Scots families which benefited from slavery must make amends
ACURIOUS dissonance is evident in the reaction of some conservatives to ideas of reparative justice. This concept was at the heart of Glasgow University’s research, published recently, into its historical associations with racial slavery. The report, Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow, acknowledged that in today’s money it benefited from up to £200 million worth of gifts and bequests derived directly and indirectly from slavery.
It was produced after a year-long period of research conducted by Professor Simon Newman and Dr Stephen Mullen and stands as a remarkable work of scholarship in its own right. It doesn’t spare any of their former alumni and those grand men of 18th and 19th century Scotland, including one of its own principals, whose fortunes and influence were gained as a result of their participation in this trade.
The report contains excruciating and heart-breaking details of the evil that human beings are capable of visiting on their fellow men and women. Any pleas in mitigation of the kind that black people were deemed to be fair game in a more barbaric and uncivilised world fall in the face of the many who knew, even then, that this was a vile trade.
Last week, Professor Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s foremost historian, published his long-awaited history of the Clearances that transformed the economic, cultural and physical landscape of Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Scottish Clearances (A history of the Dispossessed 16001900) bears witness to an evil closer to home in which multitudes of the poorest people in Scotland were forced – often brutally and without mercy – from the land that had sustained their families for centuries. The title alone has sparked controversy as it challenges the long-held shibboleth that the Highlands and Islands bore an overwhelming majority of the forced clearances.
In the opening sentence of his introduction to this work Professor Devine writes: “I have thought, written and taught on several of the issues in this book for nearly 40 years. But this is the first time I have tried to bring all the parts of a fascinating historical jigsaw into a single framework.” In the opinion of others it is his magnum opus. It also provides a final and exquisite stitching underpinning the tapestry woven through three of his other great Scottish histories: To the Ends of the Earth, Scotland’s Empire and Independence or Union.
Throughout his latest work Professor Devine challenges an assortment of other questionable narratives including the one that holds that the mass of depopulation in the Highlands was caused by the Clearances (only around a quarter of it was) and that it was mainly English landlordism and English factors who were responsible. None of this of course diminishes the full extent of the inhumanity and human greed that laid waste to entire communities across Scotland; if anything it amplifies them.
The concept of reparative justice, if applied to the Scottish Clearances, would be howled down by those families and institutions which benefited most from the greed and exploitation of their ancestors: “It was too long ago,”; “what’s to be gained”, “it only feeds a culture of grievance”.
You hear similar sentiments espoused by the landowners’ organisations which represent the 500 individuals who own more than half of Scotland. That many of them benefited from illegal land grabs in an era of political, religious and judicial chaos seems never to have given them any cause to reflect on this let alone make amends. In any case, they aver, they are better stewards of the land and few but them know how to thrive in these wild places. They weren’t always wild though, and entire communities once lived in them.
The University of Glasgow has pledged to initiate a lengthy and sensitive journey of amendment not simply to acknowledge its slavery past but also “to engage in the kinds of reparative justice most appropriate to a university based on Enlightenment ideals of truth and justice”. This will include establishing deeper links with the University of the West Indies and funding exchange programmes and scholarships with communities throughout the Caribbean.
The university was just one of many Scottish institutions which benefited from the proceeds of human wickedness and greed. How many banks, insurance companies, shipping firms, private schools and grand Scottish mansions – and the families who live in them – were also enriched because their ancestors treated black people worse than animals? If, in two years’ time none have felt the need to follow a similar course to that taken by the University of Glasgow then Scotland’s claims to be a country where truth, justice and enlightened attitudes thrive will have been eroded.
When injustice and inhumanity is permitted to occur on a grand scale only a small and powerful elite benefit. If they’d had to share the proceeds of their dishonesty and cruelty they wouldn’t have bothered.
This is why their descendants and the political causes they support are the loudest in protesting about any moves to denude them of some of the wealth they inherited from the reset of stolen goods. Yet no-one’s asking them to pay it all back: nothing remotely like it. All that we’d ask of them is that they undertake the same self-examination as the University of Glasgow and perhaps fund some social programmes for those who suffered most from their families’ dishonesty and brutality.
And if they refuse to do this voluntarily then perhaps an enlightened, liberal and socially progressive government like, oh, I don’t know ... like our SNP Government, could ensure that it happened anyway. A first step would be to establish a Justice Commission which would name and shame the modern-day beneficiaries of theft, murder and illegal land-grabs both here and in those countries where our ancestors caused so much suffering. An index of those families and institutions which were built on slavery and which have refused to acknowledge this must be established and published.
Customers could then decide if they wanted to favour such institutions with their business.
Another way, of course, would be simply to ensure that a preferential option for the descendants of those worst affected in Scotland underpinned our Government’s social policies. That is, of course, if we want a sense of fairness to guide the way Scotland conducts its business.
This is why their descendants are the loudest in protesting about any moves to denude them of the wealth they inherited from the reset of stolen goods
‘When injustice and inhumanity is permitted to occur on a grand scale only a small and powerful elite benefit.’