Glasgow’s slave-trade study is welcome – and long overdue

First published by The Herald on 12 November 2019

FOR a city whose streets so proudly display the names of its 18th century tobacco lords and sugar barons, Glasgow has never done a very good job of confronting its involvement in the slave trade. As the University of Glasgow historian Stephen Mullen wrote in his 2009 book It Wisnae Us: The Truth About Glasgow and Slavery, denial has been its modus operandi. Not any more.

Three decades after inadvertently drawing attention to its slave-linked past by designating a part of the city centre the Merchant City, Glasgow City Council has launched a major academic study aimed at identifying just how wide-reaching those links were. Led by none other than Dr Mullen himself, the project will audit historical bequests made to Glasgow Town Council, scrutinise the list of donors whose money built the City Chambers, and look into the pasts of all the men whose images adorn our public spaces and whose names have been immortalised on our streets. His findings will inform what Glasgow does to acknowledge and learn from this period in its past.

It is long overdue. Cities like Bristol, Liverpool and London, which were all home to slave traders and served as major slaving ports, have for decades been finding ways of coming to terms with their own difficult histories. Bristol is packed with confrontations of its involvement in slavery, with its Museum and Art Gallery, Georgian House Museum and M Shed all taking pains to acknowledge not just the city’s past but the impact that has on its present too.

Similarly, the Museum of London’s Docklands base has an extraordinarily detailed London, Sugar and Slavery exhibition while in Liverpool, where the city’s museums have been documenting its slave-trade past since the 1980s, the International Slavery Museum has been educating the public for more than a decade.

Yet Glasgow, which, like the rest of Scotland, is always a little bit too willing to assume the role of underdog if it suits its own narrative, has never felt the need to address its own involvement. It was that British Empire that did it, you see, and what were we but just one more subjugated nation under the control of a powerful and dictatorial neighbour? And weren’t we at the forefront of the campaign to abolish slavery? How could we possibly have benefited from it if that was the case?

Only the Buchanans and Glassfords, Cochranes and Ingrams didn’t get rich in a vacuum. The tobacco they traded in – that gave them the ability to live like lords and influence the development of the city we see today – had to be grown and harvested by someone, and that someone was more likely than not a slave. These merchants did not just become rich on the toil of others, they became rich on the toil of others who were treated abysmally and controlled unconditionally.

But if all that happened hundreds of years ago and the people involved are long since dead and buried, what purpose will digging over their histories serve? If they were only doing what people thought was right and proper at the time, is it really going to have an impact on anyone’s lives?

Last year Bristol artist and city councillor Cleo Lake, who is of African-Caribbean and Scottish heritage, told of her shock when she realised that as a child she had unwittingly taken part in annual celebrations of the life of slave trader Edward Colston, a man who for centuries had been venerated as the ‘father of the city’, with no one bothering to question why. It is informative.

Glasgow council leader Susan Aitken said Dr Mullen’s study is likely to lead to some street names in her city being changed or elucidated, the latter option meaning historical information will be displayed so people know who the street they are walking down is named after and why. People Christmas shopping on Buchanan Street or eating out on Glassford Street may not care about the history of Glasgow’s famous sons, but it is only when we can understand the past and how it has shaped us that we can make its legacy a positive one.

Last night the human rights activist Sir Geoff Palmer, an emeritus professor at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University who in 1989 became the first black person ever to hold a professorship in Scotland, gave a lecture exploring not just Glasgow’s but Scotland’s links to the slave trade. In it he said a decision made by Glasgow University to use reparative justice to mitigate the financial benefits it received as a consequence of slavery is “an act of goodness which others should follow”. He was not wrong.

The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) says that the point of reparative justice is to “seek to repair, in some way, the harm done to victims as a result of human rights violations committed against them”.

Glasgow University, which earlier this year calculated that the donation it received from slave traders would be worth up to £200 million today, is using money as a means of achieving that. Over the next 20 years it will partner the University of the West Indies and spend £20m funding research that will raise public awareness of the history of slavery and its impact around the world. It is the first university to address its past in such a way and Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies, was right when he said it had made a “bold, moral, historic step”.

The council has yet to think about whether it will make financial reparations too, but even just acknowledging its past would have a powerful impact. As the ICTJ says: “Reparations can also take the form of revealing the truth about the violations themselves and providing guarantees that they will not be repeated. Symbolic reparations – such as apologies, memorials, and commemorations – can be just as beneficial, healing, and meaningful as material reparations.”

Those opposed to the toppling of statues or the renaming of streets – and there are many – complain mostly about histories being obliterated, of narratives being recast. They have a point, of course.

But as the histories those statues and street names represent are those of wealthy white heterosexual Christian men, we have a duty to augment them with the stories of everyone else they lived alongside. We owe it to the enslaved people on whose backs modern Glasgow was built and for whom no justice will ever be done. We owe it to ourselves too, though, because our understanding of our own lives will be all the richer for it.