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Calls grow for Scotland to reckon with its slave-owning past

From street names to monuments to reparations, Scots confront the country's legacy of slavery in the wake of the death of George Floyd.
Image: Signs renaming Wilson Street as Rosa Parks Street, the American activist in the civil rights movement,and Glassford Street as Fred Hampton Street, the American activist and revolutionary socialist, are displayed in the Merchant City area of Glasgow
Signs renaming streets in Glasgow after American rights activists Rosa Parks and Fred Hampton last week. Andy Buchanan / AFP via Getty Images

GLASGOW, Scotland — In Scotland, a history of slave trading hides in plain sight. It’s in the striking Georgian facades of Edinburgh and Glasgow, paid for by plantation profits, and on the monuments and street names that venerate men who were enriched by human suffering.

Generations of Scots have walked down Glassford Street and Ingram Street in Glasgow, for example, perhaps without realizing that the names honor two of the city's most prosperous plantation owners, John Glassford and Archibald Ingram.

For a growing number of Scots, this must change.

Almost 25,000 people have signed a petition calling on Glasgow to rename streets linked to slave owners.

Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, has seen similar activism, with a focus on monuments commemorating the trade’s beneficiaries, such as one that pays tribute to Henry Dundas, a politician who delayed the abolition of slavery in the British Empire by 15 years.

Emboldened by the explosion of protests in America following the death of George Floyd in police custody, there are renewed calls for Scotland to confront its slave-owning past — and in doing so, fight the scourge of modern-day racism.

Ivan McKee, Scotland’s trade minister, has called for greater discussion around the country’s slave heritage. “There’s a lot of people who don’t know much about it, and this is an opportunity to raise awareness,” he told NBC News.

Scotland’s pivotal role in transatlantic slavery has at times been discussed less than that of England and the United States. But from running slave forts on the West African coast, captaining ships ladened with human cargo, and owning cotton, tobacco, coffee and sugar plantations in the West Indies, Scots played a key role at every level of the industry.

Glassford Street, one of Glasgow streets linked to slave owners in the City.Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

Sales of these sought-after goods fired Scotland’s industrial revolution and brought immeasurable wealth to the nation’s merchants. The combined annual value of trade between Scotland and the West Indies and Scotland in 1790 was equivalent to at least 50 million pounds ($46 million) in today’s valuations, according to the National Trust for Scotland.

And when, in 1833, Britain abolished slavery, millions of pounds were paid into Scottish pockets to compensate for financial losses.

This money trickled down through Scottish society, bringing prosperity to places such as Glasgow’s Merchant City and Edinburgh’s New Town, areas that owe their architectural grandeur to the proceeds of slavery.

But not all agree that street names should be amended and statues toppled, as they have in Bristol and London in the past week.

“If you remove the evidence, you remove the deed," Sir Geoff Palmer, professor emeritus at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, told NBC News in a phone interview. "If we’re going to talk about honest history … by removing them, you’re altering history."

Palmer said emphasis must instead be put on education and a shakeup of the Scottish school curriculum to better reflect the country's slave history. He has campaigned for explanatory plaques to be installed at slavery-linked monuments, also.

“The past has consequences. Racism is a consequence of the past. Therefore we have to deal with those consequences,” he said.

The Henry Dundas statue, in Edinburgh, Scotland. The 1st Viscount Melville, was said to have had a gradualist approach to ending slavery. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

For some, the arts can play an important role in reckoning with the past. "Enough of Him," a new play from Edinburgh-born writer May Sumbwanyambe, looks to address the dearth of dramatic work on Scotland’s colonial history. It tells the remarkable story of Joseph Knight, a slave who successfully sued his master, establishing the principle that slavery could not be upheld in Scotland.

“Putting on plays like this that allow audiences in Scotland — and beyond Scotland — to go: ‘Black people have been part of this country and shaping the culture and social development of this country for a very, very long time,'” Sumbwanyambe said.

“If we don’t know that Black people have lived side-by-side with white people for hundreds of years, as opposed to just 70 years, it’s easier for racism to foment.”

Last year, Glasgow University became the first academic institution in the U.K. to commit to slavery reparations, acknowledging that it had been the recipient of slave-linked funds. Over the next two decades, the school plans to raise 20 million pounds ($25 million) in partnership with the University of the West Indies, to confront the “debilitating legacies of slavery and colonization” through research and policy development.

At the local government level, the Glasgow City Council is currently investigating the city’s ties to transatlantic slavery and has committed to holding a public consultation on how to respond to its findings. Similar discussions are taking place in Edinburgh.

Black Lives Matter protest in Holyrood Park in Edinburgh, Scotland last week. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

As for reparations on a national level however, there is little progress. For decades, Caribbean nations — including Jamaica, where one-third of slave plantations were Scots-owned — have called for formal financial reparations, but to no avail.

For Eunice Olumide, a Scottish author, art curator and activist, this is unacceptable.

“The only conversation we need to have is how reparations are given,” she said.

“It’s really important for Western people and white people to understand that that’s a discussion that needs to be had with leaders in the Afro-Caribbean community before they take action.”

More needs to be done in Scotland, too, Olumide believes, to recognize the contributions of Black Scots in the public sphere.

“It’s long overdue that Black creators in this country are enshrined in history and commemorated. Because it’s quite obvious that there’s a serious lack of understanding of the contribution of people of color to the United Kingdom and to Scotland.”