Statues debate: Edinburgh left counting cost of Henry Dundas plaque shambles – Martyn McLaughlin

Some 20 months have passed since the City of Edinburgh Council attempted to draw a line under the contentious legacy of Henry Dundas by approving a new plaque for the Melville Monument.

The fact that the reinterpretation of one of the city’s most prominent memorials remains the subject of considerable controversy is testament to the pitfalls that lie in wait when we come to reckon with our past.

The debate over Dundas’s gradualist approach to the abolition of the slave trade and the political realities of Georgian Britain is one that has played out at length over the past two years, and it would be poorly served by a summarisation in this column.

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To my mind, I agree with those academics who reason that Dundas’s legislative amendment helped prolong the Atlantic slave trade for a decade and a half.

The problem, however, is that the new plaque’s wording infers that he alone bears responsibility for that ignominious delay, stating that it has been “dedicated to the memory of more than half a million Africans whose enslavement was a consequence of Henry Dundas’s actions”.

It is a claim which has riled several senior academics. Professor Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s foremost historian, has described the monument’s recontextualisation as “bad history”, Jonathan Hern, professor of political and historical sociology at the University of Edinburgh, characterised it as a “distortion”, while Angela McCarthy, professor of Scottish and Irish history at the University of Otago, declared it “patently absurd” and “erroneous”, given its exclusion of contributory political, economic, and military factors.

However, Sir Geoff Palmer, Scotland’s first black professor, who was among those who agreed the plaque’s final wording, has accused Sir Tom and others of being members of an “academic racist gang” intent on peddling misinformation about the horrors of chattel slavery. The situation, unsurprisingly, has gone from bad to worse ever since.

One indisputable truth in all this is that we should perhaps not be surprised by the way in which the memorialisation of a figure like Dundas has become so vexed and contested to the point that it has been weaponised by anonymous culture warriors in an online disinformation campaign.

The statue commemorating Henry Dundas in St Andrew Square, Edinburgh. (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)The statue commemorating Henry Dundas in St Andrew Square, Edinburgh. (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)
The statue commemorating Henry Dundas in St Andrew Square, Edinburgh. (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)

Our engagement with our nation’s ties to slavery and abolition is a nascent process. The 20th century may have delivered significant works by historians such as David Biron Davis and Roger Anstey, but they arrived against a persistent culture of amnesia and denial which dismissed any such connections as tenuous, if not non-existent.

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The reckoning only began in earnest in the new millennium with the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act and the arrival of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Both events advanced our understanding of Scotland and the Empire, and gave rise to an explosion in Scottish historiography which continues at pace. Even so, we are closer to the beginning of this iterative journey than we are to the end.

The savage murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has expedited our reckoning. It has also brought about a tension between historical, academic analysis and contemporary debate informed by lived experience. Both these strands are vital to our comprehension of the slave trade’s legacy, and neither deserves primacy.

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Yet it is this tension which the City of Edinburgh Council seems unable – or unwilling – to resolve. It has made only cursory references to the “historic research and sources” used to inform the new plaque’s wording, and out of eight people involved in that process, half were councillors. Professional historians were conspicuous by their absence. No minutes or recordings of the meeting were made, and the council has said that it has no other information detailing the research that was drawn on.

This is, at best, inept, and the situation has exposed the local authority to accusations of playing fast and loose with history. By virtue of the fact it required the approval of councillors, the rededication of the plaque was a political decision. But what did the council hope to achieve?

If its primary consideration was to ensure Edinburgh’s black and minority ethnic community feels engaged and connected with the city’s built heritage, it should say so. That is a fine ambition for a public body committed to equality, inclusion, fairness, tolerance and diversity, but such qualities derive their value from transparency, something which has been sorely lacking.

If, as Adam McVey, the council leader, claimed in June 2020, the purpose of the new plaque was to provide a “more accurate” and “factual” description of Dundas’s life and times, it has failed. The point of such an undertaking is not to stem controversy, appease critics, or iron out complexities. It is to get at the truth of things.

There are too many ambiguities, omissions, and generalisations in the plaque for that to be possible. The council had an obligation to facilitate a dialogue to better inform the public by reflecting the concerns of the community and activist voices while also weighing up scholarly assessments. Instead, it has replaced one historical contrivance with another.

As a consequence, the credibility of its wider slavery and colonialism legacy review risks being undermined. Two years ago, I wrote in this column that the catalysts for the local authority’s decision-making were panic and shame. It has done nothing since to disabuse me of that notion.

The council, of course, is not alone in acting on such tokenistic impulses, as the University of Edinburgh’s move to rename David Hume Tower demonstrated.

Both decisions stemmed from flawed processes devoid of analysis, consultation, or openness, and have been seized upon by those on the far-right who wish to exploit such changes to their own divisive ends.

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History is a nuanced and complex thing. The whole sorry Dundas affair shows how, even after two centuries, the city which once stood as the beating heart of the Scottish Enlightenment would do well to remember that.

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