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Glasgow's Slavery Legacy

A Statement on Glasgow's Slavery Legacy from Council Leader Susan Aitken.

Susan Aitken

In 2019, Glasgow City Council commissioned the University of Glasgow to carry out audit of Glasgow's connections to the transatlantic slave trade.  Dr Mullen's report provides the most in-depth picture to date, of Glasgow's role in the enslavement of people and the benefits the city accrued from trades built on their trafficking and labour. We have long been aware of the association of many of our street names with that past, but this study allows us to understand just how far and deep the slave economy money went and how many people and organisations were involved in that, including Glasgow City Council's own ancestor organisation. The report reveals the money trail; how the tentacles of the slave economy reached far into Glasgow and helped build and shape this city. It also talks about the legacy of enslavement in the form of institutionalised racism in today's Glasgow.

And this must be publicly acknowledged. We need to be honest about Glasgow's history, our involvement in the slave economy, the attempt at creating a Scottish empire and our deep role in the British Empire.  There are people who live every day with the legacy of their ancestors having been enslaved.  We need to step up and apologise, to express contrition and sorrow for our part in the moral atrocity of slavery.

Following May's local elections, the Slavery Legacy Working Group will start a conversation based on recommendations from the report. Glasgow's BAME organisations provide us with the necessary continuity required to address the issues and questions the report raises. How do we respond to streets and monuments dedicated to people, or the very significant number of high-profile men, who owned or trafficked enslaved people? The discovery that a forerunner to the City Council had investments in the Company of Scotland worth hundreds of millions of pounds in today's money, and that more than 40 Lord Provosts benefitted financially, is new and significant. How do we reckon with these legacies?  Another question we must ask ourselves is what permanent reminder should Glasgow create to recognise our role in this history?

These questions and others will form part of a wide-ranging public conversation about the report, our legacy, and our response to it.   

More details about the work of the Group and its members can be found via the links below.

Introduction - Cllr Graham Campbell (Feb 2022)


The Black Lives Matter movement in May/June 2020 led to mass protests internationally and across Scotland - particularly on June 7th 2020. Glasgow's 10,000 strong BLM protest saw activists put up their own temporary street signs renaming Cochrane St as 'Rosa Parks St', and George Square as 'George Floyd Square'.

However a backlash was provoked in response to some little known art student campaigners proposing 'Peel Must Go' - referencing the statue of Robert Peel founder of the Metropolitan Police in George Square.

A furious counter-protest claiming to be 'defending the statues' took place but was unfortunately hijacked by aggressive far-right racists, provoking a serious public order disturbance.

The relevance of this contested history is that the institutional, economic, and social base of Scottish society arising from slavery created the racism of the past, and these concepts and thought constructions arising from this legacy still have an impact in 21st century Scotland. Its biggest impact is in the daily micro and macro-aggressions and institutionalised racist discrimination faced by Black African and Caribbean citizens (and indeed experienced by other Minority Ethnic communities) of Glasgow today.

My personal interest in this issue goes back 15 years, and I helped to co-produce with Anne McLaughlin and Jean Cameron a street theatre production for the 2014 Commonwealth Games cultural programme. Emancipation Acts was based on the book by Dr Stephen Mullen - It Wisnae Us: The Truth About Glasgow and one of its highlights was seeing Netflix star of Sex Education Ncuti Gatwa in a tartan bonnet and kilt roving round the Ramshorn Kirk graveyard in one of his first professional gigs on graduating from Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2014.

Link: African Caribbean Cultures Glasgow


Progress made so far in the Slavery Legacy Working Group

The Full Council passed the resolution  on Black Lives Matter and agreed that one of its tasks should be to establish this Short-Life Working Group (SLWG). 

There have also been a number of public discussions, articles and documentaries about renaming streets, taking down statues, and whether to have a dedicated Glasgow-based institution to mark the slavery, colonial and empire legacy. 

We have received significant and informative presentations from Bristol City Council and Liverpool's Slavery legacy groups, from Miles Greenwood (Glasgow Life's Curator), and from Niall Murphy of Glasgow City Heritage Trust. The attendance has been excellent so far - with historians, anti-racism campaigners the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights (CRER), African Caribbean community activists, Council and Glasgow Life officers, and two Scottish-connected African American scholars from Chicago and Oklahoma.

The lessons of Bristol and Liverpool included:

  • involving the Black community in Glasgow in the early planning stages - before going to the wider community; and
  • having a clearly identified budget for this work that's very likely to need ongoing community consultation going into next year - well after the council elections
  • Checking the legal barriers in terms of permissions and ownership issues arising from amending names, statues and locations

We have started meaningful engagement on the kind of questions to be asked in the Glasgow Household Survey and are carrying out more targeted focus groups within Glasgow's African and Caribbean communities. This has been identified as necessary for conducting any meaningful African Caribbean community involvement - in line with what Bristol and Liverpool guest speakers have told us.

A wider community outreach process and survey is needed - and perhaps even a Citizen's Assembly event - on the issue of statues and street names. A Glasgow museum of empire, colonialism and slavery legacy has been a campaign aim of CRER and of Zandra Yeaman, the Curator of Discomfort at the Hunterian Museum, for 20 years, and this has been under active discussion for the past 5 years to see if a temporary exhibition in one of our museums could be accommodated in the interim - although considerably delayed by the impact of Covid 19 on museums. Similar to how the Liverpool slavery museum began as a wing within the Maritime Museum at Albert Dock before becoming a stand-alone institution - it could be that an initial Glasgow slavery and colonial museum could be established.

The SLWG are agreed that the Council should continue this work on a slightly longer timetable so that the colonialism and empire aspects affecting African, South Asian, East Asian and Caribbean communities can also be dealt with in similar ways.

I have already met with Colourful Heritage - the South Asian community group which co-curated the GlaswegAsians Exhibition at Scotland Street Museum with the expectation that they will be very much involved in any future working Empire and Colonial legacy working group.

Bristol's BLM protest famously saw a furore over the Colston statue's removal by demonstrators - highlighted by the recent acquittal at the trail of four defendants. Colston's legacy polarised debate sharply despite the city having long made the decision to rename buildings and remove the offending statue at least 2 years before being brought down during the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020. Colston Centre has since become Bristol Beacon under the leadership of Mayor Marvin Rees and its Bristol Legacy Working Group continues under the leadership Deputy Mayor of Bristol, Cllr Asher Craig

Glasgow has consulted Bristol and is actively taking soundings from their experiences which have guided our decisions to widen consultation

Glasgow is keen to share experiences with cities who share the slavery legacy and to that end Glasgow and Bristol have exchanged visits to each other's slavery legacy groups with myself attending Bristol City Council's ongoing Slavery Legacy working group in April 2021 and Cllr Lawrence Westgaph attending our Working Group in October 2021. It is the intention for this Working Group to continue to take soundings from and extend reciprocal invitations to Edinburgh, Liverpool and Bristol representatives to further learn from their experiences. 

There is therefore little doubt that the discussion and tone of the debates and hearings of this Slavery Legacy Working Group engage with the city's slavery legacy, and there is a need for this topic to be handled with sensitivity and with inclusive viewpoints. The Glasgow public must be facilitated to air their views and allow Glasgow City Council to make informed decisions based on accurate historical and architectural expertise and on clear effective public consultation.

What has been done so far in Glasgow during the last decade

The best place to start research into the Slavery Legacy of Glasgow is 'It Wisnae Us: The Truth about Glasgow and Slavery ' by Dr Stephen Mullen, published by the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (ISBN 9781873190623) on behalf of Glasgow Anti-Racist Alliance (now the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights (CRER) in 2009. A portable exhibition and educational guide were also produced by CRER. It is still available from CRER and reserve copies are held in Glasgow's libraries, however it is fair to say the book is not widely available as it did have a very limited print run.

Jon Jardine - the book's original graphic designer has helpfully reproduced much of the book on this new website

Another useful place to start is the 2015 discussion with Prof Sir Tom Devine, Dr Stephen Mullen and Sir Geoff Palmer, moderated by former Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick. 

In 2019 GCC launched a major academic study into Glasgow's colonial history and links to transatlantic slavery - the first of its kind in the UK - commissioning Dr Mullen to produce a report on the origins of slavery wealth in the business of Glasgow City Council and the role of previous Lord Provosts - many of whom had been tobacco and sugar merchants.

You can read the report here.

Dr Stephen Mullen is an historian of slavery and its aftermath in the British Atlantic world, with a particular focus on Scotland and the Caribbean. He is alumnus of the Universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow, completing a PhD at the latter institution in 2015. Since then, he has been a Postdoctoral Researcher and Lecturer in History at the University of Glasgow. He was a Postdoctoral Researcher on the Leverhulme project 'Runaway Slaves in Britain: bondage, freedom and race in the eighteenth century', and the principal researcher and co-author of the report 'Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow' (2018), which led to the sector-leading Reparative Justice strategy. From 2019-2022, he was commissioned by Glasgow City Council to lead an audit of the city of Glasgow's historic connections with Atlantic slavery. Stephen has a strong commitment to public engagement and working with heritage institutions and museums as various institutions attempt to better represent their historic connections with chattel slavery. A monograph, The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy: Scotland and Caribbean Slavery, 1775-1838, is forthcoming with the Royal Historical Society/Institute of Historical Research flagship series New Historical Perspectives published by University of London Press.

A live discussion and Q&A took place on November 25th 2020 with Dr Stephen Mullen, Council Leader Councillor Susan Aitken and Councillor Graham Campbell on MS Teams.


As part of the University of Glasgow's reparative justice measures, following UofG's commissioned report by Prof Simon Newman and Dr Stephen Mullen into the slavery origins of the income used to build the Gilmorehill headquarters campus in the 1880s, a partnership was formed with the University of the West Indies (UWI) and Flag Up Scotland Jamaica. The report published in September 2018 was refereed by Prof Sir Hilary Beckles (Principal UWI), Prof Sir Geoff Palmer (now Rector of Heriot-Watt University) and by Cllr Graham Campbell. 

It identified 23 large donations from wealthy Scottish families to the value of nearly £200m in modern currency as having slavery connections. This resulted in UofG making specific commitments - one of which was to rename the Student Learning Hub as the James McCune Smith Student Learning Hub.

A plaque was duly unveiled in the University Chapel marking the signing in October 2019 of a Memorandum of Understanding between the UofG and UWI, committing UofG to spend £1m a year for 20 years to establishing a slavery study centre. The Beniba Centre for Slavery Studies which duly launched in October 2020 along with an ongoing Hunterian Museum exhibition Call and Response in the University Chapel.

A number of documentaries and interviews on the subject of slavery legacy feature contributions from Cllr Campbell. The most widely seen is Slavery: Scotland's Hidden Shame with David Hayman featuring SLWG members Dr Ima Jackson, Dr Stephen Mullen and Cllr Graham Campbell as contributors. It was Glasgow artist and Black history tour leader Adebusola Ramsay who coined the term 'organised forgetting' in regards to the slavery legacy - which has stuck firmly in the public consciousness ever since.  

In 2019 Cllr Campbell featured in Frankie Boyle's Tour of Scotland and in October 2020 co-produced this short piece with BBC Newsround programme, which both neatly summarise the kind of questions we might want to pose to both children and the adult population.  

Scottish Civic Trust hosted a "Race and Heritage in Scotland" Conference on December 2nd 2020 in which Cllr Campbell was one of the presenters alongside historian Lisa Williams (Edinburgh Caribbean Association); Traveller advocate Davie Donaldson (Chair of Romano Lav) and with Saskia McCracken & Mark McGregor (South Glasgow Heritage and Environmental Trust) - His talk presented Flag Up Scotland Jamaica's take on Reparative Justice, confronting Scotland's slavery legacy and how the built environment and street scene should be viewed. 

Museums, statues and street names - after Black Lives Matter

The tremendous work of Zandra Yeaman over two decades as the driving force behind CRER's campaign for a National Museum of Empire, Slavery, Colonialism and Migration in Scotland - needs mentioned here. She is currently on sabbatical as Curator of Disruption at the Hunterian Museum and has been secretary of the Museum of Empire committee that began meeting 3 years ago. Cllr Campbell and Cllr Jen Layden have represented the Council on it.  You will find further information on its proposed ideas for a digital museum at this website and about the external advisers including the National African American Museum of History and Culture, The Centre for the Study of Slavery at Browns University as well as the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool.

The Alexander (Greek) Thomson Society launched a panel to discuss proposals for reuse of the former Egyptian Halls on Union St, Glasgow. Gavin Fraser's winning design for its repurposing as a Slavery Museum saw a public petition for it launched in June 2020.

Glasgow is however not the only place in Scotland seeking to become the national centre for a museum of slavery legacy. The Greenock-based Inverclyde Short Life Working Group on slavery legacy was initiated by Stuart McMillan MSP in 2020. Many are comfortable with the idea of one national institution having multiple sites (just like the Tate or the V&A).

Glasgow Life was undertaking a serious review of its mainstream collections and exhibitions to update the slavery and empire related historical narratives and to that end employed a Curator (Legacies of Slavery & Empire) Miles Greenwood in 2019. Previous discussions during Black History Month have consistently mentioned the Gallery of Modern Art/William Cunninghame's Mansion as the most popular site for a Glasgow Museum of Slavery, Empire, Colonialism and Migration. GL have now published Miles's report arising from Glasgow Museums survey to find out how people want us to address the legacies of slavery and Empire.

Cities like Liverpool, Bordeaux and Paris are successfully repurposing their maritime buildings, U-Boat pens or disused factories as art galleries using modern lighting technologies and storytelling techniques. These can be useful solutions to compliment the presence of, or compensate for the absence of physical artefacts.   

The Liverpool International Slavery Museum (ISM), here is Dr Richard Benjamin the ISM Director briefly discussing its role.

Les Bassins de Lumières, Bordeaux - former U-Boat basins

L'Ateliers des Lumieres, Paris - old industrial, multi-story warehouse



Our key objective is to conduct a public consultation on the slavery legacy during this year - to then discuss consultation findings over the course of the following months whilst also taking testimony from invited community and expert participants. Our interim recommendations will be finally be brought before the WECCE City Policy Committee and City Administration Committee for approval with a view to returning any financial and equalities impact implications to a future Full Council. 

We have assessed whether our limited Terms of Reference allow us to examine the wider issues and some other key questions that are likely to arise. For example:

  • In absence of physical artefacts from the slavery period how can this complex and multi-layered story be properly told, given the nature and history of Glasgow's museum estate? 
  • How will Glasgow communities - in particular African, Caribbean and Asian communities with a legacy of Scottish/British colonialism - be fully involved in the process? 
  • How do the demands from the 2020 BLM protests to 'Decolonise the Curriculum' and demands to have more teaching about African and Asian civilisations before contact with European, affect how GCC responds? 
  • How can the collections we do have be made more relevant to Glasgow citizens' current values and to the stories they wish to be told? 
  • Should looted art treasures be returned to their countries of origin - most notably the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria ? Glasgow Museums have now received a formal request by Nigerian Museums and Monuments Commission for the return of the priceless items in our collections.
  • What techniques can be used in terms of museum and educational resources and new technologies be applied - in other words What should be in such a Glasgow slavery and colonial legacy museum? 
  • What difference will it make to wider community cohesion and to tackling racism and racialised discrimination in Glasgow?

The Council will now consider the financial, social and political implications at the earliest stage possible once early public consultation is complete. It will be then for the new council from May 2022 to agree the next steps forward for correctly addressing Glasgow's legacy of slavery and colonialism based on the principles of restorative justice and telling a balanced picture of our city's history.

Further Links

Within the Glasgow Museum of Slavery site, staff at Glasgow Museums aim to draw attention to and explore the ways in which objects from our collection can shine a light on Glasgow's relationship with transatlantic slavery during the 17th to 19th centuries.

  • Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights 

CRER is a Scottish strategic racial equality charity, based in Glasgow. We are focused on working to eliminate racial discrimination and harassment and promote racial justice across Scotland.


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Last modified on 27 November 2023

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