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Friday 6 January 2017

Feature: A bid for freedom


In August 1807 an act was passed abolishing the slave trade in the British empire. It was an important step in the abolition of slavery and in the suppression of the slave trade. To commemorate the bicentenary of the Act, the National Archives of Scotland (NAS) has produced an online guide for anyone using Scottish archives to research aspects of slavery and the slave trade. We are also featuring three court cases which challenged the legal status of slavery in Scotland between 1756 and 1778. A central argument in each case was that the slave, having been bought in the colonies, had been subsequently baptised by sympathetic church ministers in Scotland. The three cases were Montgomery v Sheddan (1756), Dalrymple v Spens and Henderson (1769-70) and Knight v Wedderburn (1778) and records relating to all three cases survive in the NAS among the records of the Court of Session, Scotland's supreme court. Signatures of David Spens, William Ferguson and William Chalmers on the bond of caution for David Spence alias Black Tom, 1770 (NAS ref. CS236/D/4/3 box 104)
Dalrymple v Spens and Henderson The second case to reach the Court of Session featured David Spens (or Spence), a black slave, and his master, Dr David Dalrymple from Methil in Fife. From the first set of court papers (NAS reference CS236/D/4/3 box 104) we know that Dr David Dalrymple was living in the West Indies when for thirty pounds he purchased a slave known as Black Tom. Around 1768, he returned to Scotland bringing Tom with him to help him on the voyage. Dalrymple intended to send Tom back to the West Indies but he fell ill. According to him, Tom wanted to help him get better and asked to stay in Scotland, to which he agreed. Soon after this, Tom himself fell ill, the climate disagreeing with him. He said he wanted to go home but first he wanted to be baptised. Dalrymple allowed this to happen and Tom was baptised as David Spens, presumably named after Harry Spence the minister of Wemyss Church, where the baptism took place. A record of this baptism which took place on 1 September 1769 can be seen in the old parish registers at the General Register Office of Scotland (GROS ref. 459/00/0003).

Dalrymple claimed that on the day Spens was due to return to the West Indies he eloped from the house and was taken in by John Henderson, 'a zealous seceder'. Spens and Henderson then made a protest to Dalrymple, stating that because Spens had been baptised he was no longer heathen and therefore no longer a slave. This did not sit well with Dr Dalrymple, who accused David Spens of 'pia fraus' or pious fraud.

Allegation of pia fraus by Dr David Dalrymple agains Black Tom or David Spens, 1770 (NAS reference CS236/D/4/3 box 104 p2) That it now however appears that the Conversion and Baptism of this Negro was a Pia Fraus concerted between him and the other Defender John Henderson who thought Proper to put it into the Negroes head that Baptism by the Law of this Country would emancipate him from his Servitude...

Spens and Henderson were similarly angered by the situation and accused Dalrymple of attempting to dispose of Spens at his 'despotic will & Pleasure'. They said that Dalrymple intended to return him to the West Indies and sell him on to someone else. Their protest sought recompense and refuted Dalrymple's demand for Spens' return. Henderson said that if he were to do that 'the whole country would be in uproar'.

Quotation from the protest by David Spens and John Henderson to David Dalrymple stating that Spens as a Christian is no longer a slave and that in spite of this Dalrymple still intends to 'dispose of' Spens overseas, 1770 NAS ref. CS236/D/4/3/ Box 104 p4 I am now by the Christian Religion Liberate and set at freedom from my old yoke bondage & slavery and by the Laws of this Christian land there is no Slavery nor vestige of Slavery allowed nevertheless you take it upon you to exercise your old Tyrannical Power over me and would dispose of me arbitrarily at your despotic will & Pleasure and for that end you threaten to send me abroad out of this Country to the West Indies and there dispose of me for money by which you not only Subvert...

After this, Dr Dalrymple made a process of declarator to the Court of Session claiming that he had right and title to Spens and also to his services. Spens should be returned to him and damages and expenses paid, Spens now being worth sixty pounds. Consequently, both parties were instructed to lodge memorials with the Court of Session. Dalrymple would appear to have done so within a few days of the request and some weeks later complained to the court because Spens and Henderson still hadn't done so. He alleged that a plot was being formed to take David Spens out of the country so that he would be outwith the jusidiction of the court and petitioned the court to incarcerate him. The court agreed to this and in March 1770 David Spens was captured, imprisoned in Dysart jail and fined £30.

Letter from John Jameson to the court that David Spence was incarcerated in Dysart jail on 7 March 1770 by Thomson the messenger NAS ref. CS236/S/3/13 David Spence or the Negroe Boy was incarcerate here yesterday by Thomson the Mess[enger] by virtue of an Act of Warrand of the Lords of Session dated the third but until he shall find sufficient caution judicio sisti under the penalty of thirty pounds W[illia]m - The Judge wher caution is found is ordered to set him at Liberty & to transmit the Bond to Mr Pringle one of the Clerks of Session. I am Sir your most obed[ient] ser[vant] John Jameson Clerk of Dysart. Dysart 7 March 1770.

In the second bundle of papers (NAS ref. CS236/S/3/13) we find a petition and complaint from Spens stating that he was on his way back from lodging the memorial in Edinburgh when a messenger named Thomson arrested him and put him in Dysart jail. He then alleged that it was a plot by Dr Dalrymple to get him sent out of the country 'by violence' and asked the court to investigate the instructions that were given to the messenger by calling him to court. The thirty pounds caution (fine) required to get Spens out of jail was found by Walter Ferguson and William Chalmers, both writers to the signet (lawyers) in Edinburgh. That caution was found for David Spens is indicative of a significant level of support for a slave in a small Fife town at this time. The evidence from the court papers stops here but it is understood that David Dalrymple died soon after and as such David Spens was a free man.

You can see the papers for the court case in the Historical Search Room of The National Archives of Scotland, NAS references CS236/D/4/3 box 104 and CS236/S/3/13.

Related features in the NAS and SCAN websites

Read about a previous case in 1756 featuring Jamie Montgomery, a runaway slave of a landowner in Ayrshire at A feature on the third Court of Session case (Knight v Wedderburn) can be viewed at

George Dale was transported against his will from Africa aged about eleven, and ended up in Scotland after an unusual career as a plantation cook and a crewman on a fighting ship. The Society for the Purpose of Effecting the Abolition of the African Slave Trade gathered evidence like George Dale's life story for the anti-slavery abolitionist cause (NAS ref GD50/235/2). Read more at:

If you are researching an aspect of slavery or the slave trade in Scottish archives use our research guide to researching slavery and the Transatlantic slave trade at

On the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) website you can see an exhibition about Glasgow's role in the slave trade and its abolition: Slavery and Glasgow.

The fight against slavery continues

The slave trade may have been abolished in the British Empire in 1807 and eventually prohibited by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but slavery still exists and millions of lives are affected by it. Women from eastern Europe are bonded into prostitution, children are trafficked between West African countries and men are forced to work as slaves on Brazilian agricultural estates. Contemporary slavery takes various forms and affects people of all ages, sex and race. If you would like to know more about slavery today and how to support campaigns against, a good place to start is the Anti-Slavery International website (see 'Other websites' on the left side of this page).

Page last updated: Thursday 21st September 2006

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