Reckoning with historical slavery – the University of Glasgow’s experience

Published on 06 July 2023 Go back to The ACU Review
An illustrated bird’s eye view of Glasgow from 1864

Understanding history cannot change the past, but can it contribute to a fairer future?

 By David Duncan, University of Glasgow, UK

Have you ever been to Buckingham Palace? I was there recently, accompanying our Chancellor (the ceremonial head of the university), as the representatives of one of the 27 ‘Privileged Bodies’ in the UK. Glasgow holds this status as one of the six original higher education institutions in England and Scotland – Oxford and Cambridge in the former, and St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh in the latter. In case you are interested, the Military Knights of Windsor, the Royal Society of Friends (the Quakers) and the Board of Deputies of British Jews were also present.

Uncovering our past

Glasgow’s participation reflects its long history as one of the most prominent universities in the UK. Since Pope Nicholas V issued a bull (edict) to create this institution in 1450, the story of the University of Glasgow has been bound up with that of Scotland and, in later years, Great Britain. It played a significant role in the Reformation of the 16th century, was embroiled in the civil wars of the mid-17th century, and was a major centre of the Scottish Enlightenment. The university contributed to Scotland’s Industrial Revolution, and its students and staff gave their lives in their hundreds during the two world wars of the 20th century. Today, it takes its place among the world’s top 100 research-intensive universities, a global institution attracting staff and students from 150 countries and collaborating enthusiastically with partners on every continent.

Yet, while there are many things to be proud of in the university’s past, there are also aspects of our history which cast the institution in a more negative light. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the merchants of the city of Glasgow were major players in the transatlantic slave trade and in goods produced by enslaved people – sugar, tobacco and cotton being the most valuable. Some of the wealth generated through the pernicious trade in human beings was donated to the university and it helped make possible its expansion and move in 1870 to grand new premises in the leafy west end of the city. Until very recently, the names of some of those merchants were read out at the annual commemoration event in the university’s Memorial Chapel.

Back in 2017, the university’s senior management commissioned a full academic investigation of this subject. The report – written by two of the university’s historians – showed that the institution had used its influence to bring about the end of the slave trade – its professors petitioned Parliament, awarded an honorary degree to the abolitionist William Wilberforce (to the disgust of many local merchants and alumni). It also employed Adam Smith, whose famous treatise, An Enquiry into the Wealth of Nations, condemned slavery as morally repugnant and economically anachronistic.

While this is to the good, the records also shows that the university accepted donations from sources tainted by slavery, estimated at £200m in today’s money. Much of this wealth had been acquired from recipients of the 1834 compensation payments which the British government made to former owners of enslaved people. The actual site of the university’s main building was once the impressive home of a West India merchant, albeit one who is not recorded as a donor.

All of this and much more was set out in a report which the university published in 2018. The dry economic details were accompanied by harrowing stories about the consequences of chattel slavery for those caught up in it. These included named individuals who survived the horrors of the Middle Passage between Africa and the Americas only to be enslaved on the plantations and, in some cases, forcible employment in Scotland as house ‘servants’. The report concluded with recommendations for action which the university adopted in full. These were intended not only to acknowledge the university’s difficult relationship with historical slavery, but also, in a sense, to atone for it.

Looking ahead

The university’s response has been both multi-faceted and widely publicised. Building on the academic rigour of the original report, we have focused on education and research about historical slavery and its consequences, including public engagement to raise awareness and understanding of historical slavery across all sections of society. We created the Beniba Centre for Slavery Studies, which provides a focal point for interdisciplinary research and hosts visiting speakers from around the world. Always open to the public and streamed online, the lectures are frequently attended by those with no connection to the University of Glasgow.

The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery – one of the oldest public museums in the English-speaking world and an integral part of the university – has responded with characteristic creativity, mounting a thoughtfully composed exhibition entitled ‘Call and Response’. The series of images and commentaries explored the unknown or unexpected ways that museum collections can be related to racial slavery and it stimulated a host of conversations about modern-day responses to this historical legacy.

Externally, the university has formalised a relationship with the University of the West Indies, with the two institutions creating the Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research. This joint initiative commits us to raising at least £20m in research funding over a 20-year period and using the resulting projects to benefit people in countries affected by historical slavery. On the teaching side, one early product of the partnership will be a joint master's programme on restorative justice which will attract its first students in the next academic year.

Speaking about the partnership, the Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles described Glasgow as ‘moving into a space above and beyond all of those conversations that we have been having at the national university level. We are not going to research and run’, he added, ‘we are going to research and then we are going to stand up and repair’.

Living our values

It is interesting to reflect on the overall impact of the historical slavery initiative on the University of Glasgow so far. It is fair to say that senior managers were initially afraid that the ensuing debate would be angry and divisive. In reality, the reaction externally has generally been positive – the press coverage was almost universally favourable and institutions around the world have sought our advice on their own initiatives in this space.

More importantly, the overwhelming response from staff, students and alumni has been a sense of pride that the university was willing to face up to its past, to say sorry for benefiting from the proceeds of slavery and to try to do something about it. The overall view was that the university was doing the right thing at last – that the project reflected the values which the institution claimed to espouse but could not always prove it lived up to. The initiative has encouraged academics across a range of disciplines to reflect on the content of their courses and to address topics which may be uncomfortable, but which deserve serious debate in academic forums.

A similar process has been taken forward in the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, where the director and his team have begun a root-and-branch review of content (much of it acquired during the colonial era) and interpretation. Institutionally, in the wake of this project, senior managers have felt emboldened to address other difficult topics, including gender-based violence and racism on campus. In each instance, the approach has been the same – investigate thoroughly, be open and transparent about the results, and then take forward a clear, well-resourced and time-limited programme of action.

Campus nomenclature has also entered a new phase, with greater ethnic and gender diversity apparent in the names of buildings and spaces. And more recently, the university has assumed a more active role in supporting refugees and asylum seekers from Ukraine and elsewhere in our capacity as a University of Sanctuary. In all these ways and more, I would like to think that, as a direct result of the work on historical slavery, we have become a stronger community – we have become more self-reflective and have found new ways to live up to our publicly stated values.

If you have the opportunity to visit the cloisters which sit between the two main quadrangles of the university’s main building, you will find a permanent memorial which reads: ‘Near this site stood the house of Robert Bogle (d. 1821) a wealthy West India merchant and owner of enslaved people. During the 18th and 19th centuries, this University benefited from gifts made by individuals who had profited from slavery. This plaque commemorates the lives of all those who suffered enslavement.’

As I visited Buckingham Palace, I was thinking of the immeasurable good which the University of Glasgow has done through its teaching and research, but also of those affected by this more shameful aspect of our past. I hope that, in some small way, we have started to put things right.

Dr David Duncan is Chief Operating Officer, University Secretary and Deputy Vice Chancellor (Operations) at the University of Glasgow, UK, and Chair of the Historical Slavery Committee. He received his PhD in history from Queen’s University, Canada, where he held a Commonwealth Scholarship.

Image: A section from Thomas Sulman’s Bird’s Eye View of Glasgow, 1864. Image courtesy of the University of Glasgow Library.

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