Scotland and Slavery: Consequences of the Slave Trade Today

Despite the conversations sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement, it is often easy to think that the problem lies across the Atlantic. It is important to look inwards for a moment and examine the legacy of racial oppression linked to our very own Glasgow. Scotland’s – and indeed Glasgow’s – role in the transatlantic slave trade from the early 1700s and its prevailing effects on today’s society are undeniable, and regardless of the vigour of the BLM movement, they often go undiscussed. Perhaps you have heard of the issue concerning Glasgow’s street names, many of which carry the names of wealthy merchants and slave traders. In June, BLM campaigners renamed some of these streets, putting white-on-black signs next to the originals, with new street names inspired by historical enslaved people, black campaigners, and black Britons who have been killed at the hands of the Scottish administration and the police. However, these street names are only a small glimpse into Scotland’s colonial history, which deserves to be examined further.

Glasgow’s wealth stems from the triangular trade practiced by Glasgow’s ‘Tobacco Lords’, various Scottish merchants and slave traders who made money by trading tobacco. Scottish ships carried cloth, copper, and guns to West Africa, where they traded these goods for slaves. These ships sailed to America, where in turn the enslaved people were sold to plantations, where they produced sugar, cotton and tobacco, which were then shipped to Britain. The economic transformation of Scotland in the 1800s was largely enabled by the money made off slave trade, as argued by Sir Geoff Palmer, Scotland’s first black professor. The type of slavery practiced is referred to as Chattel Slavery, where the slaves were treated as ‘chattel’ – property that could be bought, used, and sold as per one’s liking. The treatment of the slaves was inhumane, and the rules and punishments imposed upon them shortened their life expectancies to only a few years, and many died in the horrid conditions on the ships before even reaching America. On plantations, slave owners held records of their slaves in the same manner as they held records of their animals and other property. These enslaved people were often named after Scottish towns, and some Scots liked to dress their slaves in their clan tartan. As observed by David Hayman in his documentary Slavery: Scotland’s Hidden Shame, it seemed easy for Scots to ignore the inhumanity of the trade, as slave ships did not sail directly from Glasgow’s harbours. Therefore, the legacy of slavery in Glasgow was not very visible. Out of sight, out of mind – or is it so?

Today, the remnants of the tobacco lords’ influence are found around both Glasgow and Edinburgh, but not in a manner that acknowledges the problematic aspect of their trade. The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol has caused a relevant point of debate to re-emerge: in what light should we view these modern landmarks that commemorate individuals who were key figures in such an unethical practice? What should be done to these landmarks, many of which today have functional purposes? This summer, Edinburgh had its own dispute over a statue, as the city council has been reviewing the statue of Henry Dundas and the message it portrays. The man it commemorates delayed the abolition of slavery in the British Empire by 15 years. Moreover, many of the buildings that we admire in both Glasgow and Edinburgh have been built with money derived from slave trade. Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art was originally built as a home for William Cunninghame, a tobacco lord who made his fortune from his plantation in Jamaica. Similarly, Edinburgh’s Bute House, the current official residence of the First Minister, was once home for John Innes Crawford, who owned the profitable Bellfield sugar plantation in Jamaica, along with the slaves working there. The wide-reaching effects of slave trade on the Scottish economy hits closer to home than you may think, and the University of Glasgow is not free of blame when it comes to this – it benefited from slave trade as it received thousands of donations from these merchants in the 18th and 19th centuries, as found by a study done by the university. The university has announced that it will pursue a reparative justice programme – a series of measures that involve the creation of a centre for the study of slavery, and a memorial on campus.

However, as much cathartic as it would be to say that slavery is a problem of the past, we cannot claim so in good conscience. The issue of the overrepresentation of BAME minorities in prisons is often discussed in the context of the United States, and is illustrated brilliantly in Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary 13th, which examines the transformation of segregation-based slavery into the use of prisoners as free labour in the economically fruitful prison system in the US. This is not, however, solely an American issue – the problem manifests itself in the United Kingdom as well, which has the most privatised prison system in Europe. According to the Prison Reform Trust, 26% of the prison population (over 22,000 people) belong to a minority group. To put this in context, if the prison population were an accurate reflection of the ethnic make-up of England and Wales, we would have over 9,000 fewer prisoners. Imprisoned workers have no right to organise and no access to pensions, nor have they the possibility of signing a contract. Thus a free task force is created for industries which can profit off the free labour. This, arguably, bears a sinister resemblance to slavery. Similarly, it may be shocking to hear that the British public has been part of the reparation payments that were given to slave owners as an appeasement for their lost ‘property’. The promised reparations amounted to £20m – about £300bn in today’s money. The money borrowed to finance these payments was so large that this debt was not paid off until 2015, and it was paid by British taxpayers, a lot of whom would be the descendants of the enslaved people brought here by the said slave owners. In contrast to the large sum given to plantation owners, the freed enslaved people received no compensation for their dislocation and maltreatment.

History is written by the winners. Victors control archives, and those who are exploited have often had no possibility to voice their stories or to have them preserved. In Scotland, history was written by the slave traders, whose actions were overlooked in the name of the wealth they provided to the city. It was easy for them to choose whose experiences to focus on, and what to leave in the shadows. A visit to Glasgow’s People’s Palace provides an example of such erasure – on the background of the family portrait of John Glassford, a tobacco merchant and plantation owner, an African footman slave has been painted over in an attempt to conceal the family’s association with slave trade.

Only recently has postcolonial research emerged to study the experiences of the colonised in depth. Other than the lieu of physical evidence of Scotland’s involvement in slave trade, slavery has had a psychological effect on the minds of the communities that were forcibly displaced and oppressed. A phenomenon called colonial mentality explains the development of an internalised inferiority complex and collective depression, and has been observed to be a form of transgenerational trauma. Instead of giving in to the general atmosphere of collective amnesia and dismissing the consequences of slavery on modern society, it is crucial to acknowledge the injustice and the prevalence of the effects today. Now, if ever, is the time to educate oneself of the past, and focus on standing up for the unprivileged communities in the present.

[Kristiina Kangasluoma – she/her – @overthefrogwall]

[Image Credit: British Library Archive “Ten Views in the Island of Antigua” – William Clark ]

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