HIS name was usually only known to students of Scottish history and researchers in the slave trade. But now clamour is growing for the removal of the statue of Henry Dundas, the 1st Viscount Melville, from St Andrew Square in Edinburgh as awareness has grown that he was instrumental in prolonging the slave trade involving the UK for many years.

There is no doubt that Dundas opposed the abolition of the slave trade and fought to keep slavery legal even after British trading in slaves was abolished in 1807.

Slavery was vital for the sugar, tobacco and cotton industries that linked Britain, the USA and Caribbean and Dundas helped to make sure it was prolonged.

If the statue goes, and the more likely outcome is that a plaque detailing his involvement with preserving the slave trade will be erected, then several streets in Scotland should also have their names changed .

Dundas Street, Melville Street and Melville Crescent in Edinburgh and Dundas Street in Glasgow spring to mind, plus many other streets across Scotland and elsewhere commemorating Dundas/Melville.

It is well past the time that light must be shed on the activities of Dundas. Some experts say that had it not been for him, slavery could have been abolished 15 years before the passing of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. That Act signalled the death knell of Britain’s incredibly lucrative involvement in slavery, but the practice of slavery was not finally abolished in the British Empire until 1833.


BORN on the Royal Mile of Edinburgh on April 28, 1742, Dundas was the fourth son of Scotland’s most senior judge, Lord Dundas, the Lord President of the Court of Session. He was educated at Dalkeith Grammar and the Royal High School of Edinburgh before studying law at Edinburgh University.

He became a member of the Faculty of Advocates aged only 21, and just three years later became Solicitor General for Scotland. He was appointed Lord Advocate in 1775, but was by then set on a political career, having been elected MP for Midlothian the previous year.

It helped that he had married into a fabulously wealthy family, the Rannies or Rennies of Melville Castle near Dalkeith. Dundas was 24 when he married Elizabeth Rannie who was just 14, and as was the at the time, all her money and possessions became his. She committed adultery and Dundas divorced her, keeping the cash and property and ensuring his former wife never saw her four children again, even though she lived to 97. Nice guy …

Robert Burns called him “slee” meaning crafty, while Samuel Johnson’s biographer James Boswell, a lawyer who knew him well from the courts, said Dundas was a “coarse, unfettered, unfanciful dog.” He himself raged against the discrimination and insults he suffered because he spoke in broad Scots.


ONE thing that can be said about Dundas was that he was not a man of the people, as was shown by his many nicknames such as the “uncrowned King of Scotland,”

the “Great Tyrant” and “King Harry the Ninth”.

He was, however, a master of realpolitik who could switch sides in an instant. He had totally dominated political affairs in Scotland until he was appointed home secretary in 1791 and Britain’s first secretary of state for war in 1794.

READ MORE: Scotland’s brutal slavery links must be confronted

With his great friend William Pitt the Younger as Prime Minister, Dundas mentored the younger man and continued to run the government of Scotland, using his powers of patronage to spread his influence across the country.

In the period after the French Revolution, Dundas cracked down hard on any show of radicalism and he worked ceaselessly to build up the Union. But it all went pear-shaped for Dundas in 1806 when he became the last politician in the UK to be impeached, for the alleged misappropriation of public funds while at the war department. He won the case before the House of Lords, but his political career was over.

Dundas died in 1811, but not before he had ensured that his son Robert would succeed him in maintaining the family’s grip on political power.


THAT’S the really infuriating thing about him. In the seminal case of Joseph Knight v John Wedderburn in 1788, Dundas acted for the runaway slave Knight against the man who still claimed ownership of him. Dundas fought the case in the Appeal Court and won a ruling that slavery was illegal in Scotland.

It is also the case that he realised the political ground was changing and in 1792 he pushed for the abolition of the slave trade but, at the last minute – probably under pressure from rich merchants – he got the Commons to agree to ending it “gradually” which in effect meant 15 years. In that time around 500,000 men, women and children were taken into slavery from Africa.


THE column on which the statue stands is the original 1821 Melville Monument which was paid for mostly by his friends, who he helped to make rich, and also Naval personnel who had their careers enhanced when he was the Secretary of State for War and then First Lord of the Admiralty.

There was no great contribution from the public and nor was there when the statue was added.

Dundas should also be commemorated for many things such as strengthening the Union and expanding the Empire, but that’s another story. On second thoughts, tear it down.