Glasgow University sets up study to chart any links to slavery

Glasgow University with its grand architecture may have  benefited from money generated  by the slave trade; below, David McDonald. Picture: Danny Lawson
Glasgow University with its grand architecture may have benefited from money generated by the slave trade; below, David McDonald. Picture: Danny Lawson
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Glasgow University has appointed a researcher to investigate links between it and the slave trade in the late-18th and early-19th centuries.

Dr Stephen Mullen, author of It Wisnae Us, a seminal work charting the links between plantation-owning tobacco and sugar lords and the city’s rich architectural heritage, will spend a year sifting through the archives looking at bequests and other ways the university might have benefited from slavery-produced wealth.

I didn’t want to be in the position where we were reacting

“A working group will consider the evidence uncovered by this project and decide on the best way to move forward,” a Glasgow University spokesman confirmed yesterday.

The university has also become the first in the country to join the international consortium of Universities Studying Slavery in the hope that it can learn more about the complicated legacies of slavery and how to deal with them.

“We have a proud record of anti-slavery activity in Scotland,” the Glasgow University spokesman said. “This included educating James McCune Smith, a formerly enslaved New Yorker who became the first ever African American to receive a medical degree.

“We are absolutely committed to finding out if the university benefited from slavery.”

The move comes as Glasgow City Council prepares to set up a cross party working group to consult on the creation of a permanent physical marker of wealthy merchants’s complicity in the trade in human beings.

The plan is expected to be announced by council leader Susan Aitken at the launch of the Nelson Mandela Scottish Memorial Foundation campaign to create a statue of the former South African president on 9 October.

The city chambers is also hosting a Glasgow and Slavery evening as part of Black History Month.

In the past, the council and the city’s museums service have been criticised for not doing enough to acknowledge Glasgow’s role in the slave trade.

After the Commonwealth Games, when a series of awareness-raising initiatives were staged to highlight the issue, Archie Graham, then chair of Glasgow Life, promised action.

But critics say the process stalled and little progress has been made in the interim.

“Every year, in the run-up to Black History Month, we get lots of emails asking what the city is doing on this,” says deputy leader David McDonald.

“I didn’t want to be in the position where we were reacting to complaints. So our idea is to try to turn our acknowledgement of our role in the slave trade into positive action.”

McDonald said past suggestions have included a purpose-built museum or a permanent exhibition within an existing civic space.

Earlier this year, Graham Campbell – a driving force in the campaign to force the city to confront its past – was elected councillor for a Glasgow ward.

Campbell, whose family is from Jamaica, said: “We are at the beginning of the process, but what I hope to achieve at some point is that the city officially recognises its responsibility for the slavery legacy and agrees some way shape or form to mark that presence through an official institution.”

Insight: Page 29