Joseph Knight — A Black Life that Really Mattered

Joseph Knight, by James Robertson;  ISBN 0-00-715025-3  (2003)

Occasionally, one comes across a book so well written that the reader is left awestruck at the skill of the author.  This is such a book – a meticulously-researched fictionalized account of an historical event in 1700s Scotland.

Although the 1700s were very different from today in many ways, some things never change.  Back in the halcyon days before Covid-19 Lock Downs, visitors to almost entirely Slavic & Asiatic Moscow would notice upmarket hotels trying to distinguish themselves by having doormen who were tall young athletic Africans resplendently clad in colorful livery.  Perhaps as a forerunner to that, the eponymous young African slave Joseph Knight was taken by his owner Sir John Wedderburn from Jamaica to Scotland in 1763 as his personal servant.  The highest Court in Scotland, the Senators of the College of Justice – all white men, it must be noted – ruled in 1778 that Joseph Knight was a free man, not a slave.  After his triumph in court, Knight disappeared.

The book begins about 25 years after the court case, when the then aging & infirm Wedderburn hired a lawyer’s agent to find Knight.  The author tells the story in large part through the eyes of that agent as he tries to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of events which led up to and followed that court case, and reach an understanding of the motivations of the two men.  And what a story it is!

As a 16-year old boy, the young Wedderburn fought alongside his father in the unsuccessful effort to restore the British Crown to the Stuarts, culminating in Prince Charles’ horrific defeat at the battle of Culloden in 1746.

Young Wedderburn escaped across the Atlantic to Jamaica, where he slowly worked his way up to owning a successful plantation which profitably shipped sugar and rum back to the British Isles.  The plantation relied on slave labor, brought by English ships from Africa.  By the depraved standards of British colonists, Wedderburn was an upright conscientious slave-owner.

When he had made sufficient money, Wedderburn returned to Scotland to find a wife and re-establish his family’s good standing, taking the young slave Joseph Knight with him.  Although Wedderburn was generous & kindly in his treatment of Knight, the young man abandoned his owner and sought his freedom by pursuing the civil case which ultimately was decided in his favor.

The author paints vivid pictures of different worlds – Jacobite battles in Scotland, slave markets in Jamaica, sugar-growing plantations, slave uprisings in the Caribbean, long transatlantic crossings in sailing ships, the hard-drinking Edinburgh lawyers who handled Knight’s case, the politics of the Court of Session.

Something which becomes clear is that the world is a much more complex place than the oversimplified view of today’s privileged young activists of Antifa and Black Lives Matter.  Knight’s story played out against momentous events – rebellion in Britain, revolutions in America and in France, the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution with its dislocations of established trades & employment, the start of the Napoleonic wars.

Life for almost everyone in the 1700s was brutal.  After Culloden, the Germanic King of England had Wedderburn’s father executed by having his entrails cut out & burned in front of his dying eyes for the amusement of a London mob.  Cruel & unusual punishment!

In Jamaica, escaped African slaves called Maroons had set themselves up in the highlands and won their independence from the British colonists in the 1730s.  The Maroons supported themselves in part by capturing other escaped slaves and returning them to their owners on the plantations.  They also provided plantation owners with the manpower to put down slave revolts.

Until an Act of Parliament in 1775, Scottish coal miners were effectively serfs, tied to the job for life – little different from African slaves in Jamaica.  Indeed, newly liberated coal miners raised money to help pay for Joseph Knight’s case.

Subtly, running through the background of this story are the issues of the meaning of home, the meaning of ownership of property, and the meaning of freedom.  Truly, this is a masterful work with relevance to our modern times when long-gone slavery is still used as a cudgel to beat the innocent.

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