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From Island Nation to Atlantic Archipelago: re-assessing Scotland, Britain and Atlantic Slavery

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Independence offers Scots and Britons an opportunity to shift their self image from insular islanders to inhabitants of an Atlantic archipelago - and, in doing so, to remember the depth of injustice found in that ocean's history.
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  This article was published on 25 June 2014 on opendemocracy website. The link is above. Indy 2014: From Island Nation to Atlantic Archipelago Re-assessing Scotland, Britain and Atlantic Slavery One of the most appealing things about the campaign for Scottish independence is the way that it has opened up a space where fresh ideas have more air to breathe. From the economy, to the military, to social institutions, a growing number of people are questioning the received wisdom to argue that ‘it does not have to be like this’  . So, whichever way the vote goes in September- either Yes or No- it seems that Scotland is currently going through a process of re-assessment. It is re-assessing its place within the United Kingdom and the wider world. In this spirit, this article argues that this is an ideal opportunity to embark on a re- assessment of Scotland’s received narratives of identity around issues of empire, race and slavery.  There are a number of advantages, at this moment, of replacing the concept of Brita in as an ‘Island Nation’ with the concept of an ‘Atlantic Archipelago’.  Re-considering ourselves as inhabiting an ‘  Atlantic archipelago ’   not only moves forward to undo Anglo-centrism, but also opens up Scottish history to an oceanic scope where its amnesia around Atlantic slavery can be more easily overcome. In truth, the idea of the ‘  Atlantic archipelago ’   has been around for a while, though its time may only now be about to come. An archipelago is a geographic term for a group of islands. Originally it referred to the scattering of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea which are at once individual entities themselves, but also exist as part of a greater whole. Over the past 30 years or so, there has been a broad orientation away from the primacy of the nation-state unit  —  the idea born of Herder that each nation has its own internal spirit that should correspond to an independent state. As part of this movement, in areas like the Caribbean, scholarship has theoretically infused the term ‘archipelago’ as a  spatial metaphor which  advances a vision of world cultures that are at once independent and interdependent. Individuals, nations and peoples exist in a series of dialectical relationships: like islands in an archipelago we are both linked and divided, particular and universal, independent and interdependent. Rather than a singular polity with a cohesive mono-culture, we might re-imagine Britain (and Ireland) as a collection of islands. These islands are nodes of arrival and departure, separation and connection within a broader zone. Scottish independence is not about turning our back, or ‘balkanising’ the people who inhabit these islands. A single government across all these islands is not a requirement for social organisation or cordiality. In reality, the cultural interplay and cross-fertilisation that have always existed around this Atlantic archipelago will continue to circulate, no matter how many parliaments there are. For somebody like myself, who was raised in a socialist household in Glasgow, the kind of socialist household which viewed political nationalism with a species of horror, this is an attractive and energising way of thinking about Scottish independence. I believe I am fairly typical in that my family is drawn from various corners of these islands and beyond, including the Highlands, Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Russia and Mexico, while my surname is Welsh. Although I retain a great deal of scepticism towards nationalism as such, I am persuaded  —  thanks to organisations such as the Radical Independence Campaign and the National Collective  —   that voting Yes in the Independence Referendum is the best way to advance some kind of socialism. I am one of those  —  and we are quickly becoming a cliché  —  non-nationalist, pro-independence supporters. The Better Together campaign pretends that a Yes vote relates to regressive, narrow nationalism. But a No vote does not avoid nationalism, it simply endorses the kind of British nationalism that has little to recommend it. Yet, we must be wary of the nationalism that can develop in aggressive, imperialist states like Scotland.  The concept of the archipelago opens a space to protest elite Britishness, without simply replacing it with Scottish nationalism.   We are familiar with the metaphor of Britain as the ‘  Island Nation ’—   the sea protects a nation that is independent, single-minded, small but unconquerable and impenetrable; the term ‘island’ shares srcins and derivations with ‘insular’ and ‘isolated’, an is olation that is, of course, ‘splendid’. This idea, which would become particularly marked in the nineteenth century following the defeat of Napoleon, has an illustrious heritage that runs through Shakespeare’s Richard II   to John of Gaunt. Where national differences are acknowledged, they are generally seen as tributary factors to this central theme. For this perspective, the arrival of new migrants tends to cause massive trauma to a supposedly coherent and identifiable set of ‘British values’.  I would like to counter-pose this idea of Britain as an isolated island, to Britain as an interdependent archipelago. In 1975, the New-Zealand historian John Pocock wrote an essay called ‘A Plea for a New Subject’  . This advocated a ‘plural and multicultural’ approach  wherein the dominance of England on these islands should be acknowledged but not exaggerated. 1  He argued that, ‘British history denotes the historiography of no single nation but of a problematic and uncompleted experiment in the creation and interaction of several nations.’  2  In the nearly forty years since, this suggestive model has been advanced by a variety of scholars, with the Irish philosopher Richard Kearney suggesting that we would do well to consider ourselves as ‘mobile, mongrel islanders’. 3  In 2008, the literary scholar John Kerrigan gave a suggestive definition of NOWA- the ‘North Western Atlantic Archipelago ’  :  This term, as used by the historians…does three related things: it designates a geo-political unit or zone, stretching from the Channel 1   John Pocock, ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject’,  Journal of Modern History , Vol. 47, No. 4 (Dec 1975), p. 609. 2  J.G.A Pocock  , ‘The limits and divisions of British History’,  AHR , 87.2 (1982), pp. 311-336, p. 318. 3   Richard Kearney, ‘Britain and Ireland: Towards a Postnationalist Archipelago’ in a special issue on ‘The End of the Nation’, The Edinburgh Review: New Writing and Critical Thought  , no. 103, (2000), pp. 21-35, p. 35.  Islands to the Shetlands, from the Wash to Galway Bay, with ties to North America and down to the Caribbean; it does so neutrally (avoiding the assumptions loaded into ‘the British Isles’); and it implies a devolved, interconnected account of what went on around the islands. 4   Kerrigan’s ‘archipelagic’ vision has two main advantages. Firstly, it emphasises a vision of composite cultures that are both ‘linked and divided’, interacting culturally and politically across these islands and beyond. This suggests that a national culture is one which draws influences from local, historical, and global networks of exchange. Secondly, it re-invigorates the meaning of ocean water: Kerrigan notes, ‘the seas which we view on maps as surrounding and dividing the islands drew them together, and opened them to continental and Atlantic worlds.’  5    Thus the archipelago’s trans -oceanic scope invites a focus on Atlantic slavery, allowing the slave forts of West Africa, the plantations of the Americas, and the memory of those drowned Africans of the Middle Passage, to take a more central place in Scottish (and British) national narratives.  The Caribbean therefore becomes crucial for two main reasons. Firstly, discussions of Caribbean creolization, from which we have much to learn, offer a vision of culture that is strengthened, not weakened, by processes of borrowing, fusion and interplay. For islands that are in one sense remote and disconnected  —  separated into individual units and nation-states  —   the shared water of the archipelago both holds a memory of Atlantic slavery, and provides a unity that is not necessarily discernible on the surface. Secondly, it is the collective amnesia around connections with Atlantic slavery, in areas like the Caribbean, which a mature Scotland must not allow to linger. Too often we are still using distancing strategies in order to avoid a full engagement with the painful truths of Scottish imperial practice: Scots were reluctant members of an English project; we were only foot 4  John Kerrigan,  Archipelagic English  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pvii. 5  Kerrigan, p. 48.  soldiers or cannon-fodder; Scots were mostly interested in empire for economic reasons (as if others sought to impoverish themselves in empire out of sheer bloodlust); we may have been involved, but we were that wee bit friendlier towards the natives once we were there; or even most absurdly that Scotland was itself a colony. As the athletes prepare to arrive for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, a variety of initiatives are preparing to ask more searching questions about the Scottish role in the British Empire. For example, Lou ise Welsh and Jude Barber are organising an ‘Empire Café’ to be held in the Briggait on the banks of the Clyde river that brought to Glasgow the circulations of peoples, materials, and ideas of a global empire. It will run the duration of the Commonwealth Games and will host a series of debates, academic papers, literary readings, films, workshops, art installations and discussions all themed around Scottish connections with Atlantic slavery. A number of poets, including many from formerly colonised countries, have been commissioned to contribute to a poetry anthology on the theme of slavery.  The presence of Scots on the slave plantations of the Caribbean does not sit easily with a nation which prides itself on traditions of liberty, democracy and equality. As Jackie Kay says, in the popular image, ‘the plantation owner is never wearing a kilt.’  6  Yet, over the last fifteen years or so, new historical research is beginning to reveal the extent of the Scottish presence in the slave societies of the Caribbean. The historian Douglas Hamilton shows that Scots in the Caribbean were ‘disproportionately numerous’. He estimates that between 12-20,000 Scots went to the Caribbean in the 18th century, with Scots making up about a third of the white population of  Jamaica. 7  Carla Sassi has opened up the question of Scottish cultural connections with the Caribbean where the enslaved Africans sometimes 6   Jackie, ‘Missing Faces’, The Guardian , 24 March 2007. 7  Douglas Hamilton, Scotland, the Caribbean and the Atlantic World 1750-1820 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005).
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