As a busy port, people of all nationalities and ethnicities have long been arriving in Leith. On the Kirkgate stands an elegant Georgian building, Trinity House. It was once the base of the Incorporation of Mariners and Shipmasters. The organisation, dating back to 1380, collected port dues and provided assistance to the multicultural, maritime communities.
Recently, Illuminate (who deliver education and outreach programmes at Trinity House) have worked with the Edinburgh Caribbean Association to learn more about Leith’s long and significant Black History. The house and its incredible maritime collection can illustrate some rarely-told stories that connect Leith with Black History around the world.
Map of the Americas, 1809
The tour begins in the hallway where wall-mounted charts show trade routes in the Baltic, the Americas, the Mediterranean, the Cape. The port of Leith exported rough linen cloth to clothe enslaved people, plus household furniture, shoes, glass bottles and bricks. Goods produced by enslaved people such as sugar, cotton, tobacco and mahogany were regular imports.
The map of the Americas contains the story of the first Black republic, Haiti. It was made in 1809, not long after the War of Independence. It shows the 13 states which constituted the newly formed United States. You can also see the French possession of Louisiana and British Canada.
The young Republic of America, founded in 1776, nearly doubled in size when it bought Louisiana from France. This was a direct result of the enslaved people in the French colony of San Domingue rising up. They were inspired, ironically, by the French revolution and declared their independence. France, after losing this key sugar producing colony, needed the money to finance its constant wars with Britain. The people of San Domingue called their new republic, Haiti, the first independent Caribbean state.
Bookshelves and ballots
Meetings still take place in The Masters Room to this day, for Trinity House is still a working organisation. The room holds many fascinating books, including The Disaster of Darien by Francis Russel Hart.
This tells the story of Scotland’s ill-fated attempt to become a colonial power. Five ships, with names such as Caledonia, St Andrew and Endeavour, set sail from Leith in 1698. Only one of those ships, the Caledonia, returned. Scots both rich and poor subscribed to the scheme, many ploughing their life savings into the venture. Its failure bankrupted Scotland.
Voters dropped a seed to the left or right of the central opening to land in the “yes” or”no” drawer. Therefore a vote in favour or against was cast.
Tamarind seeds are on display beside this ballot box. It dates from 1792, the date Lord Dundas placed the word “gradual” into the Abolition of the Slave Trade bill, and is used to vote for the Master of Trinity House.
The tamarind tree originated in Africa and Madagascar and followed the forced migration of people from Africa to the Caribbean. The seeds of this tree were used to improve the taste of the water on slave ships.
The ballot box, like much in the collection, is made from mahogany trees which were often grown in plantations and felled by enslaved people.
The Memorial Window
The wonderful Memorial Window, commissioned by the only female honorary member of Trinity House, Colina Grant, commemorates men from the Mercantile Marine who lost their lives in the First World War. It was rededicated after the Second World War.
The window can act as a conduit to allow the story of a man from Trinidad to be told. He was so keen to fight for his King and his country in 1914 that he stowed away to England, only to find himself in a Police Court and unable to join a battalion due to the colour bar. The British army did not want Black men fighting on the Western Front.
A grand room and a great painting
With its table of curiosities, paintings and cabinets containing Leith bank notes, penguins’ eggs and chains of office, the Grand Convening Room also tells a multitude of stories.
The huge painting that dominates the room is Vasco da Gama encountering the Spirit of the Storm by David Scott. It depicts the terrifying journey of the famous Portuguese navigator, as he crosses the Cape of Good Hope with no maps or charts. He found the trade route from Europe to Asia, paving the way for Portugal to become a huge colonial power in Africa and Asia. The voyage had three interpreters: two Arabic speakers and one who spoke several Bantu dialects, a group of African languages.
Bounty and barometers
By the model of HMS Bounty, we learn of mutinies, where the abandoned cargo was to be grown to feed enslaved people. There is a French flag taken at Trafalgar, a battle in which 100 Black sailors fought in Britain’s navy. Indeed, the bronze relief at the base of the monument to Nelson in Trafalgar Square has a young Black man carved upon it.
Through one of Fitzroy’s barometers we can share the story of Fitzroy and Charles Darwin and their voyage on HMS Beagle. While in Edinburgh Darwin became acquainted with a former enslaved man, John Edmonstone, named after his mahogany plantation owner. Edmonstone taught Darwin the skills of taxidermy which proved vital to Darwin’s future work preserving species from all over the world.
Stuffed birds and a missing plaque: The story of John Edmonstone
A stowaway sensation and an Arctic explorer
Elsewhere, a portrait of whale ship owner Peter Wood leads to another tale. It’s by the society painter Henry Raeburn. According to records, Raeburn oversaw the sale of a Jamaican Plantation where 87 enslaved people were held.
It was on one of Wood’s ships that an Inuk named John Sakæus stowed away and caused a sensation when he reached Leith.
The young man thrilled Edinburgh crowds with his remarkable kayaking skills and his ability to throw a harpoon. He could hit a ship’s biscuit at thirty yards! He showed his treasures, which included “unicorn” horns and whale’s ear drums, to the captivated crowds. Sakæus took part in Ross’ expedition to find the Northwest Passage as an interpreter and guide.
This oak frame contains four printed panels of the programme of entertainments held on board HMS Hecla and Fury during another Arctic expedition, led by William Edward Parry. This leads to a hotly contested question: who first reached the North Pole?
Some of the earliest claimants were Frederick Cook and Robert Peary but rarely was there mention of the Black explorer Matthew Henson, a companion of Peary. He arrived at the Pole some 40 minutes before him. Henson was known to the Innuits as The Kind One. They taught him their language and trained him in igloo building and dog sledging. William Peary received medals and embarked on lecture tours. Matthew Henson became hugely respected in the polar north. He went on to be a messenger boy for the civil service in segregated America.
Trinity House is a treasure trove, and uncovering some of the hidden stories within this eclectic collection truly is a voyage of discovery. Keep an eye on the HES website for details of future special events and tours.
Interested in more Black History in Edinburgh? see our blogs about the Edinburgh Colour Bars and Edinburgh’s part in the slave trade.
About the author
Nicola Wright is a storyteller, historical interpreter, tour guide and trainer. For Illuminate she provides workshops, training, tours, and object handling sessions both in Trinity House and in an outreach capacity to a wide variety of groups including schools, nurseries and older peoples’ projects.