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Myrtle Peterkin was born in Guyana and at one time was raised in the medical compound on the Ogle Estate, East Coast Demerara, with her mother who was the estate nurse-midwife. At age 10, having passed the Common Entrance Examination, she won a scholarship from Bookers to attend Bishop’s High School. At the end of high school, she was again awarded a scholarship, this time to the University of the West Indies (UWI), Jamaica, where she pursued medicine. In 1979 she migrated from Jamaica to Glasgow, Scotland and pursued graduate studies in haematology.
Scotland’s first black hematologist and first single person to adopt
After graduating from the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, Dr. Peterkin lectured in hematology and rose to the level of Consultant Haematologist in Scotland, being the first and only black woman to ever hold such position. Hers was also the distinction to practice as a clinician within the National Health Service, educating all the qualified doctors pursuing a career in haematology. Another first for her was adoption as single mother. In 1998 when the adoption law in Scotland changed, Myrtle became the first single woman to adopt.
Understanding of slavery
In the podcast “What’s going on? Eyes on Africa and the Caribbean” Myrtle said living in Scotland opened her eyes to slavery unlike the paucity she was exposed to in then British Guiana and Jamaica. And though attention was paid to similarities of names in Scotland and Guyana, such like Fyrish, Inverness, it was at the 2002 Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights event she realised what significant link Glasgow had with the slave trade. She said up until then she thought slavery in Guyana was a function of the British, which undermined what she thought was fact. Her initial reaction to the truth, she said, was one of revulsion, having discovered this “very dark side” to her adopted country.
For all, all the time the link with slavery was clearly there as evident with Glasgow and Ogle, the estate she lived for a period, and discovered that it was owned for years by the Campbell family from Glasgow. According to her Jock Campbell (1912-1994) was sent to Guyana at age 22 to be the chairman of the estate and during his leadership she got her scholarships.
Wealth acquired on slave trade, reparation and education
Myrtle noted that in her research into the Scottish history she learned that during the 18th and 19th centuries much of the country’s wealth was acquired either directly or indirectly from the slave trade. In 1833 when slavery was to be abolished, slave owners sought £20 million for compensation by British for slavery at a price of £18 per head for a slave. And among those registered as slave owners were clergymen.
But it wasn’t until 2015 the government was able to pay off that debt, which she said she too paid from her taxes. Dr. Peterkin noted the irony of the situation-having to compensate slave owners for enslaving her ancestors, whilst when the slaves were freed, they were paid nothing, had no home, were penniless and had no form of employment. According to her, this is a “terrible injustice.”
Myrtle admitted the more she delved into research she became “more angry.” She cited the church as a source for her anger for participating in the slave trade, given the biblical teaching of equality, and the very people who were supposed to be living Christian lives have done otherwise.
In responding affirmatively to the question whether there should be reparation, Myrtle pointed to slave owners exploiting the resources of these countries/colonies that have resulted in the wealth and social benefits enjoyed in Scotland. It was said that the University of Glasgow, based on their research, estimated they benefited about £200 million from the slave trade. Said university has since launched a Reparative Justice programme with UWI and entered into an agreement to fund scholarship, etc., as a form of reparation. She hopes others that similarly benefitted, follow suit.
It still matters
Dr. Peterkin asserts that even though slavery happened a long time ago, as with the Auschwitz experience often being told, slavery’s must be told. It is her desire to have the information about slavery “distributed widely.” She opined that in pursuit of this she is playing a role in bringing about awareness from her research and made a strong case for the topic to be put on the curriculum in the schools of Britain, Guyana and the West Indies.
She suggested that a start be made with mid primary school children, and this could be done with illustrated pictorial lessons and broaden to doing researching and finding out about their ancestors. It is Dr. Peterkin’s view that unless we talk about this history it will be lost, likewise, the endurance of what the slaves went through.
Source- internet and “What’s going on? Eyes on Africa and the Caribbean” podcast