IT is a striking stone column that for nearly 200 years has been one of the most prominent features of Edinburgh’s iconic skyline.
The imposing figure of Henry Dundas, the 1st Viscount Melville, sits atop the column, made of Cullalo stone, which dominates St Andrew Square in the heart of the capital.
Born in 1742, Dundas was Scotland’s most powerful man in the latter decades of the 18th century, having moved from the law into politics, earning the nicknames the “grand manager of Scotland”, the “great tyrant” and the “uncrowned king of Scotland” in the process.
Even if personal knowledge of his life’s work is scant, his name is familiar to many, dotted across the world on street signs and maps, from the Dundas Islands in British Columbia, to Dundas Street in Hong Kong, both named for him.
Now a new BBC Scotland documentary, Scotland, Slavery And Statues, delves into the longstanding – but more heated than ever – debate over how Dundas, who died in 1811, should be remembered, particularly looking at his conduct in relation to the abolition of slavery.
Dundas was a crucial figure in the expansion of British influence in India and dominated the East India Company, with the monument in his honour built in 1821 and the statue of him placed on top in 1827.
The new programme, which airs on Tuesday at 10pm on BBC Scotland, hears from Dundas family members, academics and campaigners who have argued for more than two years over his legacy and specifically how his life should be described in the plaque on the bottom of the landmark statue’s plinth.
And the subject overall is symbolic of a larger issue for Scotland and its history with slavery, a cornerstone of the British empire since the 17th century.
The Act of Union in 1707 enabled Scottish merchants to expand their activities into English colonies and suddenly there were lots of opportunities for Scots to make their fortune, with the importing of the likes of sugar, tobacco and cotton transforming the country’s prosperity.
Journalist Adam Ramsay asks on screen: “The question is what do we think as modern Scotland about the fact that we built our wealth, including the glorious New Town around us, by plundering, by transporting huge numbers of slaves across the world?”
It was in 1792 that British politician William Wilberforce led the movement to abolish the slave trade with a motion in the House of Commons.
He had introduced a similar motion a year earlier, which was roundly defeated. In stepped Dundas, who introduced the word “gradual” to the bill, which was then adopted.
Campaigners such as Sir Geoff Palmer, a member of the Windrush generation who became Scotland’s first black professor in 1989, argue Dundas’s role in delaying abolition kept many thousands of Africans enslaved for a further 15 years.
Speaking in the documentary about alterations to the plaque’s wording, Palmer says: “I will not accept anything that is moderating the truth – if you delay slavery from 1792 to 1807, 42,000 people transported a year, over 15 years, that’s 630,000 people who would not have been transported if in fact the gradual bill did not come in in 1792.”
But on the other side of the debate, descendant Bobby Melville, the 10th Viscount Melville, argues that his high-profile ancestor was a genuine abolitionist and that his political decisions should be assessed in the context of the 18th century.
He declares on screen that he has “always been very proud about my title, ancestry, the clan Dundas”, adding: “Previous decisions shouldn’t be judged by modern-day values standards.
“I believe it should be truthful and factual words that are written on the plaque in a way that would give someone reading it for the first time with no knowledge the right idea of who stands 150ft above their heads.”
The documentary also addresses the recent Black Lives Matter protests and their impact on the Dundas statue, as well as offering a deeper examination of Scotland’s role in the slave trade.
Earlier this year, as protests raged worldwide following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, after a police officer held his knee on his neck on the ground, protesters took to the streets worldwide, with statues of slave traders among those to be vandalised and pulled down.
Bobby Melville, a professional polo player, entrepreneur and friend of Prince Harry, said at the time that those who claim his ancestor supported slavery do him a “profound injustice”.
Asked how Dundas would have looked upon the BLM movement, the Viscount added: “I genuinely think he would be on the streets. One hundred per cent. All lives matter. I think this was a man who would say all lives matter.”
Meanwhile, the monument, funded by voluntary contributions from officers and seamen of the Royal Navy, still stands, with the programme confirming that a new plaque is finally in place, “describing Henry Dundas in a more accurate context”.