In breaking class ranks, Renton has given voice to a long suppressed truth: many people who are rich and powerful in the UK today owe at least some of their fortune to slavery. It’s right that the UK as a nation should address its unsavoury past and there is a persuasive case for proper compensation at last being paid to the West Indies, where slavery’s corrosive effects remain manifest.
But there is also an argument, which this admirable book can only strengthen, that asks the material beneficiaries of slavery to be first in line to make an appropriate contribution to that cause. Renton is donating his advance and royalties to Caribbean welfare projects. Let’s see who follows his example.
It must make any reader question much of the received wisdom about the 18th-century Enlightenment. Scottish involvement in slavery is becoming better known, in part thanks to the work of Sir Geoff Palmer and books such as James Robertson’s excellent novel Joseph Knight. David Hume is under the spotlight for his firm belief in racial inequalities. But this volume adds a lot of detail. We will never think of the grand Palladian houses and gothic castles of Ayrshire and the west of Scotland in quite the same way again.