Edinburgh’s slavery past must be laid bare for all to see – John McLellan

Following calls for the removal of statues of those involved in the historic slave trade, John McLellan says they should be used to educate people about the past instead.
An empty shop was graffitied because it was on Dundas Street (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)An empty shop was graffitied because it was on Dundas Street (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
An empty shop was graffitied because it was on Dundas Street (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

Dancing around the symbolic corpse of a long-dead slave trader or even a Victorian Prime Minister is never going to bring about meaningful change.

Not my words but those of Trevor Phillips, the former head of the Commission for Racial Equality and then the Equality and Human Rights Commission, writing in The Times this week.

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In his response to the toppling of slave-owner Edward Colston’s statue in last weekend’s Black Lives Matter demonstration in Bristol, Mr Phillips called for white people to do much more to tackle racism and racial inequality, but observed that Bristol’s black mayor Marvin Rees seemed exasperated by “the focus on a single incident at the expense of his painstaking work on improving education and job opportunities for ethnic minorities”.

Here, Heriot-Watt University’s emeritus Professor Sir Geoff Palmer, who has been trying to have a plaque installed on the column commemorating Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville, to explain his role in delaying slavery’s abolition, doubted the effectiveness of the removal of such commemorations.

“I don’t want statues to be taken down. My view is you remove the evidence, you remove the deed,” he told the BBC. “Racism is a consequence of the past. You may take street names away but we have difficulty convincing people about the past. Removing it is very tricky because we are altering history,” he said.

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The Dundas column was duly daubed with slogans this week and then that of Dundas’s son Robert Dundas on Melville Street got the same treatment, accompanied by demands that Melville Street be renamed.

A shop on Dundas Street was vandalised simply because it was beneath the street name, so by the same logic Stewart’s Melville College pupils could be in danger if identified by their blazers.

Changing street names and demolishing statues because of association with slavery is one thing, but in any community in existence since before Victorian times, especially in mercantile European nations, it’s virtually impossible to identify a single brick in historic city centres which can safely be said not to have been funded in some way through an abhorrent trade in human misery.

Although he supported the trade’s abolition, the great Scottish philanthropist David Dale’s mills at New Lanark spun raw cotton produced by slaves. Indeed, the entire Americas are built on the expropriation of land from native people and the enslavement of Africans and while Britain was one of the first to abandon slave trading in 1807, with slavery itself finally abolished in 1833, it took Brazil until 1888.

We heard this week that the leader of Edinburgh Council would have “no sense of loss” if the Dundas column was removed from St Andrew Square but association with what were, in their time, widely held views should mean more than one statue will have to go.

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The Prime Minister to whom Trevor Phillips referred was William Gladstone, who also sought to delay abolition, largely because his father was a slave owner in the West Indes. That’s his statue on Coates Crescent.

The Nelson Tower on Calton Hill commemorates the Admiral who, a few months before his death at Trafalgar in 1805 wrote to his friend, Jamaican slave owner Simon Taylor that he would defend Britain’s West Indian interests “whilst I have an arm to fight in their defence, or a tongue to launch my voice against the damnable and cursed doctrine of [abolitionist] Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies”.

That’s arguably a lot worse than the views of Henry Dundas, who in 1778 successfully secured the freedom of Jamaican slave Joseph Knight from a Perthshire landowner. Would there be a similar lack of concern if the landmark tower and its famous time-ball were to be demolished? Or Dundas House which faces the statue?

I’ve long thought St Andrew Square deserved a more illustrious person on the column, largely because until this row very few people knew anything about him at all, but then there are usually skeletons in the cupboards of most historic figures.

The likelihood in Edinburgh is that the Dundas column will stay but a long-overdue plaque to explain his part in the abolition debate will be affixed at last, as that’s as it should be.

I may be a white, middle-aged, middle-class male, but if good people like Sir Geoff Palmer and Trevor Phillips doubt the effectiveness of such gestures without meaningful education and action then who am I to argue?

Our history shouldn’t be cleaned or covered up, it should be laid bare for all to see.

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