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The University of Glasgow’s move to abolish its historical connections to the slave trade

ByEmily Hall

Oct 14, 2018

Content warning: mention of rape

The University of Glasgow has announced a programme of reparative justice after the publication of two years’ worth of research regarding the institution’s historical connections to the slave trade. In a paper titled ‘Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow’, Dr Simon Newman and Dr Stephen Mullen write about the diverse roles the university played as a recipient of donations from slave-owning alumni and a proponent of abolition.

More broadly, Glasgow was closely bound to the slave trade with their exchange of tobacco, sugar and cotton. Much of the centre’s infrastructure benefited from a slavery-dependent economy, but the recent research highlights specific donations and individuals inextricably connecting the city’s development with the history of slavery.

Robert Cunninghame Graham is one such individual, an alumnus of the university who went on to profit from the slavery, owning and raping slaves in the West Indies before returning to his alma mater where he made financial contributions and served as a rector.  

In total, the report estimates the money given to the University of Glasgow which is fully or partially derived from slavery would be worth tens of millions in today’s currency. The university is adopting the report’s full programme of recommended, rolling reparations. This will include the creation of a centre for the study of slavery, a building and plaque meant to memorialise the enslaved on campus, a rotating professorship and a memorandum of understanding with the University of the West Indies as part of a larger partnership being developed.

Graham Campbell, an African Caribbean councilman serving the Glasgow City Council told The Guardian he was “particularly delighted at the use of the phrase ‘reparative justice,’” outlining specific expectations for exchange programmes and scholarships for Jamaican and other Caribbean students. He added, “after this report, there is no way the city as a whole can stand by and not act in a similar fashion and I fully expect us and other academic institutions to follow Glasgow’s lead.”

Universities in the United States have also taken steps towards reparative justice. This has happened more swiftly in the USA, perhaps because the legacy of slavery is more palpable when the geographic distance between the enslaved and those profiting from their labour is smaller. This also comes with its own complex legacy of memorialisation and reparation. Some white families continue to profit off of slave plantations through paid tours, despite institutions continuing to grapple with the structural violence of slavery.

Interestingly, the Caribbean is sometimes referred to as ‘the deep south of Great Britain’. This phrase indicates how, despite the vast distance between the countries, it has become imperative that efforts are made to illuminate the ways that Scotland, in particular, benefited from slavery. In 2016, the Scottish Slavery Map was launched online. This map showed where claimants lived when they applied for compensation for freed slaves in 1833 – the year slavery was first abolished in parts of the empire. According to the map, New Town here in Edinburgh was densely populated with slave owners.

This was brought to attention more recently in a new “young person’s heritage manifesto” calling for “honest conversations” about the city’s past in conjunction with Edinburgh World Heritage Trust’s 2018 Year of Young People.

The University of Edinburgh, for its part, published ‘Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past’ out of Edinburgh University Press in 2015, and runs a course entitled ‘Slavery in 18th Century Scotland’ within the law school. They are also involved in a collaborative project with the University of Boston called The International Network of Scholars and Activists for Afrikan Reparations. Whether the sudden increase in public awareness spurred by Glasgow brings the discussion of reparations to the capital remains to be seen, but there has been no denial that historic links to slavery exists on the East Coast of Scotland in addition to the West.

Image: Cornell University Library via Flickr

By Emily Hall

As a writer, Emily contributes to news, features, comment, science & technology, lifestyle, tv & radio, culture and sport. This native Seattlite is a cake pop enthusiast who can regularly be found trying to make eye-contact with stranger’s dogs on the streets of Edinburgh.

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