How We Moved the Goalposts (Part One): Bringing Scotland’s role in slavery to the fore

Credit: Julia Rosner

Briony Farrell

In a three-part series, Guardian contributor Briony Farrell ties her research into female beneficiaries of the Atlantic Slave Trade with discussions centred on historical erasure and reform of the school curriculum.

The Black Lives Matter movement has rapidly gained momentum in recent weeks, with the world responding in outrage at the tragic killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis. Sparking protests against police brutality, Floyd’s death amplified a conversation centred around structural inequality in the United States and elsewhere. Here in the UK protests were organised in solidarity, drawing on the view that “this isn’t just America’s problem”.

While demonstrations focussing on police brutality, institutional racism and inequality have similarly been the centre of protest throughout the United Kingdom, many have taken to using history as a means of demonstrating that the underlying prejudice we see in the US was inextricably tied to Britain’s colonial project, which lay the foundation for systemic racism as we know it today.

Throughout the internet and social media, activists are sharing articles about the more uncomfortable aspects of our own colonial history, and the role we played in creating a system of bound labour that was codified along racial lines. This knowledge is being pushed into the mainstream and to the forefront of our consciousness, and the tide seems to be turning as to how we both view and take responsibility for the atrocities Britons have historically committed across the world.

In Bristol, protestors took to toppling a statue of Edward Colston, a controversial figure in the city’s history. His statue, memorialising his work as a politician and a philanthropist, makes no reference to his role within the Royal African Company, which transported tens of thousands of captives from the West Coast of Africa to the American colonies. Indeed, the Royal African Company paved the way for Bristol to become the UK’s leading slaving port between 1730 and 1745, developing as a hub for the infamous triangular trade.

Much of the general public is divided in debate over how to view the pulling down of this statue. Some feel that this aids a process of erasure, whilst others argue that Colston’s statue was fittingly dumped into the very waters in which his slave ships came into port. Thousands of unwilling abductees were sent to a life of bound chattel labour in the American colonies, while thousands more perished during the journey across the Atlantic. In the case of the Zong massacre, some were thrown overboard by their captors, with Colston’s fate echoing this history.  

The action taken by protestors to topple a physical example of our country’s slaving past opens up a space for an interesting dialogue about the treatment of symbols representing our colonial heritage. But this matter goes beyond the slaving ports of Bristol, with the full breadth of these isles benefiting from this trade – perhaps none more acutely than in Glasgow.

While it’s true that Scots played only a negligible role in the active process of transport, this has led to denial concerning Scot’s roles as slave-owners. There has, instead, been far more attention granted to Scotsmen as the intellectual spearheads behind the abolitionist movement and the moral destruction of slavery as an institution. The uncomfortable reality is that Scotland was disproportionately involved in all levels of plantation and slave ownership – particularly in the Caribbean.

Recent studies by UCL have found that of the £20 million paid by the British Government upon emancipation to slaveowners for “loss of their property”, Scots made up over fifteen per cent of awardees despite accounting for only around 10 per cent of the total population of Great Britain. 

The 1707 Act of Union removed the trade barriers that had previously been faced by Scotland, and the Scots quickly took advantage of new mercantile opportunities in the Americas. Glasgow’s west coast’s position at the head of the River Clyde made it an ideal location for Scotland to focus her trading endeavours, and it didn’t take long for the Scots to nearly monopolise the Chesapeake tobacco trade.

T.M. Devine calls tobacco “Scotland’s first global enterprise”. Tobacco profits poured into the city, allowing merchants to establish the city’s first banks and financial institutions. While this trade was ultimately ill-fated, and the American War of Independence forced British commerce out of North America, new opportunities quickly opened up for the Scots as they expanded into the Caribbean. Glasgow became the centre for the importation and processing of sugar that was grown through slave labour on Scottish owned plantations in the West Indies.

Sugar production, a particularly brutal and back breaking form of labour, was driven by a relentless plantation system; the Scottish would not have propelled themselves towards modernity via the Enlightenment without the profits of this trade. It’s generally accepted that Scotland’s “great leap forward” in the eighteenth century was ultimately down to New World slavery.

Evidence of Glasgow’s slaving past is obvious to anybody with a keen eye strolling through the city centre. Buchanan Street, Ingram Street and Virginia Street are but some of the major thoroughfares in the city named for the mansions that once stood on them. What was originally a series of barns and vegetable plots was cleared to make way for a series of mansions designed to display the wealth, prestige and status of their tobacco merchant owners.

As these impressive villas started to appear throughout Glasgow, an improved order and development of the town was required to support them. Where narrow vennels and crammed tenements made up the medieval core of the town, new fortunes gained from slavery contributed towards the creation of more upmarket, spacious streets, as well as the city’s move westwards.

The entire core infrastructure of Glasgow, in fact, owes its initial urbanisation to the tobacco trade and then the sugar boom. Today’s Gallery of Modern Art is the reconstructed villa of major tobacco merchant and slaveowner William Cunningham. Urban areas around the Clyde, such as Greenock and Port Glasgow, owe their development to sugar processing and shipping as a direct result of plantation commerce.

In recent years, focused archival work by historians and an increased public consciousnesses has made these legacies undeniable. But how do we deal with this today? The University of Glasgow is at the forefront of a conversation centred on uncovering its financial ties to the slave trade. In 2018, it became the first British institution to publish its links with slavery. 

Jointly published by Professor Simon Newman and Dr Stephen Mullen, the report highlighted the numerous and significant bequests the University received from individuals connected to the West India trade. As a result, the University embarked on a programme of “reparative justice”. Pledging to raise some £20 million, to fund a joint centre for development research with the University of the West Indies. 

Glasgow City Council has also recently become the first in the UK to launch a major study, also being carried out by Dr Stephen Mullen, into city-wide connections to slavery. Studies such as these are critical in the journey towards owning up to Scotland’s role in the merciless exploitation of African captives and their descendants in the New World. This must go beyond recognising the more overt evidence of our slaving history, such as street names and buildings. Instead, slavery fortunes that continued to be disseminated long after abolition and the more underground reach of this wealth and the ways we still benefit from it needs to be appreciated. 

As the BLM hashtags begin to disappear and our social media timelines slowly begin to return to “normality”, it is worth considering what the streets we walk along were really built upon, and what consequences this holds for the way we consider issues of race, privilege and responsibility.


Draper, Nicholas, The Price of Emancipation: Slave Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Mullen, Stephen, It Wisnae Us: The Truth about Glasgow and Slavery (Edinburgh: The Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, 2009)

Devine, T.M., ‘Did Slavery make Scotia great?’ Britain and the World 4 (2011)

Reed, Peter, Glasgow: the forming of the city (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1999)

‘Glasgow University to make amends over slavery profits of the past’, The Guardian, 17 September 2018,


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