David Walsh: Confronting our unwanted history

Buchanan Street in Glasgow is named after Andrew Buchanan, a merchant who owned two slave plantations. Picture: John Devlin
Buchanan Street in Glasgow is named after Andrew Buchanan, a merchant who owned two slave plantations. Picture: John Devlin
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Rededicating streets which mark Scotland’s links to the slave trade fails to deal properly with the past says David Walsh

Imagine for a moment that the street you walk down everyday to the supermarket, to collect your grandchildren from school or to go church, was named after the perpetrators of your family’s state-sanctioned murder.

Such is the reality for many citizens in the Spanish capital. More than 40 years after his death, 167 streets in Madrid continue to bear painful associations with the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

Spain passed the Historical Memory Law in 2007, condemning the crimes committed during his reign of terror. The law’s stated aim was to eliminate links to the regime, something many Spaniards have been understandably reluctant to do. Not only would it mean dredging up a painful past, it would entail the exhumation of mass graves as well.

While progress is slow, citizens in cities like Léon have recently voted to rename Franco-era streets in honour of women like Frida Kahlo, Rosa Parks and Jane Austen. As little as five per cent of streets in some Spanish cities bear women’s names, and even then they are mostly saints or nuns.

The move has been cited as the inspiration for a similar discussion at Glasgow City Chambers. In a council motion put forward last month, Scottish Greens councillor Dr Nina Baker proposed that the city rename some of its best known streets linked to ‘wealthy slave owners from Glasgow’s past’ to recognise abolitionists and the achievements of women.

I should point out here and now that I earnestly commend the drive to recognise women’s contributions to Scottish society. What Glasgow politicos should be reluctant to do, however, is push to do this at the expense of a dark and painful episode of Scotland’s own history.

The act of naming streets - with all the potent symbolism and politics that goes with it - should never be undertaken lightly.

As an Erasmus student in Lyon, I lived in a small studio near a street called Rue Joseph Serlin. A narrow but busy thoroughfare beside the city’s town hall, it was a path well trodden by the Lyonnais. As with many streets across France, a blue street name plaque denoted who the person was behind the dedication. These plaques invariably carried a familiar footnote: ‘Murdered under the German Occupation.’

Street names are part of what eminent French historian Pierre Nora described as ‘sites of memory’ - markers in creating a homogenous historical narrative. There are those who would argue that post-war governments manipulated these ‘sites of memory’ to contrive and perpetuate an alternative version of history more palatable to French society; that collaboration with the Germans was the exception and not the rule.

Thousands of prominent streets in cities, towns and communes across France were renamed to memorialise both heroes and martyrs of the Resistance. In stark contrast, the epitaph on a monument dedicated to the victims of deportations of Jews to the death camps carried out by Parisian police allocates blame solely to the ‘so-called Government of the State of France.’

France is still arguably struggling to come to terms with the shame of its Nazi collaboration 70 years on. In comparison, the push for changing street names in Spain is two fold; firstly, to redress a glaring imbalance in the recognition of women, and secondly, to try to finally heal the festering wound left by the reign of a brutal fascist despot.

The latter has and will continue to be an arduous process, not least because it risks exacerbating simmering political tensions, particularly over issues like Catalonia’s bid to secede from Spain. The region in particular was menaced by Franco’s authoritarian regime, enduring decades-long suppression of its language, culture and traditions.

It could be argued that the scrubbing out of the Francoist legacy is imperative to national reconciliation, something that cannot be achieved while the glorification of repression and murder remains the status quo.

Why then should Glasgow not rename streets to draw a line under a similarly dark period of its history? There is one contentious phrase in Dr Baker’s motion I take issue with and it is as follows: “...these [names] serve to remind us to strive to avoid past horrors.”

The implication that most Glaswegians are conscious of the fact that these streets are connected to the slave trade or indeed that they remind them to be wary of recommitting past sins is highly questionable. On the contrary, neither the city council nor Holyrood have made any meaningful acknowledgement of the fact that Scots reaped the benefits from the proceeds of chattel slavery two centuries ago.

Scotland has yet to be revived from its collective amnesia in regards to its slavery past. True, there have been some moves to face it head on, not least thanks to explosive works by historian Sir Tom Devine.

If I stood on Buchanan Street and asked folk passing by who it was named after and why, I would hazard a guess that no more than a handful would be able to tell me that it was named in honour of Andrew Buchanan, a tobacco merchant who owned two slave plantations. Or that Jamaica Street was given its moniker to fete the West Indian colony where Scots owned or managed a third of the island’s sugar plantations.

Most of these streets retain their original name from their inception, with a great many of them appearing on early city maps dating as far back as 1807 when Glasgow began to prosper thanks to the riches of the colonies. Indeed, they in turn fed the founding of new industries, churches and schools throughout Scotland.

Perhaps a better place to start would be to put forward a motion in the city chambers calling for funding for a new Merchant City museum dedicated to slavery.

It would serve as a focal point to educate future generations as well as acknowledge in perpetuity the heinous role Scotland played in the kidnapping, trafficking and sale of human beings into enslavement and the enrichment gained thereafter through trades that were built on the backs of slave labour.

The eradication of any trace of the city’s association to the slave trade should not be considered a prudent course of action, not least when it risks being done blithely without wider public discourse or even a city plebiscite.

Any attempt to do so would be a brazen bid to both assuage guilt and distort the city’s collective history. As in France, the rededication of streets to reflect a veneered version of history only serves to prolong the agony of confronting the past.

At some point, all nations must take ownership of all aspects of their history; the good and the bad.