A Brief History of Glasgow: Scottish Colonialism on the Streets of Glasgow

A brief history of Glasgow in 8 columns, part 1: Scottish colonialism on the streets of Glasgow

There are artificial stars in the air all around a beautiful sandstone building on Royal Exchange Square. Real stars are impossible to see – either hidden by the Scottish cloudy sky or by Glaswegian smog. “Did you know that air pollution in Glasgow is among the worst in the UK?” I tell my mother as we look up in awe, one of the many facts I remember from my Scotland guide book. But the thousand tiny lights on strings create a similar melancholic and cosy atmosphere to the slowly incoming night-time as twinkling stars do. Even if this night-time arrives as 3.30 pm. While I believe it’s still the middle of the day, the dark-blue dusk tells a very different story. Fortunately, there are the electric stars, and the light installation on the front of this building that I later learn is Ross Sinclair’s “We Love Real Life Scotland”. All neon and colourful, it is surprising yet amazing to see it on such a classic-looking, imposing building. While I’ve never been in Scotland before, and don’t know about the Highland clearances, Robert Burns and Bonnie Prince Charlie that are mentioned in Sinclair’s neon, I resolve that I’m going to love real life Scotland too. I will make sure to love this square and this museum not for its imposing Corinthian pillars and statue of the Duke of Wellington with the cone on its head that my guidebook says exemplifies the Glaswegian light-hearted attitude towards authority. No, to love it for the art at exhibitions that make me think, and because the statue looks funny and different to all the other white (or well, grey in this case) men on horses dappled around city spaces, and because this square is a place where people come together – to skateboard, shelter from the rain or eat lunch against a giant neo-classical pillar.

What my guidebook doesn’t tell me is that this temple full of modern art started its life as the house of William Cunninghame, one of Glasgow’s richest tobacco Lords. It seems fitting to Black History Month to illustrate some of our city’s history by looking at GoMA, where I have never actually seen so much as a post-it note with information alluding to the fact the building was built by slaves. Or rather, the money Cunninghame made from the transatlantic slave trade. I won’t bore you with a repetition of your history A-levels (mind you, if the slave trade by Europeans happened to be included in the curriculum), but the transatlantic trade is basically Europeans trading weapons and other items to leaders in African countries for their people, who would work on the European plantations in the Americas, ensuring that Europeans could bring valuable luxury items like sugar, cotton, and, that’s right, tobacco, back to their homeland. The winner of this interesting triangle? Surprise surprise, the exploiting Europeans. Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and definitely the British. By the early 18th century, Britain even became the world’s leading slave trading power.

Yet in Scotland there seems to exist an attitude that is similar to one that surrounds the question of independence, when it comes to this history. Where Scottish nationalism is empowering, charming and inclusive, English nationalism is racist, and horrible. So the English with their colonies and slave traders are portrayed as the bad guys, where the Scots weren’t really involved in any of it. They were colonised by the English themselves, mind you! At the same time, Glasgow was known as the “Second City of the Empire” and had a port that faced the Americas that was thus perfect for tobacco and cotton import. To say Scots weren’t involved in slave trade is an ignorant and offensive disregard of historical atrocities. But if such a visible example as GoMA does not even discuss its history, how would anyone really know?  And so the thousands of lives lost during slave raiding, imprisonment, horrendous conditions during transportation or simply work on the plantation that were a by-product of what created Cunninghame’s wealth to buy this plot of land in the middle of Merchant City, are silently forgotten.

At least, that’s what I suppose is happening.

Yet as I visit GoMA while writing this column, I pop into Gallery One, where Marie Mul’s exhibition “Cancelled” is currently on show. Or rather, isn’t on show, as the space is empty except for large posters in the windows that advertise the exhibition’s cancellation. Instead, the artist has invited the public to make use of the space, and when I am there, the floor is covered in paper flowers. All made from white paper, some flowers are fragile and intricate, others simple and straightforward, and there’s everything in-between – a strangely emotive mirroring of the marvellous gold flowers on the gallery’s ceiling. Right at the entrance lies a piece of paper that informs visitors about GoMA’s first owner. “This building is steeped in a deep, dark history,” it reads. “We have made a field of paper flowers in homage to the flowers of the tobacco fields.”

Like Scottish winter nights, being deep and dark is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you acknowledge and accept it, by hanging up some lights, for example. Every folded paper flower here seems to be a step closer to a similar acknowledgement of Scotland’s slave trading history.

[Aike Jansen – @aikematilde]

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