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Public consultation to be held on Edinburgh’s links to slavery

The Melville Monument in the snow
Thursday 30th December 2021 01.41

A public consultation has been opened on Edinburgh’s links to colonialism and slavery.

The Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialism Review Group was launched in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protest and aims to assess the legacy of slavery in the capital.

It is formed of people from diverse backgrounds who live or work in Edinburgh, and has launched the consultation through the City of Edinburgh Council.

The online consultation, which will be open until 19th January 2022, asks citizens for their views on several different ‘themes.’ Examples include ‘Edinburgh’s New Town and the physical expansion of the city, 1767-1850.’

The Review Group will also work with schools across Edinburgh and host discussion sessions with various community groups. 

Statues and monuments which directly reference Edinburgh’s colonial past are visible throughout the city.

On St Andrew Square, for example, stands the Melville Monument, a monument to Henry Dundas, who legislated significant delays to the abolition of the slave trade. 

Various street names in Edinburgh also highlight these figures, such as Dundas Street in New Town.

In 2020, anti-racism campaigners ‘renamed’ several of these streets, placing an alternative plaque next to Dundas Street that read ‘Emancipation Street.’

The University of Edinburgh subsequently renamed the David Hume Tower to 40 George Square. David Hume, a famous philosopher, infamously helped his patron buy a slave plantation in 1776.

The removal or replacement of statues and monuments such as these has been a popular subject for debate since the Black Lives Matter protests.

In Bristol, the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down during protests, whilst the University of Oxford have rejected calls to remove a prominent statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes. 

However, Sir Geoff Palmer, who is the chair of the Review Group, has stated that he does not want to see statues taken down. He told The Big Issue, ‘if you remove the statue, you remove the deed.’

Instead, the prevailing idea seems to be to alter these statues to reflect the roles that the figures played in the slave trade.

The City of Edinburgh Council recently approved the installation of a plaque on the Melville Monument which condemned Dundas’ role in expanding the British Empire and maintaining the slave trade.

Joe Sullivan, a student at the University of Edinburgh, told The Student, "I don't think that it's right to have roads and statues in Edinburgh dedicated to people who helped drive the slave trade.

"Much of Scotland's wealth during the formative years of its modern economy was generated serving the movement and use slave labour across the world, from building of warships to defend the Confederacy, a state dedicated to the preservation of slavery, on the Clyde to real estate expansion financed by slave plantations abroad in Edinburgh.

"There is this perception that Scotland was wholly a victim in the story of the British Empire, but there are still former slave plantations - and now towns - in what was the British empire bearing names of Scottish towns and cities, for example, Kilmarnock, Jamaica.

"Given Scotland's immense presence in, and benefit from, the slave trade, it seems absurd to me to continue to honour those who took part in it in this city's roads and statues, and I think we should replace them with plaques explaining why they were taken down or renamed."

Image of the Melville Monument via Flickr