On the top floor of the People’s Palace, Glasgow’s temple to its industrial heritage, researcher Marenka Thompson-Odlum perches precariously on a ladder set up in front of one of the city’s best known art works.
Much of the surrounding room speaks of working class struggle: around the dome are Ken Currie’s fiery murals charting the history of resistance from the Calton Weavers to the 1980s miners’ strike. Below, excerpts from the speeches of Red Clydesider Jimmy Reid are displayed in a glass cabinet. The portrait I have come to look at speaks only of wealth and status. It shows tobacco lord John Glassford sitting in his finery, his extensive family at his side and a basket of fruit at his feet. Thompson-Odlum, however, is pointing out the barely visible profile of an enslaved boy’s head in the top left-hand corner.
Over the centuries, the boy – a human status symbol – faded from view; no-one knows if he was painted out or simply disappeared under layers of grime. He re-emerged during a clean-up in 2006. But what has been recovered is not so much an image, as the shadow of an image; a spectral presence hovering on the periphery of the painting like a guilty conscience.
The Glassford portrait is a powerful metaphor for Glasgow’s attitude to its involvement in the slave trade. The Merchant City was founded on exploitation. Its grandest thoroughfares – Buchanan Street, Ingram Street, Dunlop Street, and, of course, Glassford Street – are named after the traders who made their money through slave-run tobacco and sugar plantations; the neo-classical mansions that grace them were built with the fortunes they amassed.
Yet somehow, over the centuries, Glasgow managed to bury its tainted past; to celebrate its architectural heritage without acknowledging the misery on which it was based.
Its merchants were laid to rest in ostentatious tombs in the Cathedral or the Necropolis with its commanding view of the city’s skyline. But of their links to slavery there was little mention. As for their victims – the men, women and children forced to toil on their land – they were effectively airbrushed from history.
For the past decade, academics, activists and artists have been trying to reclaim their past. The 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 2007 saw a flurry of books on the role of Scots planters in the Caribbean, where names like Campbell and MacDonald proliferate.
During the Commonwealth Games in 2014, author Louise Welsh and architect Jude Barber set up the Empire Cafe, while Graham Campbell, the founder of the now-defunct African Caribbean Centre, co-produced a site-specific production called Emancipation Acts.
When the games were over, the council accepted the city’s complicity and pledged action; but while other ports, such as Liverpool and Bristol, invested in permanent museums and/or exhibitions, the Second City of the Empire failed to deliver on its promise.
Glasgow is a city replete with plaques and statuary to powerful white men, but there is no permanent reminder of the source of its wealth nor any memorial to the victims who – like the boy in the Glassford painting – remain flickering figures at the edge of our collective consciousness.
Now – at last – all that seems set to change. As preparations for Black History Month get under way, the city is finally psyching itself up to confront its past. In August, Glasgow University appointed Dr Stephen Mullen – author of It Wisnae Me, a book about the tobacco and sugar lords – to research the extent to which the institutions may have benefited from slave-produced bequests. The Museums Service is staging a series of exhibitions, including Blockade Runners at the Riverside Museum, which explores the role Clyde-built ships (illegally) played in prolonging the American Civil War. And, at the 9 October launch of the Nelson Mandela Scottish Memorial Foundation’s campaign to create a statue of the former South African president, city council leader Susan Aitken is expected to announce plans to set up a cross-party working group to consult on the creation of a permanent exhibition or memorial.
This is in addition to ongoing research projects, such as Glasgow University’s Runaway Slaves, which involves collating and digitising newspaper advertisements placed by “masters” trying to locate fugitives, and the creation of a Minecraft computer game in which the workings of a plantation can be explored.
“Scots have often been accused of ‘amnesia’ regarding the nation’s historical connections with Caribbean slavery,” says Mullen, a former joiner whose journey into academia began when he joined Glasgow Anti-Racist Alliance (now CRER).
“Historians and museums professionals in particular have been held responsible for the lack of popular understanding. But this is shifting.
“In 2015, Tom Devine’s edited collection Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past was Edinburgh University Press’s bestselling book. And academic research is percolating into the popular consciousness too, in ways that can only be described as a cultural awakening.
“With Glasgow’s colonial past under scrutiny like never before, it is clear historians, artists, activists and writers have opened up a considerable debate. Now the question is: how should the imperial history of the city be addressed?”
Originally from St Lucia, and, therefore herself descended from slaves, Thompson-Odlum is currently in the third year of an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded PhD exploring the impact of slavery on Glasgow Museums’ collections.
A striking woman with an explosion of gold-flecked braids and a natural effervescence, she draws my attention to a silver collar – used to shackle a slave in Scotland – and another smaller painting of a female shopkeeper standing behind her counter in 1790. Thompson-Odlum points out the bowl of lemons, the cones of sugar, the bottles that are probably rum. Though it doesn’t explain this on the accompanying information panel, the shop-keeper makes her living selling products brought back from the plantations.
The number of artefacts with overt connections to the slave trade, however, is not enormous, so most of her research is focused on the way the merchants spent their wealth: the goods they purchased; the portraits they commissioned, the impression they were trying to create.
One of the things that fascinates her most is the collection of punch bowls, which were at the heart of the city’s thriving social scene in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The punch was made from lemons, lime, rum and sugar and served at lavish merchants’ gatherings at venues such as the Hodge Podge Club.
“I think it’s interesting how the whole idea of Glaswegians, sociability and the rise of clubs centres around consuming the things that are created by enslaved people,” she says. “The bowls are made from the finest china; they are so delicate and dainty when slavery is the least dainty thing imaginable. It seems to me it’s almost a conscious decision to surround yourself with these finely made things in order to distance yourself from how you make your money.”
Thompson-Odlum’s research is helping to build up a better understanding of the impact of slavery on those who profit from it. But the inevitable focus on the white slave owners over black slaves – whose lives remain undocumented – is a constant source of frustration.
Three months spent at the Library of Congress in Washington DC – where the Glassford family’s business records are held – yielded plenty of information about the tobacco stores he opened across the states, but nothing about the identity of the boy in the portrait. “I wish I could give the enslaved people voices,” says Thompson-Odlum. “It makes me sad that they go unheard.”
The same frustration is inherent in the Runaway Slaves project run by Thompson-Odlum’s Glasgow University supervisor Professor Simon Newman, who has traced hundreds of advertisements placed by Scottish masters, suggesting ownership of slaves in Scotland was not uncommon.
These advertisements are important because – together with the court cases sometimes fought on their recapture – they contain tiny insights into how slaves in Scotland lived .
“We know, because the advertisements (and other sources) tell us, that a reasonable number of slaves joined churches; that some learned saleable skills, like carpentry, which meant they could potentially find work elsewhere – and that in not insignificant numbers they married into the local community and so produced mixed race populations,” says Newman.
The 50 words the advertisements contain may be the only record left that a person actually existed; but they are still written from the perspective of the owner and may be quite derogatory.
To turn the slaves from ciphers into fully-drawn human beings requires creativity, which is why writers and artists have such an important role to play in reclaiming the past.
As part of Newman’s project, for example, William Pleece has been commissioned to create a graphic novel based on the story of three Scottish runaways; it will be disseminated in Scottish secondary schools, where the Higher syllabus now includes the Atlantic slave trade.
A similar leap of imagination was required for sisters Moyo and Morayo Akande as they set about making 1745 – a short film about two runaway slaves which premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and will be shown during a civic reception at Glasgow City Chambers during Black History Month in October.
The daughters of Nigerian immigrants who grew up in Bearsden, Moyo and Morayo were also inspired by newspaper advertisements and a sense that Scots were under-informed about the country’s role in the slave trade. They are now developing the short – which explores the slaves’ predicament as well as the universal theme of human relationships – into a full-length feature film.
“When I started to research the project – and found out about the street names – I guess I was shocked because I wasn’t aware of the history,” says Morayo. “If you look at the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art [a Palladian mansion built by tobacco lord William Cuninghame], there’s nothing on it explaining how it was funded.”
Moyo says she was shocked she hadn’t learned more about the Atlantic slave trade at school. “We are both young black Scottish women living here and very proud to be, but not knowing this part of our history was quite disappointing,” she says.
The sudden buzz around the issue of slavery has been created by a confluence of events. The controversy over Confederate statues in the US and the change of administration at Glasgow City Council have given a fresh momentum to an issue that had fallen down the agenda.
The fact this year’s fresh intake included the city’s first black representatives – Ade Aibinu, Tory councillor for Victoria Park and the aforementioned Campbell, now SNP councillor for Springburn/Robroyston, means pressure is likely to be sustained.
In his maiden speech, Campbell, whose family is from Jamaica, talked about his own ancestry; he is descended from both black slaves and white planters, and wears a map of Africa on a chain around his neck to remind him of his heritage. “My father’s grandfather, Captain Campbell, owned a plantation, but post-slavery,” he says. “I have not really traced my history because I thought it would upset me. But I suppose I am ready now. My father is 80 and he wants to know more so I will have to find out.”
When Campbell moved from London to Glasgow 15 years ago, he was frustrated to discover the city in denial, but channelled his negative emotions into the Glasgow Anti-Racism Alliance, the African Caribbean Centre and an organisation called Flag Up Scotland Jamaica.
He would like to see a permanent slavery museum on the scale of Liverpool’s and the public better educated on the consequences of colonialism. “People often ask me if I want Glasgow to apologise, and of course I do,” he says. “But an apology will be meaningless if there isn’t also a proper educational programme with the citizens that involves them in the process of recovering their own history.”
One of the lessons he wants people to learn is that it was slaves who abolished slavery. “It wasn’t gloriously nice white liberal politicians, it was slaves who found it intolerable and kept having rebellions; it was slaves who forced politicians to recognise they were humans.”
Whatever the outcome of the consultation, there will be a cost to permanently marking the city’s role in the slave trade; but both Campbell and David McDonald, the deputy leader of the council believe there could also be economic dividends in the form of ancestral tourism.
“The Mitchell Library gets 40,000 inquiries a year from people looking for information about their families and history,” says McDonald. “A lot of that will be white families and white histories, but we think there is a big piece of work to do in terms of black history of black families too.”
However the greatest potential dividends of confronting the past are not financial; they lie in coming to terms with who we are, what we did and the extent to which slavery continues to shape the world today.
As we sit in the cafe in the Winter Gardens – the glass house at the back of the People’s Palace – Thompson-Odlum fingers the sachet of Demerara sugar on the side of her saucer. “Bringing it all back home,” she laughs.
In fact, there are echoes of colonialism all around us: from the tea we are drinking to the exotic botanical plants which Thompson-Odlum says make her homesick for her garden in St Lucia.
Slavery may have long been abolished but its poisonous legacies endure. It lies at the roots of deepening racial tensions in the US, the continued economic divide between white and black in the West Indies, the disproportionate number of Afro-Caribbean men in UK prisons and the high unemployment rate in many black neighbourhoods.
But what is the point of Glasgow raking up the past? Is it an exercise in self-flagellation or conscience-salving? An act of atonement or of reparation?
For Thompson-Odlum it is about increased empathy and reconciliation. “I am not about going round pointing fingers and saying anyone is ‘guilty’, because I live in the now,” she says.
“I just think it’s good to acknowledge your history, because once you acknowledge it you begin to understand ideas of whiteness and white privilege; you see the discrepancies between people and you see how the idea of racism was born. Once you understand the roots of all that, you start to see where people are coming from and it is possible to move forward together.”