Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville

Of all the connections between Dundas and world history one stands out as the focus of recent scrutiny and debate; namely, the name of ‘Dundas’ itself and its connection to the legacy of a complicated and controversial individual. See here for more on how the Town of Dundas got its name.

Henry Dundas (1742-1811) was the most powerful and influential politician in late 18th century Scotland. As a trusted ally of Prime Minister Sir William Pitt, Dundas was instrumental in the expansion of colonial rule in India and the war against revolutionary France. He served in many high-ranking offices including as Lord of Trade from 1784 to 1786, Secretary of State for the Home Office (1791-1794), President of the Board of Control for Indian Affairs (1793-1801), Secretary of War (1794-1801), and first Lord of the Admiralty (1804-1805). His political clout earned him the nicknames of ‘King Harry the Ninth’, and ‘The Uncrowned King of Scotland’.

Much of the recent discussion surrounding the legacy of Henry Dundas regards his role in the delaying of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. In 1792 William Wilberforce, the acknowledged leader of the British abolition movement, tabled a motion to the House of Commons to abolish the Atlantic slave trade. The motion, which called for immediate abolition, seemed destined to fail as many members of the House were themselves profiting from the slave trade in the West Indies. Dundas supported the motion but suggested a notorious amendment whereby slavery itself would be abolished gradually over the next seven years. According to Dundas, this change was intended to increase the likelihood of the motion being passed. With a vote of 230 in favour, and 85 against, the motion was indeed accepted with Dundas’ ‘gradual abolition’ amendment attached.

Dundas then drafted a plan for ‘gradual abolition’ which would end the trade by 1800. It included an immediate prohibition on the importation of enslaved people from America and, controversially, monetary compensation for slave traders.

When the new resolution came before the House of Lords, the more ardent abolitionists heavily amended the plan: setting a new deadline of 1796 and dispensing with any reference to compensation for slave traders. The new plan pushed the House of Lords beyond its tolerance for reform and they declined to support it. After requesting more time to hear evidence, they dropped the matter altogether. Dundas’ motion for gradual abolition did not take effect.

The motion for abolition which Henry Dundas amended in 1792 concerned the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, not the abolition of the institution of slavery itself. The slave trade was not abolished in the British Empire until 1807. Between 1792 and 1807, as politicians deliberated, over half-a-million Africans were forcibly abducted, brought across the Atlantic, and ‘sold’ as slaves in British colonial territories. The practice of slavery continued well beyond this time.

Today Dundas’ legacy regarding slavery rests not with his stance as an abolitionist, but rather with his willingness to compromise with those who perpetrated and profited from the enslavement of African peoples.

Throughout his career Dundas was an ardent supporter of British imperialism and colonial expansion. He was a leader in determining Britain’s foreign policy in a period that saw the solidification of colonial control in India and the Far East. As President of the Board of Control for Indian Affairs, Dundas oversaw the actions of the British East India Company as they sought to gain control over India’s trade and resources. Indeed, Dundas likely saw the economic exploitation of India as a chance to replace the profits that would be lost through the abolition of the slave trade in the Atlantic. Dundas’ colonial policy also resulted in the violent suppression of free African populations in Jamaica. In a famous incident, British soldiers released dogs on a group of formerly enslaved Jamaican rebels who were fighting against the seizure of their land by British authorities. Dundas refused to acknowledge this act of brutality.


Reading Lists:
Recognition Review prepared by the Toronto Public Library. Contains resources about Henry Dundas and the context of current debates.
Enslaved Reading List prepared by Natasha Henry for the documentary series. Contains resources on slavery more broadly as well as Canadian connections.

Primary Documents:
The Debate on a Motion for the Abolition of the Slave-trade, in the House of Commons, 1792
Substance of the speech of the Right Honourable Henry Dundas, on the British government and trade in the East Indies : April 23, 1793

Digitally Available Biographies of Henry Dundas:
Henry Dundas by Holden Furber
Harry the Ninth (The Uncrowned King of Scotland) Henry Dundas and the Politics of Self-Interest, 1790-1802 by Samuel James Gribble
Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville by J.A. Lovat-Fraser
Henry Dundas: A ‘Great Delayer’ of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade by Stephen Mullen
Henry Dundas by R.G. Thorne, The History of Parliament

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