Slavery museum proposed for historic Leith building by heritage campaigners

A new museum exploring Edinburgh's historic links slavery, colonialism, the persecution of witches and child exploitation would be created in the city under proposals put forward by heritage campaigners.

Custom House was brought into use for the Message From The Skies project during Edinburgh's Hogmanay festival in 2019. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Custom House was brought into use for the Message From The Skies project during Edinburgh's Hogmanay festival in 2019. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Custom House, one of the most historic buildings in Leith, has been proposed for the new attraction after it was name in city-wide review of historic buildings, monuments and sites collected to the slave trade.

The Georgian building, which dates back to 1812, would highlight the city’s “forgotten and hidden history” by recognising enslaved or colonised people who have “contributed to Edinburgh’s development and prosperity” and also examining why their stories were largely “deeply buried”.

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The idea for a justice-themed museum and interpretation centre has been suggested by the Cockburn Association, the city's longest-running heritage body, in an official response to a consultation into how the city should respond to the Black Lives Matter protests.

Custom House has been proposed for a new museum exploring Edinburgh's slave trade history.

The association's new report calls for the ongoing review to act as a “catalyst for a new wider and inclusive reflection of the history of the city”.

It has urged the city to “recover and celebrate the voices of those who contested the institutions who sustained the injustices”.

Association chair Cliff Hague has previously branded slavery and white supremacy “offences against humanity” and insisted there was no case for “preserving monuments and symbols that celebrate perpetrators and practitioners of oppression”.

However, in its new submission to the council, the group has insisted any specific changes to monuments or place names should be subject to full consultation with local communities and groups, and also be backed by “a strong evidential basis”.

The former Custom House in Commercial Street in Leith dates back to 1812.

The Cockburn Association has also stressed the need to acknowledge that modern-day forms of slavery still exist, adding that companies and institutions “may still be exposed to current slavery practices in their operations and supply chains both at home and abroad”.

The city council ordered a review of monuments, statues and street names across the city in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests around the world in response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

An independent review group set up by the council launched a consultation in January into how the city should address Edinburgh’s “slavery and colonialism legacy”.

The Cockburn Association’s report states: “The review should aim to set in place a process that fills in gaps in the received history of the city, and in doing so reconciles past and present by recognising the contributions to Edinburgh’s development and prosperity made by people who were enslaved or colonised.

Custom House in Leith has been proposed for the new museum.

“Equally, it is important to recover and celebrate the voices of those who contested the institutions and individuals that sustained the injustices.

“The review should be considered as a catalyst for a new wider and inclusive reflection of the history of the city.

“An evidential approach focusing on awareness, communication and education about the history and key issues is the best way forward.

"The need for recognition of the positive contribution to Edinburgh that many persecuted individuals and groups have made should be an objective.

"This is a forgotten and hidden history and the lived experience of the many, many individuals who through slavery and colonial oppression were forced to contribute to the development of Edinburgh, and wider Scottish society, remains, for the most part, deeply buried.”

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