Vice Chancellor of the University of West Indies visits Glasgow as part of reparative justice agreement

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Credit: Glasgow University Library

Marianna Marcelline and Rachel Stamford
Science and Tech Editor and News Editor

The University of Glasgow signed a deal to help fund a £20 million reparative justice program to rectify for its historic financial support from the slave trade.

The university signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the University of the West Indies to work together in the foundation of a Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research. The centre, to be co-located in Glasgow and the Caribbean, will sponsor research work, coordinate academic collaborations and help to stimulate public awareness about the history of slavery and its impact on the Caribbean and around the world.

It is believed to be the first institution in the UK to implement such a “program of restorative justice.”

The £20 million will be spent over the next 20 years and will be mainly funded by research grants and donations.

“We may be separated by centuries from any personal experiences of slavery, but we may not be far from its legacies and implications,” said Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Glasgow.

At the signing, a plaque at the Gilmorehill base of the university was unveiled, marking that the building is on the site of Gilmorehill House, which was owned by a notorious 18th century slaveowner.

The centre comes almost a year after a study by the university looked at thousands of donations it received in the 18th and 19th centuries and found many were from people who derived their wealth from slavery. Last year the university said the money it received is estimatedat the present-day value of £198 million.

While the university said it never owned enslaved people or traded in the goods they produced, they had received significant financial support.

“My ancestors waited over 200 years for this day, and to me this day is about hope,” said Geoff Palmer, Jamaica’s first Honorary Consul in Scotland. “It’s about people enslaved a long time ago; hoping that people will see and realise in the future what was done to them was not right.”

Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, said that colonization and slavery were about the extraction of wealth, and the consequences of that are found in poverty, psychological harm and social and institutional damage. Beckles said that the Scottish were powerful enslavers in the Caribbean, and many of his students are the descendants of that.

“We didn’t create these problems,” said Beckles. “We are trying to resolve them and it’s wonderful to have the development assistance of a university that benefited from that history.”

Beckles said he is sure that other universities will also seek to improve upon what the reparative justice programme has done and hopes to see a network of universities that are committed to not only being excellent, but also committed to being ethical.

As part of the agreement, a new exhibition titled ‘Call and Response: The University of Glasgow and slavery’ will open on 26 August.

Talking about the new exhibition, Muscatelli said: “It’s no accident that the exhibition is called Call and response – we are quite literally invited to respond to what we see and read. Yes, we may be separated by centuries from any personal experiences of slavery, but we may not be far from its legacies and implications.”

The exhibition will highlight the more unexpected and unknown ways in which the University is linked to the slave trade.

Speaking about the agreement to The Glasgow Guardian, Sir Hilary Beckles said “We are trying to bring the universities together to confront some of the problems faced in the Caribbean. As we know, colonization and slavery were about extraction of wealth. The consequences of that are found in poverty, psychological harm and social damage.”

When asked about his thoughts on former Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2015 remarks that Jamaica should ‘move on’ from the legacy of slavery, Beckles said “slavery is over as a legal system but the consequences are horrendously damaging to the Caribbean – to our health, to our economies, to our societies – so for Cameron to have made that statement was grossly irresponsible”.

On the topic of the legacy of slavery in Scottish life today, Dr David Duncan, Glasgow University’s Chief Operating Officer and Secretary, told The Glasgow Guardian “I think that some of the racial attitudes that are still prevalent in Scotland are born out of the past. Things have improved a lot, but you can still hear echoes of it.” In Scotland, around a dozen racial incidents are reported to the police every day.

Muscatelli said that the signing invites people to respond to what has been lost and obscured under the foundation of Gilmore Hill.

“We can do something about the injustice of today,” said Muscatelli.