Glasgow and Caribbean Slavery: Acknowledging the Evidence

Ok. So I checked the University College London Legacies of British Slave-ownership website for Mullens who claimed compensation from the British Government on the abolition of plantation slavery in 1834. There are none. This is perhaps unsurprising. As my grandfather’s family were from Kilmarnock, I suspect my ancestors made the journey over from Ireland at some point. Although there were some Irish slaveowners, they were, in general, less involved than the Scots or English in the slave economies of the British West Indies (see Liam Hogan’s recent article for a good discussion of this). It is, of course, possible that if my ancestors were indeed Irish they may have been indentured servants who worked on the plantations of Barbados or Montserrat. I guess I’ll find out more if I ever get around to my family tree. Would I censor any unpalatable facts I did discover? Absolutely not but then I’m not a famous movie star in the public eye (yet). The recent allegation (although the facts are a little more complicated) that Ben Affleck requested the fact his ancestor, Benjamin Cole, owned twenty five slaves in Savannah, Georgia in 1850 should be left out from the PBS documentary series ‘Finding Your Roots’ raises a number of interesting questions. What was the biggest issue in this episode? That Affleck’s ancestor owned slaves, or that he requested the T.V. programme left out the unpalatable aspect? Probably the latter. Indeed in Great Britain, the ancestors of several prominent individuals, including David Cameron, have been identified as compensation claimants and it didn’t generate that much adverse publicity for them. Is there an assumed degree of guilt or culpability across the centuries? This question is pertinent to Scots today, given the ongoing debate about the nation’s connections with New World Slavery. Quite simply; how should nations, cities, institutions and individuals whose antecedents and ancestors were involved with New World Slavery deal with this past? What is clear is that censorship of connections with slavery is not an uncommon occurrence – even at executive level. I have argued elsewhere that in Scotland in the late 2000s there was a clear lack of will in government circles to accept the more unpalatable aspects of the nation’s past. I’ll revisit this argument in this blog and comment on developments since. In 2006-7, the then Labour led Scottish Executive (remember them?) produced a booklet that commemorated the bicentennial of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807. The booklet was intended to illustrate a history of the Scottish role in Caribbean slavery. However this had a narrow focus. The two historians commissioned to undertake the project, amongst the leading authorities in Scotland, were dismissed after undertaking the research and disagreeing about the booklet’s final content and style. Iain WhyteThe Scots abolitionist historian Rev. Dr. Iain Whyte, stated to the media at the time: ‘In my view, they wanted a particular slant that was not historical. I felt that they wanted certain stories that weren’t possible to produce, to change the text in certain ways. I wasn’t prepared to do that. The government always has a certain agenda and they felt that what we were producing wasn’t what they wanted’. Significantly, the two historians suggested that the booklet should illustrate the deep level of Scots complicity in the slave plantations. Both recommended that there should also be a follow up study to examine the unique Scottish role. However, the booklet’s government editors were resistant to the notion as, they affirmed unironically, the general population in Scotland was unaware of this involvement.SESL Subsequently, the editors of the booklet made 188 changes to the research, which minimised and softened the role of Scots perpetrators. These revisions were not, of course, consistent with the professional integrity of the two academics. After some debate the research was shelved but also embargoed to prevent wider dissemination. The Scottish Executive eventually produced an official booklet that contained a more palatable, watered down version of the role of Scots in the Caribbean slavery. This amnesia and ‘whitewashing’ was directly played out in the event, Homecoming Scotland in 2009, a ‘year-long celebration of Scotland’s culture and heritage’ managed by Event Scotland in partnership with Visit Scotland, funded by the Scottish Government and part financed by the European Union.HC This new initiative to develop the Diaspora Market, via a £3 million programme and £2 million of marketing, encouraged ‘Scotland’s global family to come home’ to participate in festivities, celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, and to revel in the achievements of Scots emigrants. The marketing of the Homecoming, however, was firmly directed towards the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. There was no mention of the Caribbean islands at all, in spite of successive waves of young Scotsmen sojourning to the region in the colonial period. So, what has changed since 2009? Firstly, it seems the criticism was taken onboard in the planning of last year’s Homecoming 2014. The Scottish Government funded the conference ‘The Global Migrations of the Scottish People: Issues, Debates and Controversies’ at the Scottish Diaspora Centre at University of Edinburgh, some panels of which directly addressed the Scottish connections with the West Indies. It was therefore recognised that academic debate could, and should, complement popular heritage events. Professor Tom Devine, former Director of the Scottish Diaspora Centre, has been the most prominent historian to challenge the limited recognition of Scotland’s long connection with New World slavery. Due to his strong criticism of the ‘Burns Supper’ school of Scottish history, he was lumped in with ‘British unionists’ by some in the SNP. Although this claim seems a bit foolish now since Devine was a strong supporter of Scottish Independence in 2014, it underlines that commentary and research on this aspect of the national past has the capacity to stir emotions and to generate newspaper headlines. Devine has complemented the criticism with academic output.RSSP He has edited (and I contributed a chapter to) a new book titled Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past: The Caribbean Connection which will be published later this year. The volume promises to ‘systematically peel away the mythology and radically revise the traditional picture’ of Scottish involvement with Caribbean slavery. The text adds to a growing body of research on this theme which has broadened from studies of merchants in Glasgow to other regions of Scotland. For example, scholars such as David Alston and Michael Hopcroft of GCU are uncovering more detail about Highland connections with the Caribbean. Academic research and expertise is percolating into popular culture. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the Cultural Programme of the Commonwealth Games 2014. Empire, 2For me (although I’m biased), the Empire Café and Emancipation Acts were the highlights of this programme. In their own inimitable way, both events demonstrated the profound involvement with Scots in New World slavery but also powerfully challenged the lack of modern recognition in Scotland in general and Glasgow in particular. One of the most powerful messages was the continuing absence of representation of Caribbean slavery in the city’s museums. Indeed, the city of Glasgow remains the only Atlantic port in Great Britain that was involved with the slave trade and slavery (London, Liverpool and Bristol being the others) that does not have a permanent exhibition or memorial.EA, GOMA Nonetheless, these large scale public discussions of Caribbean slavery in ‘The Merchant City’ were landmarks events and 2014 will surely be viewed as watershed moment in years to come. But credit where it’s due. Glasgow Museums have shown themselves to be willing to engage with politically charged discussions about how the city’s institutions represent this aspect of the past. KG2The city’s leading institution, the Kelvingrove Museum, is how Glasgow, as a city, struts it stuff. However, the ten million visitors to the museum between 2006 and 2012 would have learned much about the inglorious aspects of the city’s past such as sectarianism and domestic violence, although the involvement with Caribbean slavery was conspicuous by its absence. Thus, the How Glasgow Flourished exhibition that complemented the Commonwealth Games was an important project that heralded an important development. One small section recognised the city’s involvement with New World slavery and the impact of exploitation on the development of the city. HGFThis side-lining was perhaps symbolic of the partial modern acknowledgement of Glasgow’s role in Caribbean slavery. However, I did note several comments from visitors in the book stating they were pleased to see that slavery was acknowledged. So, although very small, the inclusion of the information was an important first step: the city’s top institution publicly acknowledged the long connections with chattel slavery. This is a conversation that won’t go away either and the Museums have recognised this. A new collaborative Ph.D. studentship at Glasgow Museums and the University of Glasgow is now offered to investigate ‘the histories of objects created or acquired during the age of slavery, their provenance and uses, and the ways in which some were connected to slavery or reflective of the consumer culture enriched by slavery’. This body of research will surely be widely influential for years to come. To answer the question; how should nations, cities, institutions and individuals whose antecedents and ancestors were involved with New World Slavery deal with this past? It is obvious that censorship breeds derision, anger and even resentment. Similarly, an absence of acknowledgement in large institutions invites criticism about what aspects of the shared past are promoted and prioritised in front of others. The answer then is clear; education, acknowledgement and recognition of this unpalatable history can promote acceptance and eventual reconciliation.