The Sun Never Sets: Scots and the British Empire

Success, like war and like charity in religion, covers a multitude of sins.

—Sir Charles Napier

One afternoon Robert Louis Stevenson noted a story in an Edinburgh newspaper about an apartment house in the Old Town that had suddenly collapsed, burying the residents in plaster and rubble. “All over the world,” he mused to himself, “in London, in Canada, in New Zealand, fancy what a multitude of people could exclaim with truth, ‘The house that I was born in fell down last night!’ ”

The Scottish mass migration of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Stevenson himself was born in Edinburgh and died in Samoa) was as momentous as any in history. In sheer numbers, it hardly stands out: perhaps 3 million all told, compared to the 8 million Italians who left their native land between 1820 and World War I. Yet its impact was far-reaching in more ways than one.

Scots blanketed the British dominions in North America from Georgia and Nova Scotia to Vancouver. They ranged across the Pacific to Australia and New Zealand. Scots found employment in the teeming cities of India and on the South African veldt. Some set off for China, while others, like Stevenson himself, wandered the islands of the South Pacific and remote corners of Latin America. Nor should one forget the more than a half-million Scots who, like Henry Brougham and James Watt and Thomas Telford, packed their bags and headed for new horizons and new careers in London or Birmingham or Liverpool.

The great Scottish diaspora followed, and in some cases led, the development of what historians sometimes call the “second” British Empire. The first, organized around England’s monopoly of the Atlantic trade, effectively perished in the American Revolution. The new empire was a far more extensive and complex amalgam of far-flung dominions, territories, colonies, naval bases, and assorted dependencies, which eventually covered nearly one-fifth of the earth’s land surface and one-quarter of the world’s population. It was the first global community, an empire “on which the sun never sets,” in the phrase John Wilson of Blackwood’s Magazine first made famous. And without the Scots it might never have existed—let alone reached the status of legend it still holds today.

In fact, a Scot created the idea of the British Empire. Charles Pasley came from Eskdalemuir in Dumfriesshire, not far from where Thomas Telford had grown up. Like Telford, he had prodigious intellectual gifts (he translated the New Testament from Greek at age eight) that found their main outlet in solving technical problems. He served in the Royal Engineers in the Napoleonic Wars, and became Europe’s leading demolitions expert and siege warfare specialist. In 1810 he published An Essay on the Military Policy and Institutions of the British Empire. It completely changed the way Britons thought about their empire in relation to the rest of the world. In fact, Pasley had created modern geopolitics.

Pasley warned his fellow Britons that they could no longer rely on their “splendid isolation,” or the British navy, to keep them safe in the future. In the modern world, true national security rested on policy and power—especially military power. That included large overseas colonies, which could supply sailors for its navies and soldiers for Britain’s armies. “War we cannot avoid,” he warned. But if Britain thought offensively and acted vigorously, “what nation upon earth can resist us?”

Between the Battle of Waterloo and the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the British Empire grew by an average of 100,000 square miles per year. At each turn, a coterie of Scots or men and women of Scottish descent took the lead. They operated sheep farms in New South Wales, grew rye and barley in Lower Ontario, worked in lumber camps in British Columbia, trapped beaver and otter along the Mackenzie River, managed coffee plantations in Ceylon, sold ships’ stores in the Falkland Islands, guarded the Officers’ Club in Mysore— and traded opium in Hong Kong and Canton. Their ubiquity and universal success inspired the frequently quoted maxim of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli: “It has been my lot to have found myself in many distant lands. I have never been in one without finding a Scotchman, and I never found a Scotchman who was not at the head of the poll.”


Part of their success was due to the fact that most Scottish emigrants, even the poorest, had more skills and education than their other European counterparts. This broad-based “brain drain” was bad news for Scotland over the long haul, but good news for the rest of the world. People wanted Scottish immigrants in their country, as temporary or permanent “guest workers,” whether in Australia or Argentina or the United States.

Also, this Scottish restlessness was nothing new. Scots had crisscrossed Scotland and Europe for centuries, looking for work and opportunity. They supplied the crucial manpower for England’s first overseas empire, as well: first as settlers in Northern Ireland during the reign of James I, and then as soldiers in His Majesty’s army.

The very first Highland “Watch,” or armed patrol, was raised in 1667 under Charles II. However, the Jacobite wars led the Crown to lose faith in the loyalty of its Scottish contingents, and they were disbanded. After the Fifteen clans loyal to the Stuarts raised a levy of troops to prowl the glens to suppress the remaining rebels. General Wade issued a dark-blue-and-green tartan for these companies of Highlanders, which gave them their name, the “Black Watch.”

The 42nd Highland Regiment, as the Black Watch was officially known, inspired imitators. Between 1740 and 1815, eighty-six Highland regiments were officially raised, many drawing their recruits and officers from a single clan. Some, like Munro’s regiment and the Royal Scots Fusiliers, fought at Culloden against the Jacobite clans; others, like Fraser’s Highlanders (the old 78th and 71st Regiments) and Keith’s and Campbell’s Highlanders, served with distinction in George II’s wars in North America and Europe. Later they fought loyally against the American colonists and Napoleon. By 1800 they were the backbone of the British army.

Recruiting volunteers was fairly easy. In the early years the official ban against all weapons and wearing of the tartan at home induced even chiefs’ sons and tacksmen to sign up as common soldiers. Chieftains ordered their clansmen to enlist in exchange for bounty, or as a matter of pride. The Duchess of Gordon raised her clansmen for the Gordon Highlanders in 1794 by touring the Huntly lands in regimental jacket and bonnet, and offering every new recruit a golden guinea and a kiss.31 Of the 2,200 men in Lord MacLeod’s Highlanders (the 73rd Regiment), almost three-quarters came from MacLeod’s own clan area. Many of their fathers had fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie—just as MacLeod himself had done, until George III issued him a pardon and brought him home to raise his regiment.

Sadly, the Highland Clearances solved any remaining difficulties about finding recruits. A national tragedy became the individual’s opportunity, as young men driven off their land found a new life and a future for themselves in His Majesty’s pay. Besides, by serving in a Highland regiment, they managed to preserve a lifestyle, with kilts, swords, bonnets, and bagpipes, that was quickly dying out in their native land: a world of martial valor, loyalty, and personal honor. Scottish soldiers were famous for their bravery under fire, as well as for their excellent discipline. But they were more than just cannon fodder. They did not hesitate to mutiny at what they considered slights against their honor—entire regiments did so in the 1790s.

In 1804, when the British government contemplated doing away with the kilt and issuing standard uniforms to their Scottish troops, there was a massive uproar. An exasperated Colonel Alan Cameron of the 79th Camerons passionately defended the féileadh-beag and its free congenial circulation of pure wholesome air (as an exhilarating native bracer) which has hitherto so peculiarly benefitted the Highlander for activity, and all the other necessary qualities of a soldier, whether for hardship upon scanty fare, readiness in accoutring, or making forced marches & c., beside the exclusive advantage, when halted, of drenching his kilt & c., in the next brook, as well as washing his limbs, and drying both, as it were, by constant fanning, without injury to either, but on the contrary feeling clean and comfortable. . . .

Cameron summed up the feelings of all the Highland regiments when he concluded: “I sincerely hope His Royal Highness will never acquiesce in so painful and degrading an idea (come from whatever quarter it may) as to strip us of our native garb . . . and stu f us in breeches.” Whitehall dropped the idea.

A private in the Camerons or the Black Watch usually sent part of his pay to his destitute family. He also kept friends and relatives in a remote glen or Hebridean isle informed about the world outside. Walter Scott’s friend David Stewart of Garth served with the 78th Highlanders (the Ross-shire Buffs) in the West Indies, Minorca and Gibraltar, Egypt, Sicily and Italy, as well as in Kent, and his soldiers with him. Army service opened a window on the world most Englishmen, let alone Highland Gaels, never knew existed. The Highland regiments were in many ways the advance parties for the later Scottish diaspora, as soldiers told their families where they could go when the sheep came and they had to choose between starvation and finding a new home.

That is, if they lived to tell about it. Like all soldiers of that era, they suffered horribly from diseases such as typhus, smallpox, cholera, scurvy, and yellow fever, especially in tropical climates. The five-month trip to India in 1782 cost the Seaforth Highlanders 230 out of 1,100 men from scurvy—thanks largely to the obstinacy of Whitehall, since James Lind had discovered the cure almost sixty years earlier. The Gordon Highlanders reached Jamaica in June of 1819. Over the next six months, without a shot being fired, they lost ten officers, thirteen sergeants, eight drummers, and 254 other ranks. This was more than all the men the regiment had lost in battle since its formation twenty-five years earlier. It was a high price to pay for the Duchess of Gordon’s kiss.

The Seaforths and the 74th Highland Regiment were the only regular British troops in the Duke of Wellington’s army in India in 1803, when he confronted a Maratha army ten times his size at Assaye. The 74th met the initial Indian cavalry charge head-on, and lost an incredible 459 men out of 495 effectives, a casualty rate of 92 percent. The regiment lost every officer except Quartermaster James Grant, who joined the ranks and fought on until the battle was won and the Marathas were routed. For their sacrifice, the 74th received the almost unique honor of carrying a third flag on parade, in addition to the Union Jack and the regimental colors. It would bear the Assaye Color until it ceased to be a regiment in 1881.

Wellington’s Highland troops in India, like those that fought for him at Waterloo, faced an enemy with cannon, muskets, and ammunition much like their own. Then a series of technological changes made the British soldier a much deadlier opponent, again thanks to a pair of Scottish inventors.

In 1776 Major Patrick Ferguson of the 71st Highlanders patented a rifle that loaded from the breech rather than the muzzle. It could fire four shots a minute, twice the rate of a muzzle-loader under the best conditions, at a target two hundred yards away—in other words, more than twice the distance. Ferguson gave it to his troops, who used it with telling effect against the Americans at the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777. However, the English general Howe was furious that Ferguson had acted on his own without permission, and ordered the guns confiscated. What might have happened to the American cause if the British had realized what a secret weapon they had, or if Ferguson had not been killed at King’s Mountain in October of 1780, is anyone’s guess.

Instead, the breech-loader would have to wait another eighty years before it came into general use. But by then another Scottish invention, almost as crucial, had enhanced the firepower of military arms. This was the percussion lock, invented in 1807 by a clergyman and chemist named Alexander Forsyth. Instead of igniting the bullet’s powder with a flint, Forsyth’s gun hammer used a minute portion of potassium chlorate to fire the weapon. The result was a gun that could shoot in any kind of weather and under any kind of conditions. A standard army flintlock usually misfired three out of ten rounds; Forsyth cut that rate to 4.5 misfires per thousand rounds. When a Scot from Philadelphia named Joshua Shaw then found a way to fit the potassium chlorate into a tiny metal button, the percussion cap was born. A new kind of infantry warfare was born with it, in which the individual soldier could kill at twice the range almost with impunity, and massed fire meant certain death to anyone caught in it.

Some found the prospect daunting. In 1817, a letter signed “An English Gentleman” appeared in a London magazine deploring Forsyth’s new invention:

If, moreover, this new system were applied to the military, war would shortly become so frightful as to exceed all bounds of imagination, and future wars would threaten, within a few years, to destroy not only armies, but civilization itself. It is to be hoped, therefore, that many men of conscience, and with a reflective turn, will militate most vehemently for the suppression of this new invention.

In fact, the percussion-lock rifle did move warfare onto a bloodier plane. Even before the advent of high explosives, or the rapid-fire breech-loader, or the brass cartridge bullet (another invention from Britain’s Woolwich Arsenal), contests between European-style armies in the Crimea and the American Civil War were already foreshadowing the slaughter of Verdun and the Somme in the next century. But the percussion lock, and its successor the breech-loader, particularly stacked the odds in colonial warfare, as relative handfuls of soldiers could now take on large numbers of Pathans or Ashantis or Zulus, and butcher them almost at will. A dangerous technological gap was opening up between Europeans and the rest of the world, which would threaten even wealthy and advanced non-Western cultures such as those of China, Persia, and India.

India, of course, was the centerpiece of the British Empire of the nineteenth century, the imperial “crown jewel.” But it had not always been so highly regarded. In the eighteenth century the British had triumphed there, then languished. They controlled only three enclaves of territory, which had grown up around the East India Company’s trading sites at Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta. The company itself enjoyed a trade monopoly of the sort Adam Smith had analyzed and despised. Its greed and incompetence had helped to spark a revolution in America, provoked angry scenes in Parliament, and nearly pushed the British government into bankruptcy. In 1773 it lost the power to run India as it saw fit, but not its political clout or its economic monopoly. A half-century of official corruption and neglect of the indigenous population—which later anti-imperialists applauded as benign but which in fact sprang from a callous indifference toward the people they ruled—left the subcontinent, and British interests, in a shambles.

Then, in 1806, the East India Company commissioned a thirty-three-year-old Scotsman named James Mill to write a history of the British presence in India. They had no idea what they were about to get for their money. Mill was a mediocre writer and something of a crank. His father had been a minister, and he was trained as one. He had been a pupil of Dugald Stewart, but left no trace at the University of Edinburgh. He had moved to London in hopes of becoming a distinguished man of letters, as so many other Scots of his generation had. Instead he constantly found himself on the brink of bankruptcy.

Mill had never been to India, nor had he any great interest in it. He accepted the India Company’s money because he needed to support his wife and his son, John. However, driven by necessity, and haunted by the intellectual tradition he had encountered in Edinburgh, Mill produced his masterpiece, The History of British India.

It was the first systematic attempt to apply the Scottish school’s four-stage theory to a non-European culture. Mill thought it would take him three years; in fact it took him eleven. Weighing the Hindu and Muslim cultures of India in the scale of civilization’s progress over barbarism, Mill found them woefully wanting. He dismissed India’s ancient religious traditions as “superstition”; he attacked its emperors and rajahs as small-minded tyrants who abused their subjects and grew fat and lazy on the backs of the poor. He reserved a special contempt for its laws, which he compared to those of Europe in the Dark Ages, and its caste system, which “stands a more effective barrier against the welfare of human nature than any other institution which the workings of caprice and of selfishness have ever produced.”

Mill’s attack on India’s culture and civilization makes hard reading in today’s multiculturalist age. But his anger sprang from his liberal, even radical, sympathies (he was the friend and disciple of the founder of English radicalism, Jeremy Bentham). He wanted European-style progress to raise up the lives of the Indian peasant and urban artisan, who found themselves overtaxed and powerless, as well as denied a basic human dignity by Hinduism’s relentlessly rigid rules of caste. If India’s rulers were incapable of changing this, Mill declared, then the British had to. “A simple form of arbitrary government,” Mill wrote, “tempered by European honour and European intelligence, is the only form which is now fit for Hindustan.” He wanted the British to take command—not in order to enhance their own power and profits (the East India Company already had plenty of both), but to make India into a modern, “civilized” society.

It was the issue of bringing progress to the Highlands all over again, but in a tropical climate. Mill had given birth to the idea of what Rudyard Kipling would call “the white man’s burden,” and the impact on British policy was swift. Mill was appointed to a post at East India House, and the book itself went into four editions. The president of the Board of Control took Mill’s arguments to heart, as did a future president, Thomas Babington Macaulay. Macaulay detested Mill’s left-wing politics and wrote a famous essay ridiculing them in the Edinburgh Review. But Mill’s radical ideas on legal reform, which Macaulay thought unsuitable for England, he saw as perfect for India. Macaulay called The History of British India “the greatest historical work which has appeared in our language since Gibbon.” He pressed hard to implement its proposed reforms, along with a national English-language school system for India—shades of Scotland’s own common parish schools.

But a new British policy was already taking shape in India, thanks to another coterie of Scots. They were the brilliant and dedicated protégés of Lord Minto, the Edinburgh-educated governor-general who arrived in India in 1806 after the Duke of Wellington had pacified the Maratha princes. Minto himself oversaw the end of the East India Company’s monopoly over British trade in 1813. In southern India, Thomas Munro, later governor of Madras, fought to reduce the tax burden on ordinary farmers and pushed for a system of honest tax collectors (which Parliament approved in 1812) and for independent village courts (which it did not). John Campbell spent sixteen years in the remote hill country between Madras and Calcutta rescuing potential victims of ritual human sacrifice, or meriah. By the time he finished, he had saved more than fifteen hundred lives and prevented the kidnaping of thousands more.

John Malcolm, an Eskdale native, negotiated a groundbreaking treaty with Persia, which brought peace along India’s northwestern border. Mountstuart Elphinstone became Lord Minto’s most trusted aide, and broke the power of the last Maratha robber barons. A skilled diplomat and a tough soldier, he was also a devoted classical scholar who rose every morning in the summer at four to read Sophocles before his predawn gallop across the landscape. Like all the best Scottish imperialists, Elphinstone saw Britain’s rule in India as basically temporary. He wrote to James Mackintosh, who was then Recorder in Bombay, that the Empire’s “most desirable death” would be “the improvement of the natives reaching such a pitch as would render it impossible for a foreign government,” including Britain, to retain power. Which is, in fact, what did happen, 140 years later.

This was a new kind of imperialism, a liberal imperialism, which came to characterize British rule elsewhere in the world. It involved taking over and running another society for its own good—not by saving its soul through Christianity, as other European imperialisms had claimed to do, but in material terms. One could even say, in Scottish terms: better schools, better roads, more just laws, more prosperous towns and cities, more money in ordinary people’s pockets and more food on their tables. Governor-General George Bentinck even framed it with a nod to Francis Hutcheson: “England’s greatness is founded on Indian happiness.” And for all its faults and shortcomings and hypocrisies, this liberal imperialism did manage to transform India into a more humane, orderly, and modern society. One could even say a freer society, except, of course, in the “narrow” political sense.

Or at least James Mill and others saw it as narrow. Mill’s teacher Dugald Stewart had repeatedly emphasized to students that how a government came into being—whether by democratic or representative means, or by hereditary rule or even by conquest—mattered less than what the government did when it got there. As long as it promoted progress and protected the rights of the individual and property; as long as it kept pace with social and economic change and expanded opportunities for everyone, then it was good government, no matter who was in charge. If it did not, then it was a failure, no matter how many people voted for it.

In 1707 Scotland had surrendered her political sovereignty and allowed herself to be run by a government five hundred miles away. The results had been spectacularly successful, particularly for Scotland’s urban middle class. Why not the Indians? Why not other peoples waiting to be brought up from barbarism and superstition into the bright glare of modernity?

James Mill made this quasi-paternalist view the cornerstone of British colonial policy. Eventually it affected politics in Britain as well. The later Scottish school of Dugald Stewart had reached a startling conclusion, which also contained a paradox: politics as an expression of “the will of the people” mattered less than previous thinkers had imagined. On the one hand, self-government was the fruit of civilized advancement and a worthy goal for any people—including Indians. On the other, the general welfare of a modern, complex society profited most from applying “the science of legislation,” in Dugald Stewart’s phrase, which increasingly meant rule by experts and bureaucrats.

A fundamental rift was beginning to surface in the modern political imagination, with intelligent Scots aligned on both sides. The last generation of the Scottish Enlightenment became convinced that the only politics a modern society requires is strong effective government. The growth of the civil service and bureaucracy in nineteenth-century Britain, the beginnings of the welfare state in the twentieth—all were confident expressions of government’s ability to manage and anticipate the massive social changes modern society creates, so that people can get on with their lives. But this confidence also blinded liberals to the emotional force and appeal of nationalism, which, by contrast, old-fashioned Tories such as Sir Walter Scott clearly understood. It blinded William Gladstone, son of the middle-class Scottish diaspora, who destroyed the Liberal Party when his plan for Home Rule for Ireland provoked massive resistance not only from the British and Ulster Protestants, but from the Irish themselves. It blinded future British governments when the passion for independence struck other parts of the empire: in Afrikaaner South Africa in the 1890s; in India in the 1920s; and eventually, at the tail end of the twentieth century, in Scotland herself.

Of course, all this lay far in the future when Charles James Napier arrived in 1841 to take over as governor of Sind. That part of India, in what is now Pakistan, was still a dangerous and disorderly frontier, with constant wars between the local rulers and Sikh warrior bands, and between Muslims and Hindus. Napier was there to straighten it out. His father, George Napier, had been born in Edinburgh and tutored by David Hume; some of Hume’s cool, cynical view of human nature, and that of his mentor, Lord Kames, seems to have rubbed off on Charles as well. The family lived in Ireland, where his father was quartermaster of a British regiment when the Irish Revolt of 1798 broke out. Major Napier barricaded his house, armed his five sons with muskets, and held the place as a virtual fort until help arrived.

Soldiering was in Charles Napier’s blood. As Jan Morris has said, “his cousins, forebears, and descendants commanded armies, ships, garrisons, or colonies from one end of the empire to the other.” He joined the army at age twelve, and saw action in Spain under Wellington. At the battle of La Coruña he was wounded five times, including a saber cut across the head and a bayonet in the back; at Busaco he took a bullet through the face. All this did nothing to quell Napier’s thirst for excitement, but did build in him a contempt for inessentials, such as keeping up appearances, or what we call Victorian hypocrisy. His formula for empire-building was “a good thrashing first and great kindness afterwards.” This is what he proceeded to do in Sind.

Napier was a political radical like James Mill, with an intense sympathy for oppressed people, whether in Britain (he supported the working-class Chartists) or in India. “How feeble is a system of iniquity!” he wrote as he watched the local rulers at work. “How weak is injustice!” The remark reminds us of the sober truth that many of the traditional regimes the British toppled, both in India and elsewhere, had spent centuries making their subjects wretchedly unhappy. When their fate hung in the balance, most of their populations would refuse to lift a finger to save them. For native peoples, the British might not be their first choice. But, in many cases, thanks to Scots like Napier, they were better than what they had.

Napier was still trying to protect the territory from marauding Sikhs when the governor-general decided to annex the entire province. It was the single biggest expansion of British rule in India in a generation, and it was hugely unpopular in Britain. Napier knew the annexation of Sind had no legal rationale, but approved of it anyway. It was, he wrote, “a very advantageous, useful, humane piece of rascality.” As governor, Napier instituted all the reforms the old rulers never did or could. He lowered taxes, created the port of Karachi, encouraged steam navigation on the Indus River, created a police force to keep order, and proposed irrigation schemes to allow local farmers to expand their fields and crops. He changed life in Sind in other ways, as well. When he banned the Hindu practice of suttee, of burning a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre, the local Brahmin priests protested that this was interfering with an important national custom. “My nation also has a custom,” Napier replied. “When men burn women alive, we hang them. Let us all act according to national custom.”

Napier foretold the best of the later British Raj, with his stern but generous paternalism, which combined the rule of law with humanitarian principles—when it was feasible. The Raj system itself came into being under a Scottish governor—General James Dalhousie, Lord Ramsey. In his eight years as de facto ruler of India, from 1848 to 1856, he gave the subcontinent the trappings of a modern society. He built its first railroads, strung thousands of miles of telegraph wire, and created a national postal service. Schools, roads, and irrigation projects flourished under his tenure, while he also expanded British control over lower Burma, Oudh, and several smaller principalities. In each he abolished suttee and thuggee, or the ritual murder cult, as well as the last remains of human sacrifice.

Dalhousie also pushed for what he called a “social revolution” in the Indian attitude toward women. This marked a new departure for Scots. Scottish society had always been highly patriarchal; the Scottish Enlightenment was an almost exclusively male enterprise. But the degraded status of Indian women, like that of Chinese women, shocked everyone who had contact with it. “The degradation of their women has been adhered to by Hindus and Mohammadans more tenaciously than other customs,” Dalhousie wrote, “and the change will do more towards civilising the body of society than anything else could effect.” He wrote laws banning child marriage, polygamy, and the practice of killing unwanted female children. He created the first schools for girls, arguing that nothing was “likely to lead to more important and beneficial consequences than the introduction of education for their female children.” By the time he left India in 1856, Dalhousie had made more changes in Indian society than it had seen in centuries—more, in fact, than it could stomach.

Native resentment against Dalhousie’s self-confident paternalism and the sweeping changes he implemented exploded in the Indian Mutiny of 1857. A Scot’s progressive reforms had ignited the revolt; two Scottish soldiers, Generals Colin Campbell and Hugh Rose, stamped it out. The mutiny, which convulsed the entire subcontinent for two years, marked a watershed in Anglo-Indian relations and destroyed whatever independence was left to its native rulers. But it also demonstrated the dual nature of the new British Empire: when its high-minded reforms were blocked or threatened, it would not hesitate to use brute military force to get its way. And Scots were the mainstays of both.

India’s role within the Empire had changed also. It was now crucial to British policy because of one crop: opium. Opium was the single commodity the British could trade in bulk to the other great empire to the east, China. There was only one problem: opium was illegal in China.

No European who had any dealings with imperial China had the slightest sympathy or respect for its anti-opium policy. European and British merchants knew many of the imperial officials were opium addicts themselves, who turned a blind eye to the illegal trade in exchange for a cut of the profits. They knew, too, that the same officials also unmercifully squeezed the Chinese hongs or merchants, who were officially licensed to trade with “the round-eyed devils.” This kept profits low on all legal exports from China, such as porcelain, silk, and, most important of all, tea. Most British traders saw smuggling Indian opium as a fitting revenge on a government that made doing business in China a misery. But two men, and two only, saw the true potential of the opium market in China, and had the skill and determination to do something about it.

James Matheson came from the Sutherland branch of the Matheson clan, which dominated the lands in the western Highlands around Loch Alsh. He was working for a Scottish trading firm in Calcutta when he met William Jardine, a shrewd, hardheaded32 Lowlander and former Royal Navy surgeon who had become involved in trade as well. Together they realized the place to make money was in opium; they became partners in 1827, and within a decade Jardine Matheson and Company was the dominant force in the illegal China trade.

Their skill and ingenuity in exploiting the immense Chinese drug market reflected the hard side of the Scottish character. Matheson and Jardine knew Britain had no drug problem, except for a few eccentric English intellectuals such as Samuel Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey; neither did India, which had been growing the stuff for thousands of years. If the Chinese government could not control their own people and their seemingly insatiable appetite for it (one estimate put the number of Chinese opium addicts at nearly 1 percent of the total population, perhaps as many as two million persons), Jardine and Matheson believed, that was their lookout. They also grasped that the imperial system was on its last legs. Once China had been a model of civilized commercial society to Scottish scholars such as David Hume and Adam Smith. Now, to Britons trained to look with James Mill’s disdainful eye, it looked corrupt, decadent, and barbaric. The Chinese Empire was dying. Jardine and Matheson intended to be in on the kill.

Besides, smuggling was a long-standing Scottish tradition. The Jardine-Matheson cartel simply raised it to a new sophisticated level. They sailed their fast clipper ships into Whampoa harbor under the eyes of the Chinese authorities and smaller boats up the rivers to China’s principal cities. Jardine also brought in a 115-ton steamer, which he named—naturally—the Jardine, to sail the Pearl River between Canton and Macao. On its first voyage the Chinese opened fire on it and forced it to reverse course. Jardine was furious. Earlier he had warned the British government that the conflicts over the opium trade could lead to full-scale war unless it persuaded the Chinese to give way. “Nor indeed should our valuable commerce and revenue both in India and Great Britain be permitted to remain subject to a caprice. . . .” The outcome of such a war, he wrote, “could not be doubted.” In other words, total defeat of the imperial government and the final opening of China to the West.

The First Opium War, as it was called, was the premeditated project of three men: William Jardine, British foreign minister Lord Palmerston, and the second Lord Minto, First Lord of the Admiralty.33 Together they cooked up the war to save the opium trade and make Britain the arbiter of political fortunes in China. Once again the technological gap between West and non-West came to the rescue, this time in the form of a steam-powered iron gunboat called the Nemesis.

The Scottish shipbuilder John Laird constructed her in his yards at Liverpool. She was 184 feet long and powered by two sixty-horsepower engines. She carried two large thirty-two-pound cannon and five sixpounders, and a Congreve rocket launcher. Laird had also divided her hull into watertight compartments, to prevent any waterline damage from sinking her. The Nemesis was a formidable fighting machine, the ancestor not only of ironclads such as the Monitor, but of the later modern cruisers and battleships of the Royal Navy.

The Nemesis left Portsmouth on March 28, 1840. It was the first iron ship to sail around the Cape of Good Hope. When it reached Macao in November, it was the most powerful warship in the China Sea. Twice the size of ordinary Chinese war junks, it turned their wooden hulls and masts to matchsticks when it turned its guns on them. In addition, the gunboat had a draft of only six feet, so that it could sail up any navigable river to wreak havoc on the hapless Chinese. In a single afternoon’s battle up the Whampoa, the Nemesis took out nine war junks, five forts, one artillery battery, and two military supply posts. Its captain wrote exultingly to John Laird: “It is with great pleasure I inform you that your vessel is as much admired by our own countrymen as she is dreaded by the Chinese.” The British commander in charge of the operation wrote that it proved “that the British flag can be displayed throughout their inner waters wherever and whenever it is thought proper by us, against any defence or mode [the Chinese] may adopt to prevent it.”

By the next year the Nemesis had been joined by other steamships and gunboats, including her sister, the 510-ton Phlegethon. Together they pounded the imperial Chinese forces into submission. The Chinese government signed a peace treaty at Nanking in August 1842, finally opening up the opium trade and other commercial exchanges with Britain. Jardine became the tai-pan of the new colony he had founded, called Hong Kong. Britain had fought the first major colonial war in East Asia and won. Other European powers would follow, but Great Britain was now the dominant political power in the region—thanks to John Laird and the Scottish drug lords.34


Some territories came under British rule through conquest, others through settlement. Canada and Australia began as integral and supportive parts of the empire; they also remained the most loyal after they gained their independence as dominions. Not coincidentially, they were also where Scots were the dominant influence.

Scotsmen had been involved in the making of Canada from its very beginnings. They had settled Nova Scotia for Scotland; later, they spread to the other Maritime Provinces as well, whose wild and desolate rocky shores reminded them of home (which, geologically speaking, made sense). Newfoundland served as a way station for tobacco merchant smugglers operating between Virginia and Scotland in the days before the Union. At that time Canada belonged to the French. Then, in 1759, General Wolfe and the Fraser Highlanders took the Heights of Abraham overlooking the city of Quebec, and Quebec Province, and with it the key to French Canada, fell to Great Britain.35 Wolfe’s second-in-command, General James Murray, was a Scot who became its first British governor.

Canada’s main value to Europeans was its fur trade, and within a few years the Scots dominated that as well. The best traders and trappers tended to come from Scotland’s northern islands the Orkneys. The Orcadians, as they were called, enjoyed many advantages over their English counterparts. Canada’s bitterly frigid climate, the deep isolation of months in icebound inlets and rivers, and the ceaseless work in cold and wet posed no hardship for them. The standard joke was that the Orkneymen joined the Hudson’s Bay Company in order to get warm. One of the company’s factors admitted, “The Orkneymen are the quietest servants and the best adapted for this country than can be procured.” Another, on a trip in 1779, said, “A set of the best men I ever saw together, as they are obliging, hardy, good canoe men.” They earned the respect of the Native Americans as well. Yet Orcadians were also notorious for their secretiveness, their reluctance to betray emotion, and their keenness to enrich themselves. One English officer asked that he be recalled to England “if any person from the Orkney Isles be placed over me.” Their finest tribute comes from the American historian Bernard de Voto, who said the Canada Orkneymen “pulled the wilderness round them like a cloak, and wore its beauty like a crest.”

They and their Highland cousins virtually took over the Hudson’s Bay Company, so that by the turn of the eighteenth century four out of five employees were Scots. “The country is overrun with Scotchmen,” an English trader complained.

Then, in 1782, another Scot, Simon MacTavish, created the Northwest Company, operating out of Montreal. MacTavish’s employees trapped beaver, otter, and seal, or hired those who did, up and down Quebec and Ontario, and built settlements west into the Red River valley. One of them, a twenty-five-year-old trapper from the Isle of Lewis named Alexander MacKenzie, set up a fur-trading post with his cousin on Lake Athabasca, in what is now Alberta. A large river flowed out of Athabasca to the north at Fort Chipewyan, near their log-cabin post. MacKenzie decided to see where it went. In 1789, the year Parisians besieged the Bastille and George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States, the trapper set out on a three-thousand-mile trek up what is now the Mackenzie River, all the way to the Arctic Ocean. Four years later MacKenzie found a passage through the Canadian Rockies and, on July 22, 1793, crossed what is now British Columbia to find himself facing the Pacific Ocean. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark usually get the credit for first crossing the North American continent to the Pacific. In fact, that honor belongs to Alexander MacKenzie, who did it ten years earlier.

In 1821 the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Company merged, forming the largest corporate landholder in the world—more than 3 million square miles, from the American border to the Arctic Circle. Its Scottish president, George Simpson, governed ten times more territory than had the Roman emperors. Simpson was a West Highlander, with a strong sense of his own dignity and command. An eyewitness remembered watching him on the move:

When he went out of doors he wore a black beaver hat worth forty shillings. When traveling in a canoe or boat . . . he still wore his beaver hat, but it was protected by an oiled silk cover and over his black frock coat he wore a long cloak made of Royal Stuart tartan lined with scarlet or blue bath coating.

Simpson also traveled with his own bagpiper, who would play long pibrochs for his master as they canoed across an icy transparent lake to the next trading post or Indian village.

Simpson was also a master of handling men, and the company’s Native American allies. He stopped the rum trade with local Indian tribes, and resorted to legitimate exchange to get his beaver pelts. By contrast to the American frontier, the Canadian version involved no violent confrontations with native peoples, no massacres or reprisals. Instead it witnessed one hundred years of virtually unbroken peace and order. Simpson’s active and evenhanded stewardship of the Hudson Bay lands formed the basic core of what would become modern Canada.

Scots arrived as settlers, as well. Hundreds of Loyalist refugees from the Mohawk Valley in New York moved into eastern Ontario, in what is now Glengarry. They were soon joined by hundreds of Highland cousins, fleeing the Clearances. Today the land is flat, a checkerboard of fertile cornfields and grain silos. Then it was almost entirely forest, which the hardy Highlanders cut down and shipped to Quebec. Many stayed with the lumber business and followed it into northern Ontario, down to Michigan and Minnesota, and across to British Columbia. They became the Glengarry “shantymen,” the most skilled lumberjacks in North America, artists with the ax and saw.

The rest stayed to farm, making Glengarry County, Ontario, the largest Gaelic-speaking community in the world outside Scotland. “Go not to Glengarry if you be not a Highlandman,” warned one publication for prospective Scottish emigrants in 1829. Twenty years later the census revealed that one of every six of the county’s 17,500 residents was surnamed either MacDonnell or MacDonald.

Other Highlanders settled the north shore of Lake Erie in Elgin County, named after Canada’s most famous Scottish governor-general. John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist, was born and grew up on one of these farms. The Galbraiths had come over from Argyllshire, like many of their neighbors, and years later Galbraith remembered the intense concentration of Scots in Dunwich Township: “Beginning at the Currie Road were first the McPhails, and Grahams, then more Grahams, the MacFarlanes, the McKellar property, Camerons, Morrisons, Gows, Galbraiths, McCallums, more McPhails, more Morrisons, Pattersons, and among others the MacLeods.”

Life in Dunwich Township followed very much the pattern of life in Highland clan bailtean. The people were frugal, hot-tempered, prone to fight and drink heavily, but scrupulously honest. “No houses were ever locked,” Galbraith remembered, “perhaps partly because there was little in them to steal.” They paid little attention to ordinary rules about personal hygiene or polite conduct. The only important distinction was who made the most money—but that conveyed respect rather than social status. In keeping with the Scottish stereotype, no one parted with their money very easily; as Galbraith puts it, “they believed a man could love his money without being a miser.” Those who truly were misers, and left their houses in disrepair and their families in rags, were generally despised: but when their names came up, locals would refer to them as being “very Scotch.”

The opening of the interior of Canada was also a largely Scottish enterprise. In 1834 John MacLeod reached the headwaters of the Sitkine River, and in 1847 Alexander Murray built Fort Yukon on the Yukon River. Two Scottish employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company did the first complete survey of the Arctic coastline between 1837 and 1854. However, the greatest transformation of Canada came when John MacDonald launched the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, connecting the country from Atlantic to Pacific. It was one of the largest public-private joint ventures in history. Scots dominated the syndicate to promote its construction, from Donald Smith and his cousin George Stephen of the Bank of Montreal to London banker John Rose. Its principal engineer was also a Scot, Sandford Fleming.

The building of the 3,700 mile Canadian Pacific was an epic achievement worthy of Thomas Telford. It defied obstacles and challenges as forbidding as anything the Americans faced with their transcontinental railroad. Fleming and his surveyors, engineers, and road crews had to lay track along nine hundred miles of bottomless muskeg, across the empty prairies of Manitoba and Alberta, and into the steep foothills of the Canadian Rockies. The place where Fleming decided to cross the Rockies was at Kicking Horse Pass. He and his men had to battle temperatures that plunged to thirty and forty degrees below zero, in addition to treacherous snowslides and hurricane-force winds.

When the last spike went in at Craigellachie, British Columbia, on November 7, 1885, Prime Minister John MacDonald arrived by train for the ceremony. The Canadian Pacific was his proudest achievement. It united the country geographically much as MacDonald had united it politically.

It was a Scottish governor-general, Lord Elgin,36 who first opened the door to the independence of British North America, as Canada was then called. Governor-General Elgin carried out reforms similar to those of other Scottish colonial administrators. He abolished the remnants of feudal land tenure left over from the French and built up Canada’s education system. He signed a reciprocity agreement with the United States in 1854, putting an end to the enmity and tension between the two halves of North America, which extended back to the American Revolution.

He also warned his superiors that if London did not consider granting Canadians some form of self-government, they might throw in their lot with the Americans. If London gave them independence, however, Elgin believed, Canadians might actually want to strengthen their ties to Britain. He proved right. And without knowing it, Elgin had enunciated the principle on which the future British Commonwealth was based: that if a former colony was given the choice, it would prefer to remain associated with Great Britain than try to go it alone.37

The man who guided Canada through the crucial steps to independence was John MacDonald. Born in Glasgow of Highland parents, he had emigrated with them to Kingston, Ontario, in 1820. “I had no boyhood,” he wrote later. He had to make his own living at age fifteen, but eventually scraped together enough money to get himself a law degree. Lawyering led to politics, which in Canada meant rough-and-tumble provincial politics, with bitter enmities pitting liberals against Tories, Presbyterians against Episcopalians, French Canadians against English-speakers, and everybody against the Americans. Tough, hard-tempered, addicted to cigars and whisky, MacDonald was deeply contemptuous of the English. “There is no place in Canadian government,” he wrote, “for overwashed Englishmen, who are utterly ignorant of the country and full of crochets as all Englishmen are.” But he also knew his dream of a united, independent Canada would never come true unless someone brought the French Catholics and English-speaking Protestants together. So his Liberal-Conservative Party, which spearheaded the independence movement, included a strong wing in French Quebec. MacDonald’s cultivation of his French-speaking allies, and respect for their grievances, helped to heal ancient wounds. It also set the governing style of Canadian prime ministers all the way down to today.

MacDonald drew up almost every one of the Quebec Resolutions, which set forth the principles for the British North America Act that the British Parliament passed in 1867, giving Canada independence. He presided over the 1866 Confederation conference (of the ten “Founding Fathers” of the Canadian Confederation, in fact, eight, including MacDonald, were Scots) and served as Canada’s first prime minister. In that post he created the most distinctive symbol of modern Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He brought British Columbia into the confederation (completion of the Canadian Pacific was the price of admission), along with Manitoba and Prince Edward Island—and kept unhappy Nova Scotia from leaving.

MacDonald’s successor was also a native-born Scot, Alexander Mackenzie. By the turn of the century, Scots and persons of Scottish descent were virtually running the country. One-third of Canada’s business elite was of Scottish origin, and Scots single-handedly ran entire industries, such as papermaking (as usual), iron and steel, oil and gas, and the fur trade. They also enjoyed a lock on Canadian higher education. An author wrote in 1896, “There is not a college or university in Canada, where at least one ‘son of the heather’ is not to be found in some high capacity.” Schools such as Dalhousie University (founded in 1818), McGill University (1821), and the University of Toronto (founded in 1827 by another Scot, James Strachan) enshrined the basic principles of Scottish education and the two great exponents of commonsense philosophy, Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart.

The Canadian who best exhibited the key virtues of the Scottish mind and what it could do, however was the Canadian Pacific’s hard-driving, Scottish-born chief engineer, Sandford Fleming. As the final leg of the railroad neared completion, Fleming realized one great obstacle to the cross-continental railway’s success remained: Canada’s clocks. Like clocks everywhere in the world, they were set according to local sunrise and sunset; where the sun was in the sky at any given moment determined what time it was.

This meant that everyone’s local time was different from everyone else’s. When it was noon in Toronto, it was 12:25 in Montreal, and 11:58 in Hamilton. In the United States alone, there were more than one hundred different standard times. People had learned to live with this constant disparity since they first began telling time. Even the advent of mechanical clocks in the fourteenth century, which increasingly made counting the hours and minutes more accurate, did nothing to help. In a horse-drawn age, when distances to be traveled were small and trips infrequent, a variation of ten or fifteen minutes, even an hour or two, did not matter much. But now it caused mass confusion for railway schedules, since no one could say exactly when a train was due in at a given station: there were simply too many different answers to the same question.38 Travel was beginning to demand a level of chronological precision the world’s clocks could no longer provide.

So Sandford Fleming decided to solve the problem. He took out a map of the world and divided it into twenty-four different time zones, each measuring fifteen degrees of longitude. The Americans had adopted a similar scheme for organizing their railroad timetables: now Fleming gave it a wider application than anyone had imagined. Then, for the next half-decade, he launched a one-man crusade to get first the Canadian government and then other world governments to adopt the new time zones and set their clocks according to the new single standard. Fleming was so tenacious and persuasive, and his idea so immediately sensible and useful, that he succeeded. An international conference held in Washington in 1882 confirmed the final arrangements. Finally, on November 17, 1883, clocks and watches around the world were for the first time in history synchronized according to one standard time. It laid the essential foundation for the globalization of travel, communications, and economies. When we are able to fly from New York and arrive in Rome or Singapore in time to meet a loved one, or phone a customer in San Francisco or Karachi to see if they received our shipment, we must thank Sandford Fleming.


Scots made it possible for Canada to be the first British colony to receive recognition as an independent nation. They did the same for Australia, but in a different way. There they turned a brutal and disorganized colony of doomed men and women into a civilized community.

After Captain James Cook (who was born in Yorkshire of Scottish parents) first landed there in 1770, Australia sat virtually forgotten until Prime Minister William Pitt established it as the site for a British penal colony. The first fleet of convict ships, carrying one thousand prisoners, arrived at Botany Bay, just south of the future Sydney Harbour, in 1788. More than 160,000 others followed, both men and women. Some were convicted of murder and other violent crimes, and accepted transportation to New South Wales, as the colony was called, in lieu of a death sentence. But many others went there for simple cases of theft or lesser offenses. One woman had stolen her employer’s dress and was sentenced to seven years’ transportation. One male prisoner, aged seventeen, stole food on board his convict ship. He was tried, convicted, sentenced, and hanged within an hour.

Most convicts saw transportation, and the eight-month journey to Australia, as preferable to languishing in an English prison. But conditions were harsh and the work brutal. Prisoners were assigned to whatever kind of work their keepers wished, and contracted out, like slaves, to free settlers, who grew rich on the cheap labor. Beatings were common, sometimes to the point of death, as were hangings. One warder remembered a prisoner who had been flogged so often his back “appeared quite bare of flesh,” while his collarbones were exposed “like two Ivory polished horns.” It was, the warden said, “with some difficulty we could find another place to flog him.”

What sustained convicts through all this sadistic brutality was the possibility that after working four years of a seven-year sentence, or six of a fourteen-year one, you could earn your release. New South Wales offered lots of cheap, arable land, a healthy climate, and a future—if you got your certificate of emancipation. Even then, the free settlers still treated freed prisoners with suspicion and disdain. The slightest complaint might mean rearrest and more hard labor.

At the turn of the eighteenth century Australia was a hard, vicious, ugly place. Two Scots came to change that, in two contrasting ways: one by altering Australia’s economy, the other by reforming its way of life.

John MacArthur arrived at Botany Bay with the second fleet of transported prisoners, to serve as lieutenant in the local army garrison. He was tough and violent-tempered, with an animal magnetism and a shrewd nose for a business deal. He might have given tai-pans William Jardine and James Matheson a run for their money. MacArthur bought a farm for himself of 250 acres and began raising wheat and sheep. He also organized an illicit rum-running ring with other officers in the garrison. One day he fought a duel with his own colonel and wounded him in the shoulder. Sent back to England for court-martial, MacArthur turned the tables on his enemies. He won an acquittal, and brought back a brace of long-haired merino sheep he somehow secured from King George III’s private stock, and a special royal grant of two thousand acres of land to set up a sheep farm, which he called Camden.

MacArthur began experimenting, crossing the valuable but finicky merino with the Bengal sheep and the so-called Fat-Tail breed from South Africa. The hybrid he produced became the foundation of the Australian wool industry. Within a decade he and his wife and son had set up the first Australian sheep run or ranch, which became so successful that it grew to almost sixty thousand acres. To this day, the essential bloodlines of Australian sheep-breeding trace their origins to Camden Farm.39

MacArthur was also a compulsive meddler in New South Wales politics. When the new English military governor, William Bligh of Bounty mutiny fame, arrived in 1805, he found MacArthur’s high-handed ways intolerable, and ordered him arrested. From his prison cell MacArthur plotted Bligh’s downfall. His accomplice in the rum-running cartel and fellow Scot George Johnstone kidnapped Bligh at gunpoint and set him on a ship to England. For two years MacArthur, Johnstone, and a military junta ran New South Wales, rewarding cronies and terrorizing enemies. The colony had clearly reached a crisis. At last the British government recognized the need for serious reform, and dispatched the man who could set Australia straight.

Lachlan Macquarie had served nearly twenty years in the 73rd Highlanders in India and the Middle East, when he learned that the post of governor of Australia had fallen vacant. He lobbied hard for it, and in the summer of 1809 he set out on the journey to Sydney. He arrived in January, to find the colony “in most ruinous decay.” The houses and government buildings were a shambles; the Government Advocate’s house was, as he put it, “a perfect pigstye.” Sydney’s three churches were tents pitched on vacant lots. The main street was a dirt road, rutted and filled with animal excrement. Morale among prisoners and warders alike was at an all-time low, and drunkenness at an all-time high.

Macquarie was a hardheaded, clear-eyed workhorse, with a military man’s sense of order, a martinet’s sense of discipline, and a Scotsman’s sense of fairness and justice. In Robert Hughes’s words, “In guts, moral vigor, and paternal even-handedness, as well as in his bouts of self-righteousness and bull-headed vanity,” Macquarie had few equals, even among other Scottish colonial officials. He banned the trade in rum, and ordered Sydney’s bars closed during religious services on Sunday. He made church attendance compulsory for all convicts, and set up Sunday schools for the local children.

Even more important, Macquarie realized the key to keeping order in the colony was to treat the convicts as men and women, rather than as beasts of burden. He argued to his superiors in London that “emancipation” was “the greatest inducement that can be held out to the Reformation of Manners of the Inhabitants.” He met every arriving convict ship personally and reminded the prisoners that while they had an obligation to obey their warders and employers, they also had rights. He would tell them “what a fine fruitful country they are come to,” remembered one convict who first saw Macquarie standing on the dock with the medical examiner and garrison commander, “and what he will do for them if their conduct merits it.”

Macquarie set most of the convicts, almost two-thirds of the skilled ones, to sprucing up Sydney. They cleared away the garbage, put a proper road through the center of town, rebuilt the government buildings, and built permanent churches as well as schools, houses, hospitals, and squares. One of Macquarie’s prisoners turned out to be a former student of the celebrated Regency architect John Nash. Macquarie’s wife had brought with her a book of buildings and town designs. Like James Craig laying out Edinburgh’s New Town, the trio not only redesigned Sydney, but also constructed a series of townships in the surrounding territory, all in the metropolitan neoclassical style Robert Adam had established and Nash had embellished.

Macquarie also expanded the colony from its now-overcrowded enclave. He encouraged his team of cartographers and explorers to push north of Sydney, where they found the great fertile Liverpool Plains in 1818, and southwest into what is now Victoria. He contracted sixty convicts to build a road across the Blue Mountains, which locals and aborigines said were impassable. If they could do it in six months, he told them, they would be free. The convicts built the entire route, all 126 miles of it, in the time allotted, and Macquarie was as good as his word. It was proof, he told his superiors, of what could be accomplished by using incentives instead of coercion, through the work of free men rather than slave labor—the same point Adam Smith had made in the Wealth of Nations nearly forty years earlier.

Macquarie raised the quality of life in Sydney even as he cut costs. He even tried to find ways to assimilate Australia’s aborigines into the new community he was creating. However, his fair-minded treatment of the convicts, and his insistence that “emancipated” workers receive the same rights and benefits as other citizens of Sydney, grated on locals who were used to having their own way with convict labor (among them, it must be admitted, John MacArthur). Eventually they turned his superiors against him, and Macquarie, worn out and disappointed, returned to England in 1821. He had served longer than any other governor in Australia’s short history, almost eleven years. His successor, yet another Scot named Thomas Brisbane, was sent to reimpose the harsh discipline of the pre-Macquarie days. But he soon discovered this was impossible. Change had caught up with the penal colony, and the Emancipants, as freed convicts were called, were now embedded in the fabric of New South Wales society.

So instead Brisbane expanded many of Macquarie’s reforms, permitted freedom of the press, encouraged the planting of tobacco and sugar cane, and expanded voluntary emigration into Australia. Then he, too, ran afoul of the local landowners and was recalled. A series of English governors temporarily brought back the floggings and brutal discipline. But when, in 1840, the Edinburgh-born naval officer and former professor of geography Alexander Maconochie took over Norfolk Island, the penal colony’s own penal colony where the most recalcitrant prisoners were sent, it signaled the beginning of the end of the old system. Liberals in Parliament had already recommended abolishing transportation. Maconochie’s humane and farsighted reforms, which included setting up a prison library (with a complete set of Scott’s Waverly novels) and forming an orchestra, proved that prisons could go beyond a harsh system of punishment and discipline, even with the hardest cases. Genuine penal reform in Britain was still a generation away. But finally London stopped the convict ships in 1867—the same year Canada became the first British Dominion.

By the 1880s Australia had the fastest-growing economy and the highest per capita income in the world. Scots were as active in every major aspect of Australian life, including business, education, religion, and farming—almost 40 percent of Australia’s borrowed capital came from Scottish banks—as they were in New Zealand.40 MacArthur’s sheep produced its principal export, wool. Queensland and South Australia now hosted large-scale settlements (including Brisbane, named after Macquarie’s successor), with emigrants flooding into the country, among them a quarter of a million Scots. One of them, ironically enough, was the son of Alistair McDonnell of Glengarry. Despite the old man’s brutal clearances, the burden of debt still fell heavily on his son and heir, Anaeas. Finally, in 1840, Anaeas MacDonnell had had enough. He sold his remaining estates except a tiny section of Knoydart, and emigrated to New South Wales with his family, his servants, several bolts of tartan, a couple of prefabricated timber houses, and his piper. He set out for the South Land to start a new life—as a sheep farmer.41


Africa was the last populated continent to be explored and penetrated by the British or any Europeans. It was called “the Dark Continent” because it was shrouded in mystery. No one knew what its vast interior held, or what people or riches might be found there. All trade and contact was through African middlemen. The mosquito-infested coast and disease-ridden swamps and jungles barred any European from probing farther. Working for the Royal African Company, or serving in a British garrison in Sierra Leone or the Cape Coast Command, which monitored Britain’s ban on the slave trade, was for a European the equivalent of a death sentence. When Scottish missionary Mungo Park tried to lead an expedition up the Niger in 1805, every European on the trip died. Two-thirds of the British soldiers who landed on the Gold Coast between 1823 and 1827 died of diseases ranging from malaria and dysentery to sleeping sickness and yellow fever. In 1824 alone, 221 out of 224 perished. Africa truly was “the white man’s graveyard,” a permanent enigma sealed off from curious or prying European eyes.

The first person to challenge this accepted view was the shipbuilder’s son MacGregor Laird. He believed the steam-powered boats his family firm was starting to build could be used to explore West Africa’s great Niger River, from its mouth at the Bight of Benin up the channel and deep into the interior. Europeans, he believed, could then trade directly for raw materials with the natives, bring them manufactured goods in exchange—and spread the word of Christianity to Africa’s heathen masses. Steam, he wrote to Lord Grey, “will convert a most uncertain and precarious trade into a regular and steady one, diminish the risk of life, and free a large portion of capital at present engaged in it.” In 1832 Laird set up his company for commercial development of the Niger and took two steamboats to Africa. The venture failed. Of forty-eight Europeans who started out on his first voyage up the Niger, only nine returned. Laird himself nearly died, and returned to England in January 1834 in a feeble state—indeed, his health never recovered. But he persevered in pushing for steam power as the key to unlocking the dark secrets of Africa, and expanding the British Empire. The voyage of the Nemesis to China six years later was the result.

In the end, however, it was not the desire for empire or profits that finally opened up Africa, but another powerful force in the Scottish cultural repertoire—religion. A single man did it, not in order to enrich himself or to plant the Union Jack on another distant shore, but for the Africans themselves, to bring them education, medicine, freedom from the threat of slavery—in other words, “civilization” in enlightened Scottish terms—as well as Christianity. His name was David Livingstone, and in many ways his life epitomizes much of what made Scots so respected and influential around the world.

He was born in Blantyre in 1818, eight miles from Glasgow, to a family of mill workers. His grandfather Neil, a crofter on the tiny island of Ulva in the Inner Hebrides, had been driven from the family farm during the Clearances, and had found work in Blantyre’s cotton mill. The son learned to read and write and became a clerk in the same factory, and then made a precarious living as a traveling tea salesman. David Livingstone grew up in a one-room tenement house on Shuttle Row, as it was called. Since the family needed every penny it could scrape together, David started work himself in the factory at age ten, climbing under the huge steam-driven looms to repair broken threads. According to an early biographer, a Blantyre neighbor remembered the Livingstone boys, David and Charles, coming from work. “If they was walkin’ along the road and cam’ tae a puddle, Charlie wud walk roon, but Dauvid—he’d stamp right through.”

After fourteen hours of hard labor in the factory, David Livingstone attended night classes to get the education he craved. He spent his first paycheck on a Latin grammar. By the time he was fourteen he had learned Latin and Greek, and mastered stacks of theological literature. His father was a Calvinist Congregationalist who distributed religious tracts as he sold tea, so it is not surprising that religion was a powerful force in the son’s life. But it had also become a resurgent force in Scotland.

For fifty years after the Moderates had defeated the Evangelical party for control of the Scottish Kirk in 1757, Scottish culture had secularized itself and become “enlightened” on matters of religion. Dugald Stewart, Henry Brougham, James Mill, even Sir Walter Scott, all treated most of the history of organized Christianity, particularly in Scotland, as one of superstition and intolerance. Then, with the new century, Protestant evangelism experienced a powerful rebound. Part of it was a reaction against the atheism of the French Revolution. Part of it, too, was the rebellion against an established Church of Scotland that had become so refined and aloof from everyday life that it offered nothing to people who needed a strong emotional outlet. Just as American Presbyterians had caught religious fire from Scottish Evangelicals in the eighteenth century, setting off the Great Revival, so Scottish and English Calvinists now turned to American revivalism for a new kind of “religion of the people.”

The country went through an unabashed phase of being “born again.” Protestant sects such as the Congregationalists, Baptists, and Methodists found eager converts among Scotland’s rural and urban workers. Shops, taverns, even most city services, strictly observed the Sabbath—a custom that persisted until very recently. Church leaders such as Thomas Chalmers became civic leaders in the fight against poverty and slum conditions. Eventually the revivalist tide swept over the Kirk itself. In 1843 nearly 450 ministers resigned their offices and joined with Chalmers in forming the new “Free Protesting Church of Scotland,” or the Free Kirk, an evangelical alternative to Scotland’s government-subsidized church.

However, this resolute, churchgoing, Sabbath-keeping, psalm-singing Scotland stayed in line with this modernizing predecessor. No one wanted to turn back the clock or reverse the accomplishments of the past hundred years. Instead, the new evangelism sought to provide a steadily improving inner spiritual life, to match the progress of society and “civilization.” As the young David Livingstone discovered when he read the works of the Scottish astronomer and theologian Thomas Dick, science and religion were parallel paths to revealing God’s truth. In other words, the thirst for knowledge of the world and the desire to be one with Jesus Christ were not at odds with each other. The God of nature and the God of Revelation were one. “In the glow of love which Christianity inspires,” Livingstone remembered years later, “I resolved to devote my life to the alleviation of misery”—both as a missionary and as a doctor.

Livingstone took up studies in chemistry and theology at Anderson College at the University of Glasgow. At twenty-three he was older than most of the students, but he was as keen and alert as the best—who were very, very good. One of his classmates in Thomas Graham’s chemistry class was William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, who would become the most influential chemist of the nineteenth century. Another was Lloyd (later Lord) Playfair, grandson of the brilliant mathematician.

In 1838 he had his medical degree, and he hoped to go to China to open a mission there. However, the outbreak of “that abominable Opium War” forced him change his plans. Then he met Englishman Robert Moffat, who gave a lecture in Glasgow on the mission he had just opened in southern Africa. As Moffat told his audience of the vastness of the African continent and its unexplored beauty, of rising in the morning to see “the smoke of a thousand villages where no missionary had been before,” the image stuck in Livingstone’s mind. Here was a chance not only to do the Lord’s work but to embark on a great adventure, an opportunity to journey to places where no white man, not even Moffat, had gone before.

David Livingstone set sail from Liverpool on December 8, 1840, hardly dreaming he would not see home again for sixteen years. He grew restless on the three-month trip, and decided to learn the art of navigation from the ship’s captain, which would come in handy when he began his treks across Africa, and later sailed his own boat across the Indian Ocean. After reaching the British colony of Cape Town, Livingstone set off for Moffat’s station at Kuruman, six hundred miles north, on the edge of the great Kalahari Desert. It turned out to be a bitter disappointment. Moffat had found fewer than forty converts, and although he and his daughter Mary tried to create an oasis of civilization and security in their tiny mission, they drew no takers. So Livingstone decided to take a different tack. Instead of waiting for the natives to come to him, he would go to them, wherever they happened to be— even if that meant penetrating hundreds of miles into trackless jungle and mountains.

He set off on his first journey to the African interior in October 1841, traveling nearly five hundred miles northeast through a series of remote villages, where he learned what he could about African life and language.42 The risks Livingstone was willing to run for the sake of his mission were staggering. Quite apart from the physical dangers of traveling across wild and often hostile country—at one point Livingstone was attacked by a lion and severely mauled, which cost him the use of his right arm—there was also the hidden menace of diseases and fever. He caught malaria early on, and its recurrent bouts never left him. But he managed to limit its effects, and to protect other members of his party from its ravages, by taking doses of a new drug developed by French chemists, called quinine, which he usually dissolved in a glass of sherry. Livingstone was the first person to use quinine in Africa. Although he was never entirely convinced it was completely effective in preventing malaria—he preferred a home remedy he developed of quinine, calomel, rhubarb, and resin of julep—it changed the odds in Europeans’ favor for the first time. Like James Lind’s discovery of citrus against scurvy, quinine opened a pathway for long-distance travel in the tropics, in this case overland—and in doing so it would save the lives of hundreds of thousands, both black and white.

For all the risks he ran, Livingstone enjoyed the strenuous effort his itinerant mission involved. “The mere animal pleasure of traveling in a wild unexplored country is very great,” he wrote. “Great exercise imparts elasticity to the muscles, fresh and healthy blood circulates through the brain, the mind works well, the eye is clear, the step is firm.” He also discovered he got on well with Africans—better, in fact, than he did with white Europeans, who sometimes found him too abrupt and unafraid to say what was on his mind. There was also the thrill of finding one new vista and discovery after another.

The first was Lake Ngami, which unexpectedly greeted him when he arrived at the upper reaches of the Kalahari. The most famous, however, was Victoria Falls—“so lovely,” he wrote, “it must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight”—and the Zambezi River, one of the great rivers of the world, which flows from northwestern Zambia across the heart of Africa to the Indian Ocean. As he gazed for the first time over its broad expanse, more than five hundred yards across in places, with foothills and mountains rising up in the distance, Livingstone said it awakened memories of “the long-lost scenes of the Firths of Clyde and Forth, which came back so vividly, I might have cried.”

That trip in 1853–56 took him across Africa from ocean to ocean, as the first European to do so. It revealed that the interior of Africa was not desert or barren savannah, as some had guessed, but a world of lush vegetation and millions of human beings. Livingstone decided that rivers such as the Zambezi were the key to opening Africa up to the rest of the world. He believed they constituted a great “water highway” that could bring goods, services, and the Gospel to even the most remote parts, and trigger the continent’s economic and social advance—much as Telford’s roads and canals had opened up the Highlands. Later, he hoped the Zambezi could be declared an open waterway for the use of all nations, but the Portuguese, who occupied crucial parts of its headwaters in Angola, refused to permit it.

The one service he could bring to Africa’s heartland himself was his medical practice. Livingstone became truly the first “doctor without borders,” traveling thirty or forty miles out of his way to visit whatever village or people needed his assistance. Livingstone brought the sharp analysis and technical knowledge of Scottish medicine to some of the remotest places in the world. His efforts won him the respect of local tribesmen and their leaders—and, as he expected, a steady stream of conversions to Christianity.

As Livingstone saw it, there were two great barriers to Africa’s eventual road to Christianity, commerce, and “civilization.” One was white racial prejudice. Like most Scots, Livingstone was largely immune to racial theories of white supremacy (belief in white cultural supremacy itself was another matter). In one colonial setting after another, Scots proved themselves far better able to get along with people of another culture and color than their English counterparts. In addition, the whole weight of Scottish Enlightenment tradition was on the side of belief in a universal human nature, which all human beings shared, but which was shaped according to environment and a society’s developmental stage—“nurture,” in other words, rather than “nature.”

Livingstone despised the sort of race prejudice and brutality he found in the Cape Colony. He had become fast friends with missionary John Philip, another Scot, who fought for the rights of aboriginal peoples in South Africa. Livingstone clashed repeatedly with the local Boers, especially when he supported a local native revolt against their rule. “Every nation on earth worthy of freedom,” he wrote, “is ready to shed its blood in its defence. We sympathize with the Caffres [sic]; we side with the weak against the strong.” Rebellion, he said, was prima facie evidence of bad government to begin with. His forthright stance so infuriated the South Africans that they practically herded him out of the country.

He spoke even more forthrightly on race when he published The Zambesi and Its Tributaries, and included a sharp riposte to race theorists who believed Livingstone’s travels showed that the black Africans were savages and incapable of understanding the values of civilization. “We must smile at the heaps of nonsense which have been written about the negro intellect. . . . I do not believe in any incapacity of the African in either mind or heart.” Black Africans merely exhibited the kind of cultural backwardness one would expect from anyone cut off from mainstream civilization, Livingstone said. “A couple of centuries back the ancestors of common people in England were as unenlightened as the Africans are now.” And how unenlightened was a matter of opinion. “Africans are not by any means unreasonable,” he wrote. “I think unreasonableness is more a hereditary disease in Europe.”

When Livingstone returned to England in 1856, he discovered he was famous. His lectures on his exploits and adventures drew huge crowds and gained an audience with Queen Victoria. So did his impassioned attacks on the African slave trade.

This was the second great barrier to Africa’s development. Britain had abolished the buying and selling of slaves in 1807, and virtually shut it down all across the Atlantic. It had freed its own slaves in 1833. However, Arab traders continued the ugly business of seizing, buying, and selling human captives for export. The wars that African kingdoms waged with one another in order to find captives to sell to the slave traders, and the incessant deportation of thousands of victims to the great slave-trading port of Zanzibar, had devastated entire sections of central and southern Africa. On Livingstone’s travels overland, he would come across parties of people linked together by wooden yokes on their march to the Arab slave markets, a journey that could be even more horrific and lethal than the Atlantic “middle passage.” Livingstone wrote in his diary, “We passed a slave woman shot or stabbed through the body and lying on the path. . . . An Arab who had passed early that morning had done it in anger at losing the price he had given for her, because she was unable to walk.”

Livingstone did what he could to hinder the slave traders—he did not hesitate to give modern firearms to African communities to fight them off. But in the end he believed the final remedy had to be the spread of legitimate trade and commerce with European nations across Africa. When local chiefs realized they could make more money selling palm oil or ivory, instead of their own people, Africa’s ways would change. And rivers for commerce and communication were the key to making it happen. It drove him to launch more and more exploratory expeditions into the interior, and to insist that Britain had to take the lead in making Africa safe, for white and nonwhite alike.

After two years of speeches and celebrity, Livingstone was eager to return to Africa. On February 8, 1858, he was appointed Her Majesty’s Consul and “commander of an expedition for exploring Eastern and Central Africa, for the promotion of commerce and civilization with a view to the extinction of the slave trade.” Livingstone and his companions, including his wife, Mary Moffat Livingstone, his son Robert, and his brother Charles, reached the mouth of the Zambezi on May 14. They traveled up the river as far as Quebrabasa Rapids in the world’s first steel-hulled steamboat, Ma Robert (or “mother of Robert,” which locals called Mary Livingstone), which handled the rocks and inevitable beachings without a mishap.

Then things began to go wrong. Livingstone quarreled with the English members of the missionary society over the goals of the journey: he wanted to combat the slave trade, while they wanted to convert the natives. Then disease descended on the party. On the hard journey up the Zambezi rapids, Mary died, as did their infant child. When Livingstone and the other survivors reached Lake Nyasa (now Lake Malawi), the second-largest body of water in Africa, a war between local tribes broke out. The British government, discouraged by reports of death, disaffection, and a local drought, ordered Livingstone home.

Livingstone’s third and final African expedition was sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society. He planned to discover the source of the Nile in eastern Africa, but Livingstone’s hopes went further than that. He intended to show that the culture of ancient Egypt derived its remote origins from black Africa—a thesis that in many ways anticipates those of modern afrocentrist scholars. “One of my walking dreams,” he told friends, “is that the legendary tales about Moses coming up into Inner Ethiopia with Merr, his foster-mother, and founding a city which he called in her honor ‘Meroe,’ may have a substratum of fact.”

He never had the chance. He set out into the bush in 1866 with no white companions, only thirty porters, a band of Indian sepoy soldiers, students from a government school for freed African slaves, and a few local recruits. Like the extras in a Tarzan movie, the porters and the rest bolted the expedition at the first sign of trouble. When they made their way to the coast, they spread the rumor that Livingstone had been murdered. No one knew the truth of what had happened to the man who had made Africa a part of everyday conversation. Nothing but silence came from the endless expanse of jungle and savannahs.

For two years no one knew anything about Livingstone’s fate. Some speculated that he really was dead; others that he was in hiding; still others that he had discovered the fabled ancient cities of Christian Ethiopia and their mythical king, Prester John. The story of Dr. Livingstone became an international sensation. Finally the Scottish-descended owner of an American newspaper sent a reporter, Henry Stanley, to find him as a way to generate publicity and sell newspapers. It was no pleasure junket. Stanley’s two-year trip across the heart of east central Africa proved as uncertain and dangerous as any of Livingstone’s expeditions. At last, in 1872, Stanley found him in the village of Ujiji, with a handful of loyal followers. Livingstone’s health had finally given way. For months he had lain on a cot, too ill to move or lift a pen. But he refused to leave Africa. Instead, he said farewell to Stanley and set off on his final journey into the interior, still hoping to hit on the Nile’s source.

On May 1, 1873, Livingstone died. His two constant companions, Chuma and Susi, former freed slaves, found his body kneeling at the foot of his cot, as he was about to say his prayers. They buried his heart under an mpundu tree seventy miles from Lake Bangweulu. Then, having wrapped his body in calico to try to preserve it, they set off on an incredible eleven-month, fifteen-hundred-mile journey to the coast to have his body buried in a European cemetery. It was a labor of love and a tribute to Livingstone from the people he had tried to protect and serve.

A similar tribute poured out when Livingstone’s body returned home. Britain went into mourning. His body was buried at Westminster Abbey, with the epitaph



They forgot to mention: Scottish doctor.

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