Strathclyde University has been accused of failing to make progress on commitments — made more than two years ago — to research and acknowledge the institution’s historical ties to slavery.
Critics claim it is falling behind at a time when some other Scottish universities and institutions are moving ahead with plans to interrogate their own past links with the slave trade.
In September 2018, the University of Glasgow released the Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow report, written by Professor Simon Newman and Dr Stephen Mullen.
Its findings led to the university making a commitment to invest £1m a year for 20 years in order to fund the Beniba Centre for Scottish Caribbean Slavery Studies. It was launched in October 2020, and named after Beniba, an enslaved African woman.
Meanwhile, this April, Glasgow City Council released an audit of its historical ties to slavery.
It found forty Lord Provosts between 1636 and 1834 had ties to Atlantic slavery, and that funding for the City Chambers in the 1880s was partially derived from banks with previous ties to the slavery economy. They have since promised a public consultation to address the issue.
In October 2020 Strathclyde University claimed it was “already in the initial stages of assessing our archives to explore any potential links that may exist between slavery and the university’s early beginnings”.
A spokesperson said that while it did not know what the outcome would be it would be asking its Race Equality Working Group to examine the findings “in due course.”
However last month a spokesperson for the working group confirmed to The Ferret that it had “not heard anything yet from the University on the assessment of archives with respect to this issue”.
Professor Tom Devine, who in October 2020 was critical of the “silence” of Strathclyde University on the issue in an interview with the student newspaper, Strathclyde Telegraph, said it was important the institution was not “left behind in this search for origins and new knowledge on a highly controversial topic of great current interest”.
Despite the lack of comprehensive research on the full extent of the connection between slavery and the University of Strathclyde, significant groundwork has been laid by Glasgow University academics, Dr Mullen and Prof Newman.
In Strathclyde’s Royal College Building there is a statue of James Watt, a mechanical engineering pioneer whose improvements to the steam engine were instrumental in bringing about the Industrial Revolution. He also acted as an agent for his father’s mercantile company, and was directly involved in the keeping and selling of at least one enslaved person.
Though awarded by Glasgow University, the Archibald Denny Prize for Naval Architecture, Ocean and Marine engineering students, is also open to those studying at Strathclyde University.
According to Newman and Mullen’s study, Denny was a beneficiary of slavery, having inherited his father’s company, William Denny and Brothers. Newman and Mullen cite research by Eric Graham that Denny’s was “one of the most prolific” constructors of blockade-runners, ships designed to slip past the Union blockade in order to supply the pro-slavery Confederate forces during the American Civil War, at a time when the British were officially maintaining neutrality.
They benefited from the war effort to keep slavery alive in the American South through the 1860s, several decades after it had been abolished in Britain and the British colonies.
Strathclyde University’s first subscription list from 1796, requested by The Ferret from its archives, shows that Richard Dennistoun was one of its fifty initial subscribers. Dennistoun had interests in Glasgow West India merchant houses, and in 1836 was one of five awardees for a £2,559 claim on a Trinidad plantation holding 50 enslaved people.
This means he made hundreds of pounds (tens of thousands in today’s money) when slavers were paid off by the British government during the process of abolition started in 1833.
The university’s most enthusiastic early subscriber, at twenty guineas, was David Dale. Dale was a prominent industrialist, philanthropist, and proactive abolitionist. However, the basis of his wealth, cotton-spinning, was firmly rooted in raw cotton imported from colonies which exploited enslaved labour.
Uni should ‘pull its weight’ over slavery ties
Councillor Graham Campbell, who also chairs Flag Up Jamaica Scotland, which aims to form connections between the two countries, said that the University of Strathclyde should “pull its weight” on the issue, as Glasgow City Council are in the process of doing.
In recent weeks Campbell has opened discussion with the University on the issue and aims to meet its Principal, Professor Sir Jim McDonald, soon.
He said: “I think the same reparative justice journey applies there at University of Strathclyde, especially given how progressively liberal they present themselves as an institution.
“I am on hand and happy to give help to the University of Strathclyde in order to do this and recommend they establish a proper inclusive working group with African Caribbean community and students at its heart, but advised by the University of Glasgow experience.
He claimed that by doing so, the university would also be tackling contemporary racism.
“Quite simply, the origins of anti-Black racism (Afriphobia) come from slavery,” he added. “The inherited wealth and institutions arising from slavery — including councils and universities — created power structures and cultural conventions which are still very much with us today.
“Reparative justice is needed to make amends. That starts with Scotland acknowledging our central role in slavery, the damage done to Africans; and the ongoing legacy of trauma and economic underdevelopment which still blights West African and Caribbean nations, and belies the structural racist inequality Black Scots still face right now.”
A spokesperson for the University of Strathclyde said: “The university is committed to thoroughly examining this important area under the supervision of the University Secretary. Now that our campus operations are returning to normal we will press on with this important work.”
Not leaving the University behind
Professor Tom Devine said it was important that progress on research was made. “An increasing number of institutions of higher education in the UK are devoting time and resources in trying to discover any pre-abolition links, or not, to Black chattel slavery,” he added.
“Strathclyde’s origins date back to the late 18th century, before abolition of the slave trade and long before the end of slavery itself in the British Empire. The University ought not be left behind in this search for origins and new knowledge on a highly controversial topic of great current interest.”
“Even if no significant evidence of the University’s involvement in the slave economies, directly or indirectly, is found, that negative result is of consequence for extending understanding of the heritage of the institution. A recent investigation, for instance, on slavery and elite members of the Catholic Church in Scotland found little evidence of such connections and was welcomed by the bishops as important.”
But he claimed that investigations should be carried out by “impartial historians” rather than activists or politicians to avoid inaccurate findings.
In June of 2020, Edinburgh Council installed a new plaque beneath the statue of Henry Dundas in St. Andrew Square. It acknowledges the controversial nature of his historical figure, claiming that his contribution to the delay of abolition as Home Secretary in 1792 and Secretary of State for War in 1796 meant that “more than half a million enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic”.
In October of that year Devine argued that Henry Dundas was scapegoated, that the wording of the new plaque was not verified by a trained historian, and that abolition was borderline impossible in the late 18th century.
In February a journal article by Angela McCarthy, professor of Scottish and Irish history and director of the Centre for Global Migrations at the University of Otago, New Zealand, also argued that the plaque was “patently absurd, erroneous, and ‘bad history’”, claiming that broader structural factors were more key to the delay of abolition than the agency of any one individual.
In January of this year, Sir Geoff Palmer, scientist and human rights activist who was involved in the committee which designed the new plaque, accused Sir Tom Devine and sociologist Jonathan Hearn of being members of “an academic racist gang” following their strong criticism of the plaque. This charge also likewise drew immense controversy, including calls for him to step down from panels examining Edinburgh’s involvement in the slave trade.
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