History Shames Glasgow

Glasgow is addressing its links to the slave trade – how can the city and University take accountability for the past?

Mercantilism drove Britain to great lengths to become the superpower it is recognised as today. As an economic policy, it helped bring large profits made from the extraction and export of raw materials, supported by government-controlled monopolies. Raw products, such as tobacco and sugar, relied heavily on slave labour which mercantilists got through forcibly displacing Africans into bondage and forcing them to work on the plantations of the Caribbean from the 17th century. Native populations when encountered by the settlers in the Americas would often be met with conflict where they would be dispossessed of their land. The mercantilist class relied on the gold deposits and ample hunting grounds in order to replace the natives who were sent to reservation camps, all in the name of expansionism. Scottish settlers from 1710 gained large profits off tobacco trade, namely Merchants such as John Glassford who used his revenues to build mansions on the east side of Glasgow, where present day Glassford street stands. The connection between the social status and wealth tobacco lords gained in putting Glasgow on the map, and chattel slavery have rarely been addressed until now.  

The legacy of these merchants was recognised and commemorated through the grandiose gestures of the gentry of the time. For instance, the mansion of William Cunninghame, whose £10,000 mansion (approximately equivalent to over £1.5mln in today’s money) is now the site of the Gallery of Modern Art. Such a demonstration of wealth made through the traumatic experiences Africans were facing from the inhumane conditions aboard English ships to the separation of families once ashore remained a distant thought. Throughout the colonies, Africans in bondage were not able to communicate their own Horrors of Slavery to the consumers of such tropical produce as sugar or rum.

Robert Wedderburn, a poor mulatto who was born into a Jamaican Plantation, was the Son of a Scotchman and a slave mother who was considered mere property. Growing up, Wedderburn witnessed the poor treatment of his mother at the hands of Robert’s slave owning father. This cooked up a rebellious nature in him which he would use to fight the barbarity of slavery in England through organising underground meetings with other abolitionists, bringing with him the first-hand experiences of the inequity faced by his parents.

Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Glasgow, talked about how Glasgow has set about to recant its past involvement in profiting from the slave trade by carrying on the anti-slavery work, from the University of Glasgow petitioning parliament for the abolition of slavery to honouring James McCune Smith, the first formerly enslaved New Yorker to receive a medical degree. This, however, raises the question: why has it taken this long for a dialogue to open about the decolonising of a predominantly white university such as the University of Glasgow, considering radicals such as Wedderburn, who published the Horrors of Slavery in 1824, were persecuted by the Home Office for raising civil rights issues?

The path towards reconciliation regarding the University’s involvement has come from the recommendations commissioned by the report which has made the following commitments:

  1. Publishing the detailed research conclusions into how the University profited off historical slavery and a statement regarding the path forward through reparative justice actions to be undertaken such as the educational alignment programme and understanding memorandum with the University of The West Indies.
  2. The continual effort to increase racial diversity of students in higher education as well as staff members holding high positions. These are efforts to reduce attainment gaps and increase equity and equality in line with the University’s commitment to meeting diversification of the student and faculty cohort who are often underrepresented.

These are but a few of the recommendations and challenges being met. The report is helping to build a framework regarding taking accountability for a barbaric past which has led to an unequal society that still holds onto its remnants. This report should be a stepping stone towards decolonising the Eurocentric status quo which has come about through the erasure of history and customs. With more civil society engagement, as well as students and staff alike pursuing the recognition of hidden histories, the dissection of the ills of empire and its contributions to society today can continue further.

[Glasgow University African-Caribbean Society]


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