Dark history linking slavery to historic buildings


IT is a stain on Scotland’s reputation, but the country’s links to slavery generated incredible wealth and transformed us from a poor nation into a rich one.
New Lanark, Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art, and Edinburgh’s James Gillespie schools are physical evidence of Scotland’s wealthy past, but are all intimately connected with the slave trade.
Now a government agency has announced it will carry out extensive research to determine how the country’s links to the slavery helped finance some of our most treasured historic buildings.
Once completed, the work by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) will enable the public to better understand a dark, but important part of the country’s past.
Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade primarily spanned the 18th and 19th centuries.
Following the act of unions and new-found access to the colonies, Scottish merchants became increasingly involved in the trade of sugar, tobacco and cotton which were all produced on plantations in the Caribbean and the United States using slave labour.
Some merchants took goods to Africa and exchanged or bought slaves and took them to the New World, bringing back tobacco, sugar and cotton.
Other merchants relocated to the Caribbean and built their wealth on extensive use of extensive slave labour. At one stage, 32 percent of Jamaica’s plantations were owned by Scottish families.
The main links were with Glasgow, due to its status as a major trading port, and many of the streets in the city centre belie our chequered past including Jamaica Street, Virginia Street and the Kingston Bridge.
Other streets in the city, such as Buchanan Street, Glassford Street, Ingram Street and Wilson Street, are named after the 18th Century tobacco lords.
But the wealth the tobacco lords and other merchants accrued, impacted right across the country, including country estates.
Buildings funded by wealth garnered from such trade included the cotton mills in New Lanark, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the National Trust of Scotland property Greenbank Garden, Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art, The Trades Halls in Glasgow, as well as the former Bathgate Academy, Dollar Academy, Inverness Academy and Edinburgh’s James Gillespie schools.
Professor Tom Devine, a historian who edited the book Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past, said: “There was some trading of slaves in the early 18th Century, but it was no more than 5 500 individuals.
A lot of Scots got involved in slave trading by emigrating to places such as London and Liverpool and working as traders, seamen and doctors.
The largest impact in Scotland was through Scottish merchants involved in the tobacco, sugar and cotton trades, which could not have existed without slaves. We are talking about black chattel slavery which was the worst of all because slaves had no rights.”
Professor Devine welcomed the growing interest in Scotland’s links to slavery and said the country was behind other parts of the UK in ‘recovering’ its past.
“This new work is transforming our understanding of Scottish history in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s important work. The major breakthroughs have been made by historians in the last 10 years,” said Professor Devine.
“Why was it that Liverpool, Bristol and London have accepted their role in this system from the 1950s and 1960s? Why does Scotland have this unwillingness or unawareness?”
The HES plan to exhibit the historic buildings with links to the slave trade.
Lorna Ewen, head of learning for HES, said they were “…very conscious of the need for greater clarity…” on how the “…profits from slavery impacted on Scottish buildings.
We anticipate that this research will focus not only on the properties in Care Estate but also on the wider historic built environment: i.e Scotland’s towns, cities, country estates, industrial sites.
We are already in contact with relevant academics and other national and cultural heritage bodies, with the aim of taking forward an ambitious research project.”
It remains, to this day, a stain on Glasgow and on one of its great institutions.
The city enjoyed rising prosperity in the 18th Century, thanks to its links to the slave trade and its tobacco barons and businessmen grew wealthy off the backs of Africans.
Now, in an effort not only to accept responsibility for its part in the slave trade but also to deliver something positive from its past wrongs, the University of Glasgow has agreed to fund a £20 million programme of “…reparative justice…” over its historical links to slavery.
And so, a memorandum of understanding was signed at a ceremony yesterday in Jamaica.
Those gathered in attendance watched as a simple stroke of the pen – and a shake of hands and a room full of smiles – did more in a single moment than had been done in the decades before to address the wrongs of the past.
The signatures forged a bond between the Scottish institution and the University of the West Indies, following a report that found Glasgow University – like the city itself – had financially benefitted from the “…appalling and heinous…” slave trade.
The agreement between the two insitutions will lead to the creation of the Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research.
It is a bold and ambitious plan that will expand with the £20m, to be raised by Glasgow University over 20 years, to fund the project.
The centre itself will host events, sponsor research and co-ordinate academic collaborations between the universities.
It will also aim to raise public awareness of the history of slavery and its impact around the world so no one can forget its evils.
No-one involved is hiding, no-one shirking their past. If anything, they are shouting about it, so no-one can ever forget.
After signing the Memorandum of Understanding in Kingston, the Jamaican capital, chief operating officer of the University of Glasgow Dr David Duncan described the ceremony as a ‘historic occasion’ for the two universities.
Dr Duncan added: “When we commissioned our year-long study into the links the University of Glasgow had with historical slavery, we were conscious both of the proud part that Glasgow played in the abolitionist movement and an awareness that we would have benefitted, albeit indirectly, from that appalling and heinous trade.
From the very first we determined to be open, honest and transparent with the findings, and to produce a programme of reparative justice.
In this we were greatly assisted by Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies, who was one of our external advisers.”
He added: “I am delighted that as a result of the report we are now able to sign a memorandum of understanding between the University of Glasgow and the UWI and I look forward to the many collaborative ventures.”
Professor Sir Hilary said he was “…proud of the decision of the University of Glasgow to take this bold, moral, historic step…” in recognising the slavery aspect of its past.
Another commemorative signing of the Memorandum of Understanding and the unveiling of a commemorative plaque in honour of the enslaved will take place in Glasgow.
The unveiling took place on August 23. It may have been a small part, it may even have gone unnoticed by some, but even in this the day finds itself coinciding with UNESCO’S international day of remembrance of the slave trade.


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