Apologies for slavery, 'witch' executions and other historical crimes can distract from modern-day scandals – Susan Dalgety

Susan Aitken’s apology earlier this week for Glasgow’s involvement in slavery was full-throated, and no doubt heartfelt.
Nicola Sturgeon recently apologised over the burning of women as witches in the past, while Glasgow Council leader Susan Aitken apologised for the city's links to the slave trade (Picture: John Linton/PA Wire)Nicola Sturgeon recently apologised over the burning of women as witches in the past, while Glasgow Council leader Susan Aitken apologised for the city's links to the slave trade (Picture: John Linton/PA Wire)
Nicola Sturgeon recently apologised over the burning of women as witches in the past, while Glasgow Council leader Susan Aitken apologised for the city's links to the slave trade (Picture: John Linton/PA Wire)

"The blood of trafficked and enslaved African people, their children and their children's children is built into the very bones of this city,” declared the council leader after the publication of a report by the Glasgow University historian, Dr Stephen Mullen, which linked 62 of the city’s street names and eight statues to the slave trade.

Councillor Aitken evoked that most potent of images, the cruel sound of a whip on a man’s bare back. “Glasgow's history to the present day echoes to the crack of the plantation overseer’s lash,” she said, before making an unreserved apology.

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“Many who are alive today still live with the legacy of racism whose roots can be traced directly back to what was white supremacy codified in law and the countries whose populations were stolen and enslaved suffer still. An apology tells them that finally we are trying to understand.”

So far, so progressive, but exactly what is it that Glasgow’s council leadership is trying to understand? Not the history of African slavery, if the audit by Dr Mullen is anything to go by.

His report has been rightly criticised for including one of Scotland’s most famous historical figures, Dr David Livingstone, in his list of eight suspect statues.

Livingstone’s “crime” was to have been employed by Henry Monteith, owner of a cotton mill in Blantyre. Monteith, it transpires, was in partnership with two Glasgow-West India merchants in the 1810s, which – according to Dr Mullen’s interpretation – makes Livingstone the willing beneficiary of the profits of slavery.

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What the report fails to mention is that Livingstone was a victim of child labour, forced to work from the age of ten to help his poverty-stricken family eat, little more than a slave himself. And the report ignores his very significant contribution to ending the slave trade on the East coast of Africa.

Largely self-educated, Livingstone made the seemingly impossible journey from the depths of Lanarkshire to southern Africa, where he spent 30 years exploring a region largely unknown to Europeans.

He also campaigned against the Eastern slave trade, which saw millions of Africans stolen by Swahili-Arab traders. He first encountered its cruelty on the shores of Lake Malawi in 1861, and the fig tree under which he brokered a treaty between local chiefs and the leading slave trader, Salim-bin Abdullah, remains one of Malawi’s most revered national monuments.

There is no talk of destroying Livingstone’s legacy in Malawi. Indeed, the country’s biggest city, Blantyre, is named after the missionary’s birthplace, and he is spoken of as one of Africa’s first freedom fighters.

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While Dr Mullen’s report – and Councillor Aitken’s apology – are firmly focused on the Caribbean slave trade, it was still a strange decision to taint Livingstone’s reputation while giving another famous Scot, poet Robert Burns, a clean bill of health.

The report decided that Burns was “not complicit with chattel slavery in any tangible way. He is the most famous Scot in history not to be involved with Caribbean slavery.” This despite the fact that the poet had gone as far as to buy tickets to cross the Atlantic to pursue a career as an overseer on a slave plantation, or as Burns himself put it, as “a poor negro driver”.

The report’s downplaying of Burns’ ambivalent attitude towards slavery – typical of most Scots at the time – while suggesting Livingstone’s child labour somehow made him complicit in the evil trade, highlights for me the inherent risks in trying to interpret the past to meet contemporary political objectives.

Scotland’s self-appointed progressive politicians, from Glasgow’s council leader to the First Minister, are desperate to be seen to be on the right side of history, whether it is condemning Glasgow’s tobacco and sugar merchants for deeds done 300 years ago, or posthumously apologising to the women executed as witches, as Nicola Sturgeon did only a few weeks ago.

These performative acts should be seen as nothing more than tokenistic. Grand gestures to prove a politician is on the side of the oppressed, but with little or no cost to their administration.

As Susan Aitken apologised for the actions of men long dead, research by the Museum of Homelessness (MoH) charity showed that 80 people died, homeless and abandoned, on the streets of Glasgow last year, a rise of 142 per cent from 2020.

Our history is a complex, messy affair, largely the story of rich powerful elites who used and abused the rest of humanity to increase their wealth and bolster their status. Young men were conscripted to fight wars not of their making. Children were forced into factories and onto fields instead of receiving an education. Women and girls were sold for sex.

And little has changed in Africa since the merchants of Glasgow prospered from the exploitation of west Africans. The continent’s poor scratch for food and water on ancient lands destroyed by climate change and conflict, while we watch their misery on smartphones, powered by rare earth minerals mined from the same ground.

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In recent years, second-rate politicians have transformed politics from action and delivery to a mere performance. Theatrical language and symbolic acts, such as apologising for historic deeds or indulging in culture wars, have replaced any real effort to improve life for the majority or to properly protect vulnerable minorities.

Renaming Glasgow’s Merchant City may make some of the city’s elected representatives feel better about themselves, but it will not prevent homeless men and women dying in the doorways of its exclusive clubs and expensive shops.

If history has taught us anything, it is that words are not deeds.

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