Last week I spoke at the 'Untold Stories, Buried Histories' panel event in Glasgow, part of The Empire Café, a week long exploration of Scotland’s relationship with slavery and Atlantic slave trade. It was planned so that it ran for the duration of the Commonwealth Games. This is particularly interesting as the legacy and relevancy of the Commonwealth is widely discussed and debated. It did not take me long to see the legacy of Glasgow’s role in the Atlantic slave trade and slavery as I walked to the venue past the Gallery of Modern Art (once the townhouse of William Cunninghame, a prominent Glaswegian tobacco merchant) and Buchanan and Ingram Streets, both named after merchants who also became rich on the suffering of those working on their plantations.
I was joined on stage by Dr Fiona Bradley, Director of the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh who spoke about some of the artistic interpretations of slavery such as Ellen Gallagher’s - Watery Ecstatic and Dr Tony Lewis Curator of Scottish History at Glasgow Museums who discussed some of the exhibitions and displays which cover, albeit in a small way, Scotland’s links to slavery. Indeed an audience member did point out that this was in no way overt, which Dr Lewis took on board.
I also met Stephen Mullen, local historian and author of 'It Wisnae Us, the truth about Glasgow and slavery'. Stephen has a wealth of knowledge about the role of Glasgow merchants in the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in North America. Tobacco was the prized commodity for the Glasgow merchants who made vast fortunes in its trade. However, that does not mean that Glasgow merchants did not own sugar plantations in the West Indies or own ships that were laden with enslaved Africans. It is because of this relatively silent aspect of Glasgow’s and Scotland’s history that a debate has been picking up speed regards how Glasgow in particular should remember this involvement in the enslavement of Africans and the fortunes which made Glasgow the 'second city of the British empire' (I pointed out that this is a term which I have heard said about Liverpool).
Some of the discussions at the event focused on whether there should be a museum of slavery or a permanent display or gallery in a Glasgow museum about the city’s link with slavery and the Atlantic slave trade and whether the street names associated with Glasgow tobacco merchants should be changed. I was therefore incredibly pleased to see a senior Glasgow museum professional make himself known in the audience and commit to a dialogue within Glasgow museums about how this can be achieved. I noted how Glasgow civic authorities generally, not just museums, needed to be committed to recognising the city’s role in the Atlantic slave trade and so this weeks article in The Scotsman which notes how Glasgow City Council will actively liaise with various stakeholders to discuss the options is also a welcome commitment.
However, I also said how the local community, including Glasgow’s Black community, should be involved in such discussions and that any recognition of the city’s role in slavery should also be the start of a continuous dialogue on the legacies of that involvement. After all, if that had not been the process here in Liverpool I doubt we would now have a Museum which has so much community support. Just one example is our growing annual Slavery Remembrance Day activities.
After the event I had to stay in Edinburgh as there were no rooms left in Glasgow (something which I presume was the same for the other travelers crammed on the 10pm to Waverley). That said this did enable me to get some fresh air after a brisk walk up Calton Hill with its spectacular views the next day.