Glasgow's dark secret

IT IS a typical family portrait. Hastily arranged, a little stiff. The children are plump and happy; a basket of apples and grapes rest at their feet. Everything is in order for this sunny Scottish family - the Glassfords, one of Glasgow's wealthiest in the 18th century.

Except there is something missing. In the corner is a blank space, the vague outline of a figure. Its absence fills the canvas. The figure belonged to a slave, since painted out.

John Glassford was a hugely successful tobacco merchant. There is a street named after him in Glasgow. It is near Buchanan Street, named after another tobacco merchant, and Jamaica and Virginia streets. These streets crisscross modern-day Glasgow like scars from a slave-master's lash.

For nearly 200 years, these scars have been covered by fancy shops and a fairytale history of a city made wealthy by plucky merchants and hardy shipbuilders. But this is changing. In the gaps of Glasgow's history, in the blank spots of its self-portrait, the slaves are beginning to make their absence felt.

THIS year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. To commemorate the event, cities across the UK are arranging events to foster a reconciliation with this barbaric period of British history. Glasgow, too, is taking part, with the council sponsoring several exhibits around the city. But convincing Glaswegians of the need for such a public reckoning has been a struggle.

"You should see the looks I get on this tour," says Frank Boyd of the Glasgow Anti Racist Alliance, who is running informational "slave walks" through the city as part of the bicentenary commemorations. "People are absolutely shocked and horrified to see how much of Glasgow is connected in some way with slavery. Everyone wants to know how this remarkable truth could have remained untold for so long."

In Glasgow, the city's slave history is only half-hidden. Massive signs announcing Merchant City adorn George Square, and the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art - one of the city's most prominent structures - is now housed in what was once a tobacco merchant's private residence. What is missing in these edifices is the appalling conditions that brought this splendour into being. The barons that built Glasgow into what it is today made their money from trade with slave-worked plantations. This trade was vital to the plantations' survival and so to slavery itself.

A series of industries boomed in Glasgow as a result of the trade in sugar, tobacco and later cotton - rope and leather works, iron foundries, textile factories churning out clothes for slaves - and the wealth spilled out through the region.

Glasgow's port, unlike Leith or Aberdeen, provided a direct shipping route to America and the Caribbean. Through this port, slavery would eventually touch all of the country, as wealthy families from other parts of Scotland married into the trade, or travelled from Glasgow to run the plantations themselves. The Malcolms of Poltalloch in Argyle owned five plantations in Jamaica. Sir Archibald Grant of Monymusk achieved wealth through a rich widow of a slaver, Elizabeth Callenden. Evan Baille, one of four brothers from Inverness, acquired an estate on St Vincent. One or two slave ships departed from Montrose.

Many Scots were gleeful owners of plantations, earning the reputation for being the harshest of taskmasters. In Jamaica, 30 per cent of plantations were Scots owned, and life expectancy on them was around four years. It was cheaper to ship in new labour from Africa than allow slaves to procreate. The slaves who did survive and manage to have a family often retained the surname of their owners. It is unlikely to be concidence that our most prominent black Britons have included Sir Trevor MacDonald and others with Scots' names.

All this is ignored largely because, even during its practice, slavery remained out of sight. In the whole of the 18th century, fewer than five slave ships sailed from Glasgow, and even these would have been empty, heading to Africa to pick up their cargo. In the infamous triangle of trade, Scotland's relationship was hypotenusal; goods were shipped back and forth from colonial plantations only, and the infamous middle passage - its name rightly evoking the Dantesque horror of the journey from Africa to the colonies - remained always at arm's length.

What's more, Glasgow had one of the strongest abolition movements. It has proven easier to remember this than what the abolitionists were fighting to abolish. The owning of personal slaves was banned in Scotland in 1778, 29 years before abolition of the trade and 55 years before slave-owning became illegal in the colonies. The first black doctor was trained in Glasgow in 1837, and the great American abolitionist Frederick Douglass chose his name because he was inspired by the ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment. Even so, some of the most prominent Glaswegians directly opposed the abolition movement. James McDowall, a Caribbean sugar merchant and partner in Glasgow's greatest merchant house, Alexander Houston & Co, who was chairman of the Glasgow West Indian Merchants and Planters, aggressively lobbied against abolition laws. In 1795, McDowall was made Glasgow's Provost.

Stuart Nisbet, of the University of Paisley, is one of a handful of historians working to bring Glasgow's dark past to the light. He says it is difficult to unearth Scotland's links to slavery, in part because at that time those Scots profiting from its practice remained secretive. He has uncovered correspondence from slavers referring to slavery as "the West Indies Affair" or the "Guinea Trade".

"Most attention has focused on Scotland's admirable involvement in the abolition of slavery. However, celebrating the bright aspects is premature, if not offensive, until we face up to the much darker side of Scots' participation," he says. "This really is revisionist history," Dr William Kilbride, the research manager in human history for Glasgow Museums, adds. "So many of Glasgow's conceptions of itself when it comes to slavery are misfounded. Scotland was a willing participant and main benefactor of slavery. The wealth it brought in made Glasgow what it is today."

THIS Friday sees the release of Amazing Grace, a biopic of William Wilberforce that portrays his life-long effort, along with his friend, William Pitt the younger, to pass a bill in Westminster abolishing the slave trade. Among other things, the film focuses on the problem facing Wilberforce and the abolitionists, to make the horror of the slave trade an issue to Britons who lived thousands of miles from its reality.

Last week, in Glasgow, I met Michael Apted, the British-born director of Amazing Grace, who was travelling round Britain promoting the film. We strolled around Glasgow's Merchant City, and stopped to chat not far from the Tobacco Merchants House in Miller Street. "Wilberforce and the abolitionists had a similar problem to those opposing the Iraq war today, which is to say that slavery didn't really touch people," he explains. "People had no real connection to slavery. All they felt was sugar, and the irony of that sweetness was lost on them. There were only a few dozen black people in Glasgow and no real slavery as such, so there was this interesting dynamic as to how the abolitionists could dramatise this horror to them, how they could draw people's attention to it when it was happening 3,000 miles away; that was the challenge."

Apted is one of a group of campaigners who believe that a proper acknowledgement of the slave trade could help smooth out Britain's multiculturalist society. But relationships are thorny, and slavery is a sore subject. His film has already been condemned by black leaders who claim the film "prettifies the tragedy" of slavery, by focusing on Wilberforce, reducing the suffering of Africans to a "mere bit part". Apted defends the film, seeing it as part of a wider reconciliation process.

He says: "I think there is a lot of work to be done in this country about multiculturalism and diversity. The British have an island mentality, a defensive mentality, and I think there is a lot of work to be done to remove discrimination. And I think the acknowledgement of the legacy of the slave trade shines a light on it. It shines a light on racial abuse, which is what slavery is about."

The challenge for men such as Apted, Boyd and Nisbet, is the same that faced Wilberforce: making the abstract real, and drawing people's attention away from glossy shop fronts to the dusty reaches of history. But peace and reconciliation can never come too late. As I part ways with Apted, I take a sharp left turn off Buchanan Street. I look up, and I find myself on Nelson Mandela place.