SCOTLAND’S role within the East India Company and British Empire is often minimised and there is not a major educational focus on these topics during our years in school.

I agree that in many schools across Scotland we are taught about some atrocities of the past, such as the slave trade, but often the focus lies on the logistics of the trade, the power structures used for the growth of the British Empire’s mighty reign and a basic reflection of why oppressive systems such as racism exist in the UK.

In moving forward for the progression of integration for minority ethnic Scots, I believe it is only correct that the actions of soldiers are reflected upon. Only then will we understand from the perspective of Scots with Commonwealth heritage their reality in owning their identity.

In today’s age, after the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement across the globe, there is often a call for the removal of statues linked to historical figures attached to the empire or, in some cases, for the payment of reparations to be made. It is my intention through the discussion of historical Scots figures to push neither agenda but to provide information for context on the discourse evolving in Scotland on these issues.

The National:

Quite often we will hear the stories of Buchanan and Dundas. There are significant reflections to be made on their lives and the impact Scotland had on the world but there are so many more figures for us to learn of – especially considering that during the British rule of India, Scots accounted for 25% of all British personnel despite only making up 9% of Britain’s population.

Within the psyche of many Scots today the understanding is that the British Empire was an English enterprise when in reality this is simply not the case. Scotland was not a minor player in the proliferation of growth of the British Empire’s rule in the world. We were a significant and crucial component and Scotland was a key ingredient to the British Empire’s success.

Throughout the British presence in India, there are various periods of note but none more crucial than the Indian rebellion of 1857. The rule of the East India Company reigned between 1757 to 1858 and after this period of conflict began British crown rule within India which lasted between 1858 to 1947 when the new states of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) were formed.

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During the Indian Rebellion, horrific actions were undertaken by soldiers under the purview of the British elite to maintain rule of India. Of the more horrifying stories I have read, there are often the names of Scottish soldiers leading the charge.

James George Smith Neill (1810-57) was a Scottish military officer of the East India Company stationed in India during the time of the rebellion. Born in Dalry, Ayrshire, he was educated at the University of Glasgow before entering into the service of the British East India Company. While the majority of his service took place within India, he also contributed to conflicts with Burma and Russia.

The National: circa 1855:  James George Smith Neill (1810-57). English soldier, in army of East India Company 1827, organized Turkish forces in the Crimean War 1854-56, crushed the Sepoy rebels at Benares 1857, killed fighting at Lucknow, India.  (Photo by Hulton

During the uprising of Indian soldiers against the British presence within the nation, Brigadier-General James Neill (above) was an early responder in playing his part in quashing the rebellion.

As neutral as one can be in reflecting on the actions of war, Neill showed bravery in the face of leading charges against Sikh forces and in engagement with mutineers looking to find access to forts where British personnel were still stationed. However, Neill showed a lack of humanity by allowing his soldiers to kill innocent Indians as collateral damage and burn them within their homes.

Indiscriminate killings of Indians as part of the British reign of terror heightened after the Bibighar massacre in which 200 British women and children were killed. Enraged by the incident, Neill and many Scots played a role in the mass indiscriminate killing of Indians during this period of war when approximately 800,000 Indians were killed compared to 6000-40,000 Brits.

Neill’s brutality extended to capturing Indians not connected to the Bibighar massacre and forcing the captives to lick clean the bloodied home where the atrocity against British women and children took place. The captives were then whipped until they collapsed before being hanged.

Fast forward to the 21st century and visit Ayr and you will find a statue commemorating Brigadier-General James Neill in Wellington Square in the town. Erected in 1859, this statue has stood for more than 160 years commemorating “A brave, resolute, self-reliant soldier”.

It is my perspective that if we truly seek to come to terms with the actions of the British Empire, we must learn more of our local history. Excluding the activism and the actions we may be able to take to right errors of the past (if that is the position you take) it is important for us all to learn more about Scotland’s role in our colonial and imperialist history to know in more detail what it means, or has meant, to be a Scot.

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When discussions on proposing a decolonised curriculum take place, it is this perspective of our history that we have not been taught that is being advocated. The actions of Neill play a very real role in the position that Scotland has today in the world, and maybe for that effort Scots may still seek to revere him.

Control over India, and the systematic looting of India, was able to take place to fund future warfare – including the two world wars. I am of Pakistani heritage but my grandparents were born during an era when a nation of that name did not exist prior to the British fleeing in 1947.

I was born as Scottish – or Scottish-Pakistani – and my identity is tied to Britain through the actions of people like Neill. But not only my own identity – also that of the large South Asian communities present within Scotland. Integration and social cohesion are a two-way street, and the best way to understand one another is to reflect on our shared history through a lens which is not rose-tinted, but clear in what history tells us.