In the graveyard of the Old Church in Kirkoswald, South Ayrshire, there is an ancient headstone, green with age, but still with remarkably clear engraved writing. The inscription reads: “This stone is erected by Douglas Kennedy in Memory of his father Scipio Kennedy who died June 24, 1774 Aged 80 years. Also here lieth the body of said Douglas Kennedy who died July 21, 1781 aged 49 years.” The inscription is ambiguous. Although it clearly marks the burial plot of Douglas Kennedy, it does not explicitly claim to be the site of Scipio Kennedy’s last resting place. It is yet another fascinating detail from the astonishing rags to riches life of a celebrated slave.

Scipio Kennedy was born in Guinea, West Africa around 1694. He was most likely a member of the Mandinka tribe and was kidnapped by slave traders at around the age of five or six. The Europeans rarely risked venturing into the African interior. They anchored their slaving ships in coastal ports and relied on mercenaries to round up their cargoes of slaves. Usually these were African villagers working in the fields, while their children acted as lookouts. Scipio was probably captured in this way and marched to the coast with his parents. It would be the start of a gruelling experience, dreadful enough for an adult, but horrifying for a child. The captured slaves would be incarcerated in forts in the Gulf of Guinea, before being loaded onto European or British merchant ships, chained at the wrists and legs with irons and stowed in the lower decks in dark, crowded, foul-smelling, vaults. Up to 700 would be loaded in a single ship. It is estimated that between 15 and 20 million Africans were kidnapped and enslaved in this way. Many would die on their forced march to the coast and many more would succumb in the fetid conditions on board the slave ships. 

The journey across the Atlantic from Guinea to the Caribbean would normally take around 55 days. It can barely be imagined the horror of this voyage for the captured slaves. Torn from their homes, naked, chained and abused. Lying plagued with seasickness in sweltering darkness, in pools of vomit, excrement and urine, with the dead and maimed dragged out almost daily and hurled overboard. For the child who became Scipio Kennedy, the experience must have been traumatic. That he survived at all was perhaps an indication of his lifelong resilience. The slaves were taken to the West Indies where they were sold to the wealthy owners of sugar plantations. The boy who would become Scipio Kennedy was bought by a Scottish sea Captain, Andrew Douglas. In 1702, Captain Douglas  brought the boy back to his home at Mains, near Milngavie in East Dunbartonshire, where he was placed into the service of the Captain’s daughter Jean and given the name Scipio, after the great Roman General Scipio Africanus.

In 1705, Jean married Sir John Kennedy, who succeeded to the baronetcy of Culzean in 1711, on the death of his father. Jean and Scipio accompanied the new laird to his Ayrshire castle, a towering fortified structure, perched on a cliff-edge overlooking the Firth of Clyde, south of Ayr. The castle had originally been built in the 1500s. It would have been a place of wonder and awe to the young African and the lad thrived. He was given the surname of the Kennedy family to whom he was enslaved as a pageboy or footman. Having mastered the English language, he was taught to read and write and given some lessons in textile manufacturing, an extraordinary privilege for a slave and an indication of how the Kennedy family valued him as a person.

So, began a demanding and industrious life for the black teenager. He must have been a mesmerising and unusual sight in his footman’s uniform, almost certainly the only black person that many of the local Ayrshire folk had ever encountered. But Scipio grew into the role and was quickly accepted as a key member of the Baronet’s retinue, so much so that he was baptised by the Kirkoswald minister, which, under Scots law, meant that he had to be given his freedom. Scipio had been with the family for 20 years when his freedom from slavery was formalised by an indenture, which gave him the right to seek employment elsewhere. He was immediately offered a contract to remain in the Kennedy family’s employment and it must be assumed that he agreed to this based on his high regard for the family and theirs for him. 

Scipio’s manumission (freedom from slavery) document, dated 1725, is held in the National Archives of Scotland. The document states that he had been provided with "clothing, maintenance and education with more than ordinary kindness" by the Kennedy family and it set out a ‘breakable’ contract for his further employment for a period of 19 years for the sum of £12 per annum, equal to around £30,000 today, a considerable salary for the time. The document was signed by Sir John Kennedy and by Scipio. By now, Sir John’s household had expanded dramatically. He had fathered no fewer than twelve sons and eight daughters with his wife Jean and Culzean Castle would be a hive of activity. 

Scipio himself was not found wanting in the fatherhood stakes. His name appears in the kirk session minutes of Kirkoswald Parish Church dated 27th May 1728, when he was accused of fornication with Margaret Gray. For a former slave, baptised as a Christian, to be found guilty of such an offence in 18th century Scotland would have been a serious matter, but Scipio married Margaret Gray within weeks of the kirk session accusation and he and Margaret went on to have at least eight children of their own. Sir John Kennedy provided Scipio and his new family with a stone-built cottage and a small piece of land on the estate, where he lived until his death, aged 80 in 1774, ending a life of huge adventure and drama and demonstrating that in 18th century Ayrshire, black lives mattered.