THE Scottish diaspora is one of the largest in the world. It is estimated that 30 to 40 million people worldwide can trace their ancestry to Scotland. In America, it’s common to come across someone saying “Hey man, my great-grandfather was from Scotland too!” hearing your accent. Indeed, it is estimated that some 34 US presidents are of Scottish or Ulster Scottish descent, including George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.
Outside of the United States and other nations of the United Kingdom, much of this diaspora resides within the “White Commonwealth”. That is, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It is to the third of them that we draw our attention today.
About 278 years ago, on July 31, 1844, the New Zealand Company (NZC) bought 400,000 acres of land in what is now Otago Province from the Ngai Tahi for the sum of about £210,000 in silver. today. An area the size of South Lanarkshire has been bought for half the price of a fine house in East Kilbride.
READ MORE: How Scotland’s failure to build its own colonial empire influenced the Union
NZC had been colonizing New Zealand since the 1820s, and in 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between Maori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown, declaring New Zealand under Crown sovereignty. The treaty promised to protect Maori rights and treat them as British subjects.
The block purchased in Otago was intended for a Scottish settlement and was supported by the Otago Association, an offshoot of the Free Church of Scotland. Thousands of Scottish settlers descended on Otago led by William Cargill, a Scottish army officer and Thomas Burns, an Ayrshire minister and nephew of Rabbie Burns.
Census records from the 1850s indicate that of Otago’s 12,000 settlers, an estimated 75% were Scottish. Settlers were drawn to the prospect of a better life in Otago, with domestic factors such as the Highland Clearances, overcrowding of urban centers and the Highland Potato Famine amplifying the idea that emigration offered a a better life for the poorest Scots.
The vast influx of settlers severely affected the Ngai Tahu. They complained to the Crown in 1849, citing that elements of the Treaty of Waitangi had not been honoured, particularly the reservation areas of land for them to live on, access to food gathering resources and the construction of educational and health facilities.
However, the Crown ignored their pleas and the Ngai Tahu were eventually largely driven out, with only 2,000 residing in Otago today.
A gold rush in the 1860s saw an influx of settlers from England and Ireland, diluting Otago’s Scottish character, but as in Nova Scotia and Malawi, Scotland’s colonial heritage is evident across Otago. Burns parties are held each year alongside ceilidhs and other celebrations of Scottish culture. The University of Otago has the Center for Irish and Scottish Studies; a reflection of the region’s deep Scottish connection.
In geography too, we see the legacy of Scottish colonialism. Dunedin, the main city of the province of Otago, takes its name from Dun Eideann, the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh. Clyde, Roxburgh, Strath-Taieri. These are just a few of the places in Otago that owe their names to Scottish settlers.
This series highlighted how comfortable Scotland was with the Empire project and how the Empire was deeply intertwined with the concept of Scottishness, illustrating several examples of a distinct brand of Scottish imperialism. So far it has been relatively simple. The Scots set out to colonize and exploit the world for their own benefit. But Otago invites us to remember an uncomfortable truth. This imperialism was not the exclusive preserve of the ruling class and even oppressed and exploited Scots in their own country reaped the riches of colonialism.
As working-class Scots were given a second chance at a better life in Otago, we must remember the price at which that chance was bought. It speaks to a greater disconnect in the understanding of how the Empire benefited the Scottish working class. The colony of Otago illustrates how the Empire benefited Scottish settlers who chose a life in the colonial empire, but the Scots at home also reaped the rewards of colonization, a fact both uncomfortable and less salient in public conversations surrounding the Empire.
The longing for a time when heavy industry dominated the economy of the mid-west belt and a time when Scotland could claim to be the workshop of the world is present in much of Scottish political culture. For the days of Red Clydeside, Yarrows, John Brown’s, Ravenscraig etc. As a society, we can sometimes look wistfully at our industrial heritage, wishing for a return to “real work” where people had jobs, decent incomes and better lives than their ancestors.
Misplaced nostalgia for Scotland’s industrial heritage aside, what is not yet widely understood is how closely all of this was tied to the imperial economy.
Britain’s vast Imperial Navy and merchant fleet kept the dockyards pumping while Scotland’s coal mines allowed the navy to sail. Scottish steel was exported around the world, building railways designed to transport troops through occupied lands and Scottish-built trains rumbled across their tracks.
Vast tracts of land in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Rhodesia and Kenya were made available to thousands of Scottish settlers by force or coercion. Hundreds of Scottish-based companies held assets in the empire, exploiting native labor to harvest raw materials for products sold to Scots. Tea, coffee, tobacco, oil, cotton, cattle.
The empire was at the heart of Scotland before the 1960s, but it was not limited to the ruling class as Otago shows. While we hope to focus more on Scotland’s imperial past, it would be a mistake to view Scottish imperialism as an elite project. Directly or indirectly, our conquests benefited all classes of Scotland.