Education is key to understanding our past

Edinburgh council leader Adam McVey is right to highlight the city’s ignominious links to the slave trade. The city’s newly-formed Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group, led by Scotland’s first black professor Sir Geoff Palmer, is assessing statues and street names with links to slavery with a view towards explaining their origins.

The move comes in the wake of a row over the Melville monument in St Andrew Square, amid debate over the role of 18th century Home Secretary Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, in the abolition of slavery. That debate came after a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was torn down and thrown into Bristol harbour, leading to several arrests and claims from Prime Minister Boris Johnson that anti-racism demonstrations had been “subverted by thuggery”.

Racism is utterly abhorrent and Scotland's involvement in trading people as slaves is an appalling stain on our nation's history. Promoting awareness of that history is vital.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In the words of Sir Winston Churchill, whose own legacy is widely seen as tainted by policies linked to the Bengal famine of 1943: “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

An enlightened knowledge of the names assigned to streets or inscribed on statues is undoubtedly to be encouraged. Earlier this year Edinburgh City Council agreed to install a plaque at the Melville monument that acknowledged the role of Henry Dundas in the slave trade and its abolition in the UK. It is to be hoped that similar plaques with similar explanations will be installed elsewhere in the city, after the review group has come forward with its recommendations. City leaders in Glasgow should consider following suit.

The past is more nuanced and multi-faceted than many people today might believe.

In defence of their ancestor, descendants of Henry Dundas have pointed out that he was in favour of the abolition of slavery and that his gradual approach to the issue as Home Secretary ensured that legislation to enact it was passed by MPs when it was.

Education is the key to understanding our past, and an acknowlegement of uncomfortable truths will hopefully avert any repeat of the criminality seen in Bristol.