On the 31st July 2019, the University of Glasgow signed an agreement with the University of the West Indies to provide £20m in research grants and gifts. The University of Glasgow describe it as a path to ‘restorative justice to atone for its historical links to the transatlantic slave trade.’ This agreement is the first of its kind from a British Institution and will hopefully pave the way for the rest of Britain to at least have a conversation about our role in enslavement and exploitation in the 18th and 19th Century.
Vice Chancellor Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli states the Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow Report was carried out by the University as a “commitment to find out if the university benefited from slavery in the past. Although the university never owned enslaved people or traded in the goods they produced, it is now clear we received significant financial support from people whose wealth came from slavery.” This report shows that the University of Glasgow profited between £16.7m and £198m in today’s money from the slave trade.
Glasgow flourished in the 18th and 19th Century off the back of sugar, rum and tobacco trades. As there were rarely any sightings of slaves in the city of Glasgow, people often glance over the deeply rooted issue within Scottish history. However with buildings like the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art which was formerly the mansion built by Tobacco Lord William Cunninghame, it is hard to deny the prosper slavery brought to Glasgow. Robert Cunninghame Graham, former Rector of the University of Glasgow spent two decades making his fortune in enslavement. Ironically, he endorsed a Political Liberty prize at the University of Glasgow in 1788. It is only now that the institution has recognised the need to debate and discuss the issue and have now dedicated their research and knowledge to facilitating social justice.
For the University of Glasgow to acknowledge their role in slavery and encourage others to join them in contributing to scholarships and grants on the legacy of slavery and economic racism is allowing them to confront their role in the development of society. Higher education institutions are centres for learning and challenging thought processes. Therefore, for institutions such as the University of Oxford to still celebrate figures like Cecil Rhodes without also acknowledging his damaging past facilitates denial of our role in enslavement, exploitation and racial segregation. The University of Glasgow’s move towards celebrating their role in the abolition of the slave trade whilst also recognising their profitable role in it previously should be congratulated and not branded as hypocrisy.
There is no doubt that the brutal and inhumane treatment of those enslaved is unquantifiable. The University of Glasgow have made a “bold, moral and historic” step in the right direction to breaking down barriers. The hope is that this relatively small step from Glasgow University is an attempt to open up an honest dialogue about the history of Britain, our role in institutionalised racism and how to overcome that.
Blog by Jenny Scott, Trainee Solicitor.