THIRTY years ago, Glasgow gave the name “#Merchant_City” to a historic quarter of the city centre.
Few eyebrows were raised at the time but, as Susan Aitken, the present leader of Glasgow City Council, said this week, such a move would today be “unthinkable”, for Merchant City, a popular residential, shopping and leisure area, has streets named after merchants – tobacco lords, and members of the “sugar aristocracy” – who profited on a substantial scale from the slave trade.
As the historian Professor Michael Lynch observed a decade ago, “nowhere in Britain does the built environment act as a more overt reminder of the ’Horrible Traffik’ than the streets and buildings of Glasgow’s Merchant City”.
This week the council became the first in the UK to launch a major academic study into historic bequests linked to transatlantic slavery.
To be carried out by Dr Stephen Mullen, a noted academic historian who has studied the city’s links with the trade, it will leave no stone unturned.
There will be four specific stages. A detailed audit will be carried out into historic bequests made to Glasgow Town Council, to see if there are any connections with transatlantic slavery. Statues, street-names, buildings and Lords Provost with any such connections will also be examined.
Records relating to the City Chambers, a striking Victorian building completed in 1888, will be scrutinised to see what proportion of funds came from donors with connections to the slave trade.
The fourth area will compile evidence to inform any future strategy for Glasgow itself. The council says that Dr Mullen’s year-long study will lead to a wide-ranging public consultation on its findings and on how Glasgow should move forward.
The move comes a few months after Glasgow University said it would pay £20 million in reparative justice over the next 20 years to atone for its historical links to the transatlantic slave trade.
A detailed report into the issue, co-authored by Dr Mullen and thought to be the first of its kind in the UK, found that though the university never owned enslaved people or traded in goods they produced, it “indirectly benefited from racial slavery” by anything between £16.7 million and £198 million in today’s money.
One of the donors to the university was the celebrated inventor, James Watt, the son of a West India merchant and slave-trader, who supported him in his career. Watt also worked for his father as a mercantile agent in Glasgow during the 1750s. His statue has stood in George Square, within sight of the City Chambers, for some 200 years.
Speaking on Thursday, Dr Mullen, who in 2009 wrote an influential book, “It Wisnae Us: The Truth About Glasgow and Slavery”, discussed the extent to which Glasgow’s links with the transatlantic slave trade are embedded in the modern city.
He said: "Some street names are well known. We already know that Buchanan Street was named after a slave-trader. We already know that Glassford Street [in the Merchant City] was named after John Glassford, whose Shawfield Mansion was on the site.
“We already know from the Glassford portrait in the People’s Palace that a young enslaved boy lived on that street. We already know that the Cunninghame Mansion [on Royal Exchange Square – the core of which is now the Gallery of Modern Art – was built by a tobacco lord and had successive associations with colonial merchants.”
Dr Mullen added: “The exact nature of the slavery connections of these individuals will be confirmed and further research could elucidate hitherto unknown connections of individuals connected to other streets, buildings and/or statues”.
He said his study would be the “first systematic attempt at a holistic study of these aspects of Glasgow’s built heritage”.
In terms of statues, he said he currently was unaware of any dedicated to tobacco lords or members of the “sugar aristocracy”, though some examples might yet arise. For the time being, he did not believe that Glasgow has the same celebration of slave-traders as does Bristol, with Edward Colston.
Dr Mullen noted that cities such as Bristol, London and Liverpool have already renamed bridges and international museums, or have erected additional plaques, to recognise the presence of slave-owners and enslaved people in certain sites.
“Cities in the USA, such as Philadelphia,” he added, “have also developed strategies to address the unacknowledged slavery past of prominent figures such as George Washington. These strategies will be taken into consideration.”
Ms Aitken, the council leader, acknowledged that the authority would face criticism, from ancestors of those “deeply affected” by the slave trade, or from others accusing it of “needless self-flagellation or of dredging up aspects of our past that we can’t change, in the cause of political correctness.”
But asking Dr Mullen to study the city’s troubling historical links was the right thing to do, she added. Pointing out that slavery fortunes continued after the system was abolished in the West Indies in 1834, she said, “I believe that as a city we now have to know the reach of that slave-economy wealth. We need to know how to properly address our past, and we need to know to allow Glasgow to move forward from its past”.
The announcement received an enthusiastic welcome from Sir Geoff Palmer, Professor Emeritus in the School of Life Sciences at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University and a noted human rights activist. “We cannot change the past - that is impossible - but what we can change are the consequences of the past”, he said.
Ms Aitken told The Herald that there would be “no more ‘Merchant Cities’, no more things being named after people like John Glassford”.
She added that discussions were taking place as to whether a line could now be drawn under the name of Buchanan.
This could affect the huge Barclays Bank development in the Tradeston district. “The developers are calling it Buchanan Wharf. I’m not able to say anything specific about that but what I can say is that these are conversations that we are having, and I think there are open ears and open minds to this conversation”.
She believes there is a lingering sense of “discomfort” in Glasgow around the legacy of slavery.
“We should be deeply uncomfortable about what happened, and about Glasgow’s role was.
“But we need Glaswegians, and future generations of them, to have a sense of comfort in confronting it - comfort in understanding that this is something we cannot ignore. We cannot just say, ‘It was a long time ago’.
“We want them to have comfort in the knowledge that we’re doing the right thing by not only uncovering as many of the facts as we can establish now, but most of all in understanding what the impact is now”.
She added: “There will be a lot of Glaswegians who will have no problem in understanding that when you look at what is happening to African Americans in terms of the Black Lives Matter campaign, and the dreadful things that they see … We have no difficulty in intellectually making the connection with slavery, and what was done to African Americans, and what they have suffered in the years since, and seeing that this is part of a continuum of racism".
She added: “What the concrete outcomes will be of this new study are open to question. Maybe by this time next year, by the time of Black History Month, we will be getting closer to answering that question.
“Stephen’s work will be almost completed and we will have been having those conversations with the city, and we may have answers around maybe changing some street names, or maybe elucidating some street names rather than changing them.” ‘Elucidating’ could mean displaying supplementary historical background information.
Ms Aitken accepted that there was a “difference of opinion in those things’ and said her own view leans more towards elucidation than to changing street names.
“Most importantly, those people who are still living with this legacy [of slavery] need to tell us what is the best thing for them”.
She said she “genuinely doesn’t know” whether the council will consider making any sort of reparations. Reparations did not always have to be strictly financial.They could take the form of the council embedding what it learns from Dr Mullen’s work in the curriculum - “making sure that ignorance stops with this generation”.
Reparation could also mean “investing in the people who continue to live with that legacy and addressing that legacy”.
More immediately, the Glasgow Life organisation will appoint a curator who will develop a strategy for the interpretation of slavery and empire in Glasgow Museums. A display on the legacies of empire, race and globalisation will take place in the City Chambers.
“It’s not about having an exhibition here and an exhibition there,” Ms Aitken said. “It’s about having on display, right the way through everything, a consciousness of that legacy and that history, and that that it is reflected in the language that we use”.