22 November 2015

Glasgow: Forgetting slavery?

"Don't keep your head down. Look up." Whether you're trudging through Glasgow in the summer sleet, or the winter snow, the local sometimes needs reminded to contemplate the grandeur of the place. Edinburgh's skyline sucks the air out of you, a jagged man-made silhouette of spikes and spires. Glasgow's mountainous legacy of wealth is more easily overlooked. 

Its richly appointed statues stand sentinel over the bustling streets, peering down from formidable stone piles and Corinthian columns. Folk only rarely seem to notice the bombast and effrontery of the city chambers. We're more taken with the Duke of Wellington's famous headgear than the tobacco lord's townhouse which now hosts the Gallery of Modern Art. Familiarity breeds - not quite contempt - but a curious kind of taken-for-grantedness. I've been a more attentive reader of the many towns I've visited as a tourist than the fabric of the city in which I now live. I suspect I'm not alone. 

Kevin McKenna has an interesting piece in the Observer this morning, arguing "we Scots must face up to our slave trading past." This passage particularly struck me:

Well, a lot more of us ought to know now and we ought also to be demanding that we quietly take down the grotesque Merchant City signage and simply desist from using the term. And while we’re at it, we can also start looking at more appropriate names for Jamaica Street, Tobago Street and the Kingston Bridge, as well as the other roads and avenues that bear the imprint of evil. After all, we rightly celebrated renaming St George’s Place as Nelson Mandela Place. Of course there is a body of resentment over “reopening old wounds” and “raking up the past”.

I squirmed with discomfort here. Wouldn't renaming these streets represent only another erasure? Don't these streets quietly avow the past? I have a good deal of sympathy with Kevin's basic thesis. Scotland's role in legally-sanctioned kidnap and forced labour still feels marginalised in the public memory, not least in Glasgow. This can amount to what Stephen Mullen has described as a "myth of detachment and non-involvement" in slavery: "it wisnae me."

My secondary education contained next to no Scottish history. Needless to say, slavery and colonialism also went almost entirely unmentioned. In law school, I went on to study how Roman law was used to devise the early-modern duties and responsibilities and master and slave. I read the famous (1788) case of Joseph Knight, in which the Court of Session declared that Scots law did not recognise the institution of slavery. But overall? My understanding of this city's and this country's involvement in the exploitation of slaves remains sketchy, impressionistic. Again, I suspect I'm not alone. 

All that rum and cotton, that blood and toil and tobacco and molasses, has settled mutely into opulent stone I toddle past, all too often, bovine and unthinking. Jamaica Street doesn't (only) bear the imprint of the evil of slavery, but the imprint of our history. That history may not be inscribed on our memories. But these echoes - these nudges - preside over our streets, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. They ensure, every day, that Glaswegians have no excuse for failing to "face up to our slave trading past." 

Virginia and Antigua, Buchanan and Ingram, these names are indicting, they're our history, and they should stay. 


  1. Seconded. Here in Dundee the name of Camperdown is everywhere, in street and park names. Admiral Lord Duncan, son of the city, stands by the Kirk in bronze on a plinth. Now the Dutch are our esteemed partners in the EU should we not erase these names and take down the statue in a spirit of European solidarity? Once you start with the principle you are addressing there's no end of historical revisionism to be enacted.

  2. Felt this was a fairly ludicrous position for McKenna to take. "We Scots" are the only people in the entire world to have streets redolent of a slave-trading past? There are suddenly no Jamaica Streets in Liverpool and Bristol?

    So, "We Scots" are encouraged to wipe history from our streets and place names because it might reflect the history of the development of our nation, as it does in every other city, town and country in the world? Where does it stop? Would McKenna have renamed the entire new town of Edinburgh during the 1st and 2nd World Wars because most of the streets are named after Hanovarian (German) royals, as are Fort William and Fort George.

    The times our countries live through are mapped by the history of our street, town and city names and should not be dictated by political correctness in this way.

    1. Liverpool did actually proposed renaming all of the slavery-related streets back in 2006, but the plan fell apart when they realised that it would mean changing Penny Lane - named after James Penny, slave trader & anti-abolitionist.

  3. Spot on. Don't understand why NcKenna is saying this. Teach the kids history and take them on a tour of city streets or go see the Duke of Sutherlands statue!
    I don't get this denial BS about slavery except denial by the state who have whitewashed Imperial History and if you listened to Gove he was trying to reinforce this stuff in English schools. The media and the government are still sabre rattling over Syria peddling the same distorted view of who we are or rather who Britannia is!

    1. What about "Marcus Garvey St (formerly Jamaica Street)" and similar renamings for the others - maybe even a blue plaque to explain why the naming and renaming took place?

  4. If it's okay with you and Kevin, you can keep your guilt.

    No one minimises Scotland's part in British Imperial exploitatation of people through slavery but, as today, the real blame lies with the greedy, immoral business and political leaders of the day, not the ordinary citizens, who, as today, don't get a say in who gets exploited (see Osborne in today's papers).

    So let's keep our eyes on the ball. Let's work to abolish the true modern day slavery - the mountain of UK debt that is going to blight the lives of generations of young Scots to come.

  5. Well said David,
    The 1% shoulder much of the responsibility the same 1% today as it was back then. They may change their names in War time but they and their legacy remain, exploiting everyone and everything they can!

  6. No one minimises Scotland's part in British Imperial...slavery but, as today, the real blame lies with the...business and political leaders of the day, not the ordinary citizens."

    The uncomfortable fact is that quite a few "ordinary citizens" were involved in slavery. It wasn't just plantation owners who owned slaves. There were plenty of Britons living in Britain who were small scale owners, owning one or a few slaves who they rented out. Think buy- to -let - not the poorest, but not just the 1%.

    See the UCL database of those who received reparations when the slaves were freed. Search by area or name.


    1. I have no doubt there were "quite a few" ordinary lowlifes who owned and exploited slaves. So what? "Quite a few" is not the majority. The majority did not have the power to stop it and so they can't be held responsible for it.

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  8. According to this article in the Daily Record:


    "At any given time there were only about 70 or 80 slaves in Scotland."

    I am confident all of those slaves would have been owned by a single, tiny group of wealthy, tightly interconnected Scottish families prominent in the business and legal classes.

    Let them and their ancestors feel the shame for Scotland's exploitation of slaves, not the vast majority of ordinary Scots.

    Let us instead blame the likes of David Cameron, whose Scottish ancestors received the equivalent of three million pounds in compensation after they were forced to free the 202 people enslaved on their Jamaican sugar plantation:


    What they received was a truly unimaginable sum at the time, and goes a long way to explaining how Cameron managed to achieve his otherwise inexplicable station in life. Let Cameron pay reparations to the families of those his ancestor exploited, even if it bankrupts him!

    Interestingly the Daily Record article also reveals:

    "Scots played a huge role in winning the slaves their freedom. Many ordinary Scots gave a lot of time, effort and sacrifice in the cause of seeking freedom."

    So I eagerly anticipate articles from Kevin McKenna and Andrew Tickell offering a less distorted and more complete consideration of Scotland's role and responsibility for slavery.

    If those articles do not appear we can conclude that telling the whole story doesn't suit the agenda of those trying to make Scots feel guilty for something most of our ancestors weren't responsible for, nor had any power to prevent.

    1. You will not find a perfect nation or perfect ethnic group, but a lot of people don't like the fact that Scot's have not been the most oppressed people who have ever lived, nor the greatest. McKenna alludes to this:
      "It addresses the complacency that suffuses the recent social and cultural narrative we Scots have begun to construct about ourselves: that we are the absolute dog’s bollocks when it comes to fairness, social progressiveness and equality."

      A gentle reminder of this fact doesn't suit their agenda of self-pity.

    2. David McDowall, your confidence is misplaced I'm afraid. Its a myth that slave-ownership was the sole premise of the elites. There were around 100 black people in Scotland in the 18th century although not all were slaves (their legal status was ambiguous until the Knight Decision at the Court of Session in 1778). Many were owned by tobacco lords and the sugar aristocracy, but some owned by the middling sorts: ship-captains, grocers, Doctors and the like. I must strongly underline that its a myth that only the elites profited from slavery: the academic literature connected with the UCL project and many other works demonstrate that.

    3. Are you incapable of understanding simple English? I have not claimed that ONLY the elites were involved in slavery. I am saying the vast majority of ordinary Scots were not responsible for slavery. If the wider population indirectly benefitted from it, that was through no choice of their own. The vast majority of people in Glasgow today have nothing to "face up to" and nothing to feel ashamed of with regard to slavery. Stop trying to make the innocent majority take the blame for the immoral actions of a small, greedy minority. You aren't fooling anybody with your dumb quotes from history books.

    4. Good morning David. You seem an awfully angry fellow, resorting to insults and the like. Of course I understand English. Firstly, I agree with you 100% that Scots shouldn't feel guilty for the nation's historical involvement with Caribbean slavery. That would be absurd and I don't know of any historians who claim Scots should feel guilty. However, the only direct quotes I can find on this blog referring to 'face up to' anything [i.e. Glasgow's involvement with Caribbean slavery' is from your own contributions and and Kevin McKenna's article. Tickell's point is another matter: that erasing street names would defeat the main purpose of what McKenna seems to be proposing. I am not surprised that you are angry reading journalistic articles on this research area: they are designed to be controversial. PS. Aren't you a little embarrassed describing evidence from academic history books 'dumb' whilst you cite from that bastion of enlightened thought, the Daily Record?

  9. It was a typically sanctimonious 'over the top' lecture from Kevin McKenna. 'The past is another country' someone said. Of course we should acknowledge Scotland's role in slavery but to suggest that Scotland has a big problem with that, or that we should now be apologetic is just silly. Scots might have a more mature insight into their history, warts and all, if they actually learned any Scottish history in their schools, or if their country was acknowledged in what passes for 'British' history in the BBC's output. Kevin McKenna might do better to get outraged about that situation before he passes judgement.

  10. Scotland's history in slavery should also take into account Scottish slaves of Scottish owners in our mines of old (see Smout's History of the Scottish People ), where generations of mine workers were enslaved and that slavery was enshrined and protected by law. It irks me that the only slavery deemed worthy of interest is that of Africans, many of whom enriched themselves by selling their neighbours.

  11. Bugger me, a lot of missing the point among the comments.

    As Stephen argues (i was at the launch of his fine book It Wisnae Us, I have heard Stephen speak several times) is that we simpy have not accepted that (a) Scots played a major part in running the slave plantations of the West Indies, (b) Scotland made a lot of money out of them.

    This is manifestly the case. Devine himself has apologised profusely for not mentioning slavery in his first book on the Tobacco Lords.

    Our national bard Burns was almost off to be one of the many Scots in the planations - as he put it, a 'poor negro-driver' (and yes, the driver is the poor one he means, not the negro). And also yes, many Scots campaigned against slavery, including Burns' own badtempered Edinburgh publisher, Creech.

    It was a novelist, James Robertson, not a historian, who brought ths topic back into the light. Jospeh Knight is a great novel.

    Re renaming, this is just Kev off on one. Nelson Mandela Place is fine and made an excellent point, Jamaica St etc should stay as they are. And we must not forget - again - what they signify.

    1. It's you who is missing the point.
      The majority of ordinary Scots were not responsible for running slave plantations, nor did they make any money out of them.
      People can write books trying to spread the blame onto every Scot, but it's a completely false premise.
      Of course you can't sell books about ordinary Scots having zero responsibility for slavery, so we get daft books, novels and articles trying to push the false idea that they were.
      The true perpetrators and beneficiaries of slavery were the banking, mercantile and legal classes - not the ordinary citizens of Scotland.
      I have provided inarguable facts backing that up.
      The true scandal here is that the likes of Cameron's family had unimaginable wealth showered upon them for freeing slaves.
      They should have been forced to pay the equivalent of three million pounds in compensation to those they enslaved, on pain of imprisonment.
      I look forward to reading Stephen's book about that.
      In the meantime you know what you can do with your guilt.

    2. 'People can write books trying to spread the blame onto every Scot, but it's a completely false premise.'

      No one is arguing that. No historian i know of is 'trying to spread the blame onto every Scot.' Only an idiot would argue that.

      What has been argued by Devine, Mullen and others - and proved beyond doubt - is that many Scots grew rich from the slave plantations (many of which were run by Scots), that the Scottish economy was flooded with money from slavery, that our beautiful merchant city was built on the backs of slaves.

      Thankfully we can also recognise that Scots played a major part in campaiging against slavery.

      'In the meantime you know what you can do with your guilt' - David, we can all be rude on occasion, but civility is better. We are all grown ups here.

    3. So calling someone an "idiot" isn't "rude"? That's an example of you being "grown up" and "civil"? Give me a break.

      I've provided hard facts and evidence, not generalisations and insults like you.

      "No one is arguing that."

      Look above:

      "Glaswegians have no excuse for failing to 'face up to our slave trading past."

      So 1,750,000 people in Glasgow should feel guilty about slavery?

      Looks like you're the idiot.

    4. Hi David. You're passing off a helluva lot of misinformation as 'inarguable facts' and 'hard facts and evidence'. An error of ommission is just as bad as an error of commission, I'm afraid. The majority of Scots were not involved in Caribbean slavery, admitted. The Sugar Aristocracy in Glasgow were at the pinaccle of the trade, also admitted. But thousands (perhaps up to 40,000) young Scotsmen temporarily sojourned to the Caribbean between 1750-1834. Scots were all over: Jamaica, Grenada, Demerara, Trinidad, Tobago etc. Not all of these were elites, in fact, most were middling or lower order who managed to get a decent education before they left. Not all made massive fortunes, sure, but many did as I discovered over many years. Either way, it demolishes the myth that only elites were involved. This comforting myth also completely disregards the wider impact on the Scottish industrial and commercial development: to what extent the Scottish Industrial Revolution was funded by New World connections is still up for debate amongst historians, but TM Devines recent question 'Did Slavery make Scotia Great' is far from rhetorical. The cotton phase of industrialisation, for example, had stong connections with Caribbean slavery. This allowed Scotland to develop as did the wider Commercial revolution connected to the New World trades: banking, shipping, insurance. All of this helped make Scotland, and indeed, Great Britain the advanced nations they are today.

    5. What "misinformation"? Two quotes from newspaper articles? Are you calling them liars? But thanks for proving my point. Forty thousand Scots is NOT the majority of ordinary Scottish citizens. It is a tiny minority! So let the ancestors of that small subsection take the blame and "face uo" to their shameful past. Leave the other five million of us alone. Stop trying to foist your unearned guilt on us and stop accusing us of spreading misinformation when you are the ones peddling the totally false idea that the majority of ordinary Scots were to blame for slavery. It is patently not true.

    6. Hello David. I'm not saying the newspapers are liars (on this occasion). I am saying that the information on the black presence in 18th century Scotland (which comes from the research of academic historians) that you cite is out of date (2007) and thus underestimates actual numbers from the most recent research. The other article sensationally regurgitates small details from the Legacies of British Slaveownership project at UCL to name and shame descendants of prominent Britons who claimed compensation in 1834. The naming and shaming approach underestimates the pervasive nature of slaveonwership in Great Britain in 1834 (as well as its impact) which tends to instill a belief amongst newspaper readers that it was only the rich who profited. It wasn't. However, what I do - and many others - point to is the disproprtionate impact that New World slavery and the associated trades had on the industrial and commercial development of Scotland. Most recent estimates suggest Scotland benefitted more per capta than England, Wales and Ireland. Although I stated unequivocally that the majority of Scots were not involved with New World Slavery - and I'm in a position to know - the 'small numbers' argument (its well known in the historiography) that you cite disregards the impact of New World slavery: investments in strategic industries at key phases of industrilisation (eg. cotton), as well as the impact on the wider commercial revolution. Historians do not operate to make people feel guilty and I agree 100% that we, as Scots, should not feel guilty today despite Kevin McKenna's article and your angry posts on here. But historians have a duty to explain and we're really only beginning to understand Scotland's full role in New World slavery.

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    8. You try to discredit the facts I offered by saying they are "out of date" and "sensational".
      Okay, let's use the "facts" you and others have used and let's see just how absurd this idea is that Glaswegians need to "face up to OUR slave trading past":

      1. "quite a few 'ordinary citizens' were involved in slavery." ("quite a few")
      2. "around 100 black people in Scotland in the 18th century although not all were slaves" (i.e. in other words, very nearly the 70-80 I quoted from what you claim to be an "out of date" Daily Record article)
      3. "some owned by the middling sorts: ship-captains, grocers, Doctors and the like." (precisely same merchant class I say were actually responsible for slavery)
      4. "Burns was almost a 'poor negro-driver" (Wow! "Almost"! I'm impressed!)
      5. "thousands (perhaps up to 40,000) young Scotsmen temporarily sojourned to the Caribbean" ("Perhaps" 40,000? In other words, you aren't sure, it's just a figure "sensationally regurgitated" from some study you read)

      This pathetic list of generalisations and apocryphal facts is offered up as "evidence".
      So, being outrageously over-generous to you, there were about 200 wealthy merchants perpetrating slavery in Scotland (probably actually half that), and "perhaps" about 40,000 other Scottish "hangers-on" cashing in by going to the Caribbean.

      So based on the evidence of your own statements, only a tiny minority of ordinary Scots had any direct role in slavery, and no ordinary citizens of Scotland were responsible for instigating it in the first place.
      Everyone in Scotland did benefit "per capita" from slavery, but they had no choice in whether they did or not, because the small group of actual perpetrators weren't giving them that choice.
      That doesn't allow you to alloate the BLAME for slavery on everyone in Scotland on a "per capita" basis. Blame the small group of actual perpetrators who were to blame!
      Stop falsely claiming I said ONLY the elite were responsible for slavery. I HAVE NOT SAID THAT. I am not "angry" - although god knows it would be understandable if I was, given people like you who insist on trying to push guilt down other people's throats despite being told not to.
      And no, I am not shouting by using capital letters. I am using capital letters for emphasis. Shouting is something you do with your mouth. I do not kow-tow to nonsensical "rules" made up by the internet etiquette police.

    9. I repeat, I do not and never have attributed blame or guilt regarding historical involvement with Caribbean Slavery to any individual Scot alive today. It seems that only you and Kevin McKenna are debating over this. I provide objective analysis based on empirical research. Since you seem unable to comprehend the basics, I'll leave you to your Daily Record. Good day to you, Sir.

    10. David, in your passion you misunderstand my use of the word ‘idiot’.

      At the risk of reawakening your wrath, I thought it was clear that I was saying that the idea of blaming every Scot living or dead for slavery was idiotic - it’s like saying that every Christian and every Muslim is responsible for their slave-owning ancestors.

      The crux of the matter for me re Glasgow and slavery is that Liverpool and Bristol have gone much further along the road in acknowledging the reality of the past. There is still I think - was there a few months ago - a sign in Glassford St praising the ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ of the Tobacco Lords, which is kind of like Liverpool and Bristol praising the ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ of captains of slave ships.

      Glasgow needs to do more. I was one of the few dozen protestors in George Square when our most egregious of civic leaders, David Hodge, had the SA ambassador to lunch. Hodge afterwards observed that ‘you couldn’t expect people to come down from the trees and govern themsleves’ (this was the 1970s, not 1870s). The renaming of St Georges Place to Nelson Mandela Place (due to Michael Kelly I think) was a consequence of that wretched day.

      I agree with Andrew & others about the undesirability of renaming Jamaica St etc, but we do need to be more aware of our past, good and bad.

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  13. I think we all agree that slavery was a terrible stain on our humanity and that some Scots were involved in the business and that Scotland profited from the trade and that we are perhaps a somewhat richer nation as a result. But we have no direct connection with the perpetrators other than through our genes. So why should I feel any sense of personal guilt? If some of my family's personal wealth owes its existence to slavery what am I supposed to do?

    But why stop there? We should also be feeling very guilty about the Clearances (both in the Highlands and the almost forgotten Lowlands). Or perhaps the colonisation of the Americas and Antipodes, which verged on a European genocide of the native populations, partly inadvertently through disease, but also by design. Perhaps the Scandinavians should feel guilty about the terrorism of the Vikings, or the (allegedly) 16 million descendants of Genghis Khan...and so on.

    Slavery was a particularly nasty form of exploitation of the poor by the wealthy but there is plenty of exploitation still going on. I would rather see people writing about this. In the book "Capitalism's Achilles Heel" Baker explains in detail how wealthy western financial and corporate institutions transfer billions out of developing nations into the coffers of the West and hide it away in tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions. For every $ given in Aid many more $$$'s find their way back to western economies.

    It happens here too, where wealth is spirited out of the pockets of the poor into the secret bank accounts of the wealthy, aided and abetted by successive governments since Thatcher made greed respectable. We've seen Osborne doing it for the past 5 years with more to come. Now, there's something to feel guilty about.

  14. Well said Geejay! Don't let the guilt-peddlers grind you down!
    Let them write their revisionist history books, their fantasy novels, and their propaganda news articles!

    They will try to tell you you're "missing the point", an "idiot", "not grown up", "not "civil", "rude". They will try to tell you ANYTHING if they think you'll swallow whatever bull they're peddling this week.

    They will say "no one is arguing" what they quite clearly are arguing. They will refuse to acknowledge obvious facts like, for example, the real beneficiaries of "our" beautiful Merchant City were Glasgow's not-so-beautiful slave-owning MERCHANTS. Duh!

    They focus on one aspect of an issue (the part that means YOU need to remember how guilty you are) whilst ignoring any aspect you could justly take pride in. But when it comes to hard facts they offer nothing beyond apocryphal quotes and generalisations.

    For the avoidance of doubt: Hell will freeze over before I'd let any of these sanctimoneous gits will tell me what I should feel or believe, or lecture me about what I am or what I'm not.

    A five-year-old could see through their manipulative "disapproval" crap but, oh no, they insist on going on regardless, telling us all what we should think and feel, boring us all to death.

  15. Thanks for the reference on the blog. The article by Kevin McKenna has stirred up a lot of controversy, as newsaper articles sometimes do. I'd advise any interested parties to read the academic text which Kevin's article is commenting on (and he attended the launch): 'Recovering Scotland's Slavery Past: The Caribbean Connection' (I'm not just plugging it as I have a chapter in it). It's a scholarly book that demolishes many myths related to Scottish involvement in the Caribbean. I agree with the main thesis of the blog here, by the way. I wouldn't rename streets like Virginia Street, Jamaica Street or Glassford Street. But would a slight modification to reflect the new understanding be appropriate: 'Slave Merchant City' or 'Slave Produce Merchant City'? Just a thought.

  16. Many interesting comments on here, which I have enjoyed reading, however I read LPW's original post as being a query on whether "we Scots must face up to our slave trading past" as proposed by the McKenna article, should include the renaming of places, streets and towns to expurgate any reference to the history of slavery.

    It is a shameful period in the history of any country, as are many others, but the entire history and development of a country, good and bad, as expressed in the names we give to our towns, cities and streets, should remain to remind us of the events which formed the nation in which we live.

    Roll on the day when we have an Independence Street.

  17. It is right that the partial and sanitised history many of us received in school should be debunked. In the 1960s we were taught about 'The Triangular Trade', but somehow, it was not connected with us in Glasgow, nor those two big red brick W. H and O. Wills' factories just along from the school.
    So eradicating names of streets and districts would be a further sanitisation and the names must remain.
    We are big enough boys and girls to be able to accept that our country has similarly nasty episodes to those of 'furrin' countries. But, we cannot undo these terrible acts. And,we bear no responsibility for them. However, what this history shows is that we are not 'exceptional' and that we must continually examine ourselves and guard against creating the conditions in which such atrocities are acceptable.

  18. "My secondary education contained next to no Scottish history. Needless to say, slavery and colonialism also went almost entirely unmentioned."

    Interesting. Where and when did you go to school Maister T? Back in the day, the 60s and 70s of the last century, my Primary and Secondary education contained a fair bit of Scottish history, including slavery and colonialism. We were taken on Primary School field trips to Virginia St and told that slaves were kept in the cellars beneath our feet. We were made familiar with conditions aboard slave ships on the Triangular Passage. There were exhibitions in the People's Palace at that time which pulled no punches regarding Glasgow's role in the Triangular Trade.