The institution is making reparations after admitting it had made £200m from the transatlantic trade
Sir Geoff Palmer, Scotland’s first black professor, has welcomed a groundbreaking report into how Glasgow University benefited from the proceeds of slavery. He said it posed “uncomfortable questions” for British society as a whole and called on institutions that had profited from the slave trade to make amends.
The report, published last week by Glasgow University, is based on more than two years of research and reveals that the institution benefited directly from the slave trade in Africa and the Caribbean in the 18th and 19th centuries to the tune of almost £200m in today’s money.
The university has now launched a wide-ranging and ambitious “reparative justice programme”. Ironically, the university was at the forefront of the movement in the 19th century to abolish slavery. It will now create a centre for the study of slavery and a memorial or tribute in the name of the enslaved. It is also working to establish ties with the University of the West Indies.
The report’s findings, though, carry profound implications far beyond the cloistered spaces of this 546-year-old university. The unrelenting and forensic detail of the study also raises questions about how the wealth of the city of Glasgow and other parts of Scotland was derived.
“Some Scots have told me they’re mystified why no one told them any of this, but who did they think made the tobacco?” said Palmer, professor emeritus at the school of life sciences at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. “Now, I think the country faces a very uncomfortable question which the Glasgow University report has raised once more: to what extent did slavery make Scotland great?”
Palmer, while paying tribute to the scholarship of the Glasgow University report, and the desire to make reparations, put Scotland and the UK on notice. “We can have all the equality laws and anti-racism legislation we like,” he said, “but if no other institutions, firms or organisations which also benefited from slavery declare this and seek to make amends then it’s all meaningless.
“If they all were to follow the example of Glasgow University then that would be real race relations … If what Glasgow University is doing in reaching out to these communities as a means of reparation were to be replicated, it would make a real difference.”
Pleading ignorance of slavery doesn’t bear scrutiny. An entire district near Glasgow’s city centre was re-named the Merchant City in the 1980s for marketing purposes. It is a chic neighbourhood full of expensive bars, cafes and designer shops in the shadow of some of the city’s grandest civic buildings. Many of these were built on the tobacco trade which profited from the most appalling acts of inhumanity, some of which are described in grim detail in the report.
The evil of slavery has been stitched into the very fabric of Glasgow for almost 200 years: Buchanan Street, Glassford Street and Ingram Street are named after some of the most notorious exploiters of the slave market while Jamaica, Tobago and Virginia are similarly commemorated.
One of the most notorious Scottish slave-masters who figures prominently in the Glasgow University report is Robert Cunninghame Graham who, on his return to Scotland after two decades as a slaver, became a politician, poet and, eventually, rector of Glasgow University. His portrait was painted by the renowned Scottish artist Henry Raeburn and hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. A small entry on the gallery’s website hints at the trade in which Graham made his fortune.
The report also looks at the family connections to the slave trade of the great Scottish engineer James Watt and the Coats family, whose cotton fortune, which contributed to the prosperity of Paisley, was built on slavery.
This, in turn, raises the question of how many other grand Scottish families and companies derive much of their present-day wealth from historical human trafficking and whether or not they may be willing to acknowledge this and make reparations.
Tom Devine, the Scottish historian, was unsparing of Scottish society and his own academic community in a book of essays published last year. In Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past he wrote: “Scottish engagement in the slave system itself was either ignored or lost from both academic history and popular memory for generations until the early years of the present century. Where amnesia started to take root is difficult to determine.”
Graham Campbell, an African Caribbean member of the ruling SNP group on Glasgow city council, said he was stunned at the scholarship and detail of the university report, entitled Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow. “I was particularly delighted at their use of the phrase ‘reparative justice’ because this means that the university fully intends to implement programmes and projects which will provide scholarship and exchange programmes for Jamaican and other Caribbean students through its links with the University of the West Indies,” he said.
“After this report there is no way the city as a whole can stand by and not act in a similar fashion and I fully expect us and other academic institutions to follow Glasgow’s lead.”