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Abolishing the slave trade

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James Beattie

James Beattie (1735–1803) was born in Laurencekirk, the son of a shopkeeper. He won a bursary to Marischal College when he was 14. After graduating he became a schoolmaster, continuing to study and to publish poetry in his spare time. In about 1760 he was appointed professor of Moral Philosophy at Marischal College, where he remained for the rest of his life. He is mostly remembered today as a minor philosopher and Romantic poet.

In 1770 he published An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, which attacked the work of the most famous philosopher of the day, David Hume. Beattie particularly criticised Hume for his description of Africans as an inferior people who had been enslaved because they lacked civilisation and ingenuity. The Essay made Beattie a famous man, and prompted Sir Joshua Reynolds to paint a flattering portrait of him defeating the ‘enemies of Truth’.

Beattie included another, more forceful denunciation of slavery in his next big philosophical work, Elements of Moral Science (1790–3). Despite the pleadings of anti-slave trade campaigners, however, he declined to publish any of his anti-slavery arguments in short pamphlets – the type of publication that would have been most useful to a mass campaign. It is unclear why he was reluctant to do this. He himself argued that his most useful anti-slavery work was done in the classroom where he lectured generations of Marischal College students on the moral evils of slavery.

Castlegate, Aberdeen - the heart of a bustling city when Equiano visited it in 1792.
(© The University of Aberdeen)