Edinburgh professor renews call to reword history on a statue memorialising man who prolonged the slave trade

Sir Geoff has been campaigning for the plaque for about two years, but to no avail.

Sir Geoff Palmer, professor Emeritus in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, and a human rights activist.
Sir Geoff Palmer, professor Emeritus in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, and a human rights activist.

An Edinburgh professor has renewed his call for a plaque to be reinstalled on one of Edinburgh’s most iconic monuments to encourage a more honest representation of the city’s ingrained ties to the slave-trade.

Sir Geoff Palmer, Scotland’s first black professor, is urging Edinburgh Council to place a new wording beneath the Melville Monument in St Andrew Square to explain in more detail the history behind Henry Dundas, one of the country’s most influential politicians in the 18th and 19th centuries who played a pivotal role in delaying the abolition of slavery – forcing about 630,000 slaves to wait more than a decade for their freedom.

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The professor has been campaigning for the plaque for about two years - but to no avail.

Yet, with anti-racism protests sweeping across the globe after the unlawful killing of George Floyd, Sir Geoff has renewed his call for action to expose Edinburgh’s deep connection with the slave trade.

“Being honest about the city’s inextricable link to the slave trade is a crucial step on our journey to becoming a fair and inclusive society and we can start with this plaque,” he said.

“We need to acknowledge that some of Edinburgh's notable citizens owned and exploited tens of thousands of enslaved people including Henry Dundas who was one of the most influential politicians at the time for delaying the abolition of slavery.

“His attitude cost thousands of black lives, and yet on his memorial there is no indication of what he is infamous for which is completely unacceptable.”

Sir Geoff said historians’ accounts of certain leaders are partially responsible for the racism we see today.

In the case of Henry Dundas’s statue, he argues the lack of honest information about the man, often referred to as “the uncrowned King of Scotland”, will only fuel racial tensions further.

“If you just remove this crucial detail that forms part of the city’s story then you are trying to eradicate a part of history which will inevitably cause tension among those affected by it,” he said.

“I am not asking for the removal of the statue, but just a narrative explaining what Dundas did.”

A committee of historians, including Sir Geoff, is currently locked in an acrimonious dispute about what should be said on the plaque, which was expected to be installed on the monument about two years ago by the council.

Panel member historian Michael Fry, who has written a biography on Henry Dundas – The Dundas despotism – argues that a parliament in 1792 would have been hostile to the abolition of slavery, and the conservative leader had to take a pragmatic approach in pursuing what he describes as “gradual” abolition.

But Sir Geoff, accusing Fry of “humbug”, said the denial of Dundas’s actions to deliberately delay slavery is dangerous.

He said: “What we have seen in America is partially down to historians not telling the truth and avoiding certain detail.

“I believe it’s done as a means of protecting national pride because leaders don’t want their people to believe they did something wrong.

“I call it false national pride.

“Dundas delayed slavery, he wasn’t a ‘gradual’ abolitionist, that is just a play on words.

“His intention to delay it was a self-serving excuse to protect the money of the elite.”

Sir Geoff said evading an informative plaque about Dundas’s attitude could be seen as “protecting” the controversial leader’s reputation and feeding “white elitism” to this day.

“The man enslaved black people, selected his pals as colonial governors and acted against the Scottish martyrs,” the professor added.

“He lived a very elitist life.

“Yet he was impeached in 1806 – why is this not included on his memorial? In fact there used to be a plaque saying that, but it was taken down.

“What we learn in history influences the way we behave, and by ignoring Dundas’s infamous decisions we are in some ways contributing to white elitism in society, which we have seen an example of recently with the officer leaning on Floyd’s neck in America.”

Sir Geoff spoke about racism he has personally experienced in Scotland.

He said part of the tensions come down to Scots being denied an “honest” account of leaders such as Henry Dundas.

“When I first moved into my home in Penicuik I will never forget the neighbour’s daughter coming up to me and saying ‘you moving in here is going to reduce the price of our house.’

“The girl didn’t mean harm, but that’s the way racism can be, it’s ingrained, this elitist attitude among the white that people has been passed on through generations.

“Recently I attended an event to give a talk and a gentleman turned to me and assumed I was a chauffeur for someone, because I couldn’t possibly be the professor giving a lecture.

“That’s the knee on my neck.”

He added: “Racism is the consequence of the past. We cannot change the past, but we can change the consequences, such as racism, for the better, and one of these changes can start with is putting a plaque on that monument and telling the truth about what Dundas did.”

Edinburgh City Council worked with the committee of historians after receiving a petition from Green campaigner Adam Ramsay who is known for condemning “the great tyrant” and urging the council to install a plaque “acknowledging the full brutality of what he did”.

The local authority had hoped the panel would have agreed on the wording of new interpretation by September 2018, but two years on, the wording remains subject of debate.

A City of Edinburgh Council spokeswoman said: “An agreement on final wording of the plaque has yet to be reached.

“The council has been happy to facilitate meetings of the working group but despite ongoing discussions the this issue remains unresolved and is back with the petitioner to progress.

“The council will not be facilitating any further meetings.”