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.’

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