publisher of this paper.

Edinburgh Evening Courant, Saturday 30 August 1766; Evans 1991;1995

READER: I am Peggy. I am nineteen years of age. Already I have been torn from my parents, my brothers and sisters. I have passed through pregnancy and have travelled thousands of miles away from my birthplace in America to Scotland. How my parents would have wept. They would have also have looked everywhere for me through the slave grapevine without the knowledge that I am miles and miles away in drek Caledonia.

NARRATOR: The case of Peggy and others illustrate the fear of separation that plagued slave societies. The reality of separation meant that many did not see loved ones again. Peggy’s advertisement further illustrates the geographical distance from family any slave could have travelled out with Africa. Unknowingly Peggy and many others by their enforced journeys from North America, the Caribbean, Africa into Britain were pioneers of what is now termed “The Black Atlantic”. Today the presence of Peggy and others represent the history and geography of African people in Scotland and the UK as a whole. Not only were Africans geographically displaced from Africa and found themselves traversing continents beginning the world of the Black Atlantic, but they were also to be found in different areas of Scotland, urban as well as rural. The advertisement for an African woman in 18th century Aberdeen who had resisted enslavement by running away further illustrate the geographical spread of African women.


Whereas sometime since a Negro Maid called Phillis, Servant to Mrs Campbell at Peterhead made an elopement and runoff. Three guineas of reward are hereby offered to any Person who will discover and secure her (besides all expenses, if they try to bring her to Peterhead or Aberdeen) so as she may be brought back to her service, to be paid by Robert Gairden, Baillie of Peterhead

Aberdeen Journal, June 29, 1767.


PHYLLIS: I am Phyllis. My situation is unique for I was owned by a Scotswoman. The story of slavery seems to be always the European male vs the African male but white women and black women were part of that history at opposing ends. The ownership of African slaves in Scotland was not confined to white males only. Ann, Duchess of Buccluegh had an African servant. Lady Stairs was also the first person of her time to own an African servant. Kitty, Duchess of Queensbury also owned an African servant. Thus even though slavery was basically a male-dominated system of oppression, some women, mainly aristocratic as well as the wealthy from the merchant class, were part and parcel of the scheme.


Not only did African women endured patriarchy and sexism at the hands of white males they were also divided by class. There seemed to have been no solidarity too, by gender. In fact conflict between black slave women and the white female, the owner was not unknown, for their “fu fu” couldn’t cook in the same pot ( using a saying handed down from slavery).

Antagonism between the African slave woman and the white woman seemed to have been the order of the day as white men in their patriarchal dominated society whether in Europe or the Americas maintained a stronghold over the sexuality of African women who served them as beast of burden in the field or house during the day and sexual partners in bed at night. Women of African origin and descent became the “other woman” the sexual threat. White women, on the other hand, were well aware of the duplicity of white males: husbands, fathers, brothers, sons and being unable to deal with their sexist and sexual dominance took out their anger and frustration on black women. Linda Brent, an ex-slave woman, felt that white women should have had more “compassion for slave women” (White 1985) but as Blassingame noted, “white women were frequently infuriated by their husbands’ infidelities in the quarters and took revenge on the black woman involved” (p.84).

They struck back not at the offending white males or the institution of slavery but at the black woman. Bell hooks in her book Ain’t I a woman (1981) illustrates the case of a white woman who returned home unexpectedly and “discovered her husband raping a thirteen-year-old slave girl”. The white woman flogged the slave girl and placed her in a smokehouse and whipped her for several weeks. When older slaves pleaded on the child’s behalf and dared to suggest that the white master was to blame. She replied “She’ll know better in future. After I’ve done with her, she’ll never do the like again through ignorance” (p. 37). This example illustrates the no-win position African girlchildren and slave women found themselves in. They were caught between ‘the devil and the deep blue sea’ as the white male in exploiting their sexuality made them targets for the white females who sometimes in their revengeful treatment of the African slave woman attacked the parts of her body that offended them as illustrated by the vicar’s wife who “rubbed hot cayenne pepper in the private parts” of a slave woman’s body ” causing the woman to scream all night in agony” (Scobie 1972). White women fought desperately for their sexual life and experience which white men compromised forcing them to share with black women whom white society claimed were not their equals. Both white women and black women were in a no-win situation when white men satisfied their sexual appetites. The race was irrelevant when it came to white men and sex. They had sex first with the black woman then purged their guilt by downgrading her.

A common practice in the 18th and 19th century Britain was to put on exhibition people that were considered freaks. In England, the St. Bartholomew fair was famous for its freak shows and African people were among those exhibited. From this advertisement found in 18th century Aberdeen in Scotland, it seems that this practice did not escape Scotland.


This is to acquaint the curious.

That there is just arrived in this town, a will be exhibited for a few days, in James Grants, Vintner in Castle Street, Aberdeen in the house lately possessed by Mr Ross Schoolmaster, and next door to the bank.


from the West Indies

She was born of parents remarkable for their blackness and is as fair as the fairest European. What is more astonishing in this remarkable woman, her hair is covered with a white thickset of wool. Her nose, lips and teeth bear the strongest impression of the Negro race. She was brought over by Capt. Holland in the Aracabess, as a present to his late Majesty George II in 1747 when she was only 4 years of age. She has now two children, MULLATOES with black wool on their heads, by her husband, an Englishman. She has had the honour to be shown both to the late and present Royal Family, and to the Royal Society, with the greatest Approbation and Astonishment; Likewise to the honourable Lord Provost and Magistrates of Edinburgh, who allowed her to be the greatest Phenomenon of Nature that was ever seen or heard of in the known world. She is to be seen any hour of the day, till eight at Night. Gentlemen and ladies pay what they please for admission.

N.B. She will wait on Gentlemen and ladies at their own houses if required by giving timely Notice

The Aberdeen Journal, Monday, May 1773

The irony of the “white Negro woman” being in Scotland was that 1773 was the year that there seemed to have been an increase of African slaves in Scotland escaping to England (Evans 1997) where slavery was made illegal in 1772 at the ruling of the Scots judge Lord Mansfield. The visit of the white negro woman may be indicative of her new found freedom to travel as well as the need to find employment. Employment after freedom seem to have a problem for black people in 18th century Britain. Many freed blacks eked out a living in 18th century England.


I am the white negro woman. I was born in Jamaica of African parents. My advertisement brings out the sexism, racism and total disregard for African womanhood during the era of slavery. A little girl was taken away at only four years old from the island of Jamaica. Cute and exotic I became a fine present – a human doll. After outliving my “darling image” I became a showpiece. I was shown to the late and present royal family and to the royal society with the greatest approbation and astonishment. I was also shown to the honourable Lord Provost and Magistrates of Edinburgh who allowed me to be the greatest Phenomenon of Nature that was ever seen or heard. I could be seen at any hour of the day, till eight at night. Gentlemen and ladies pay what they please for admission.

NARRATOR: The sexual exploitation of the “white negro woman” is evident as she earns her keep. Living in England, away from plantation life in the Caribbean, her skills are limited in a patriarchal and white superior sexist society that only a year ago in 1772 had, at the ruling of a Scotsman, to relinquish the yolk of slavery. Sexist exploitation and/or domestic life seem to be her two options as the notice in Aberdeen stated: “she will wait on gentleman or ladies in their own home if required”. The “white Negro woman” seemed to have moved about exhibiting herself for there “is an advertisement for her appearance at Bartholomew Fair in 1788 ten years before her apprehension in West Ham. In 1798 when we encounter her again in the “winter” of her life she is being described as a “Rogue” and a “Vagabond”. Now well past her “sell by date” she has been discarded and is fighting for her life and survival in England.

NARRATOR: African slavery was made illegal in Scotland on the 15th January 1778 ( Please remember this date every year. Maybe we should think of commemorating it every year). The ruling meant that African people could no longer be slaves in Scotland nor could they be brought into the country as slaves. Thus it was not surprising to find Ann Bennat, in the South Leith Parish Register of 1784 being described as a black servant.


Bennat- Mr Bennat from Jamaica had a black servant named Ann Bennat baptised by Rev. Mr Thomas Scott on the 11th Oct. 1784. She is about 19 years of age. Witnesses Mr Hadaway, Merchant in Leith, Mr Patrick Hadaway Brewer there and the said Mr Bennat. (Evans 1995).


I am ANN. I was brought to Scotland from the Caribbean Island of Jamaica. My baptism notice would suggest that the 1778 court ruling in Scotland did not deter Scots from bringing their African slave/servants to Scotland. My position indicated the total dominance and total disregard for African womanhood that white males had over black women. Here I am miles away from my home in Jamaica being baptised with not a female present but surrounded by four white males.


Christian Sanderson was another woman of African descent born in 18th century Scotland. She lived in the high street in Edinburgh. She was a washerwoman by occupation. She had a daughter. Kirsty and her two white friends lured who was obviously looking for sex into a house. They got him drunk and then robbed him of cash and valuables. Kirsty and her friends were arrested and tried. Kirsty was the only one transported to Botany Bay in Australia for seven years. Sanderson transportation to Australia is a symbolic representation of the presence of women of African origin and descent in Scotland. At long last, they had outlived their 16th-century welcome. As the ship sailed with Christian Sanderson to Botany Bay possibly from the port of Leith, where she was born and where 400 years ago two women arrived, it symbolically closed the limited visibility on their presence in Scotland. Hereafter their social presence is invisible right down to the present. This conference on the visibility/invisibility of African women in Scotland is one effort to make African women in Scotland socially visible.

Dr June Evans FRGS

African Women’s Conference

7 February 1998

Aberdeen, Scotland.


Dunbar, William (1786) “on ane Blak-Moir Ladye” 1507-8. In John Pinkerton, Ancient Scottish Poems, London: Charles Dilly.

hooks, bell (1981) Ain’t I a Woman, London: Pluto Press.

Evans June (1991) African Caribbeans and their historical.

Evans June (1995) African/Caribbean and Scotland. Asocio-geographical study.

Scobie, Edward (1972) Black Britannia -A History of Blacks in Britain. Chicago, USA: Johnson Publishing Company.

White, Deborah Gray (1985) Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York: Norton & Co.

Evans June (1991) African/Caribbean and the historical contact with Scotland and the Scottish People.

Evans June (1998) African Women in Scotland in Scotland, Patriarchy, Sexism, Racism and Slavery.

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