The stain is very real.
Glasgow’s global reputation remains tarnished by its legacy of profiting from the Atlantic slave trade.
And the city still commemorates, in street names and statuary, some of the merchants and politicians who allowed or carried out mass human trafficking.
The merchant John Glassford, who owned slaves, has a street named after him. The same is true of Henry Dundas, the strong politician most historians blame for prolonging slavery.
And right in the heart of town, there’s a monument to James Watt, the longtime engineer who literally sold a boy named Frederick not far from where his statue now stands.
But is the blood of these men’s victims found in Glasgow’s built heritage? Not really.
There are those who believe passionately – and perhaps understandably – that slavery must have paid for the sometimes ostentatious buildings that line George Square or the streets named after slave owners like Andrew Buchanan or Archibald Ingram.
But most of the sandstone fabric in central Glasgow is late Victorian and not Georgian. This does not mean that the capital that paid for it cannot be traced back to 18th and early 19th century slavery. But the links are rarely direct.
Take the city chambers. The seat of Fine Arts of local government, Glasgow’s closest thing to an iconic postcard building, was built in the 1880s. It comes with a pediment celebrating the British imperial subjugation of other countries . But was it built with slave money? No.
University of Glasgow historian Stephen Mullen is leading what is believed to be the UK’s first civic inquiry into the legacy of slavery. He had previously done similar work for his employers, the University of Glasgow, which was named University of the Year last week because of how it handled its own legacy of slavery. The main university building on Gilmorehill, built a decade before the City Chambers, was funded by those who profited from the Atlantic trade.
Dr Mullen’s work has been delayed by the Covid pandemic. But, during an online conference hosted by the council last week, the expert said he had already ruled out bloody money paid for the City Chambers’ marble and Italian-style embellishments.
“In very general terms, the City Chambers were founded in the 1880s, half a century after the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies and a quarter of a century after the abolition of slavery in the United States.
“This necessarily excludes any involvement because we know that the University of Glasgow was built in 1866-1870. The two funding strategies were totally different. The University of Glasgow was a public campaign, was relatively small and private, and relied on donations from past and present staff, students and notables.
“In the 1880s the Glasgow Corporation had enormous municipal income, which made it easy to borrow short and long term from banks. There was therefore no obligation to encourage public subscription by individuals as the university recently recognized.
Dr Mullen continues his work and city leaders are still looking for ways to mark Glasgow’s legacy of slavery and imperialism.
This summer, at the heart of the Black Lives Matter protests, were those who claimed, without evidence, that the statues of those stained with human trafficking were in some way at risk.
There were particular concerns about a monument to King William III, “King Billy,” who both personally benefited from slavery and played a key role in the development of Atlantic trade. It was vandalized and they were protected by the police.
Some officials feared the statue at Glasgow Cathedral would become a flashpoint for trouble as “culture wars” imported from the United States mingled with Scottish sectarian strife. After all, William is viewed both as a liberator – by some Protestants and loyalists – and as a slaveholder.
However, what the city’s rulers are now looking for is another kind of focal point: a museum of slavery (and perhaps imperialism, too).
Such an “attraction” may be long in coming. There is little more than a vague desire to have such a place in Scotland and little agreement on where it should be.
Graham Campbell, a Glasgow city councilor who has been at the forefront of efforts to bring Scotland to accept the darker side of its history.
“Glasgow is the right place for a slavery museum, but I would say no? Campbell said at the same conference that Mullen addressed. “However, other places have a good claim as well. If you look at where the landlord slavery allowance was paid and locate it on a map, there is a lot of it in the New Town of Edinburgh.
“Greenock pitched for this. It was at Port Glasgow and Greenock that the slave goods were unloaded. And it is with Greenock that James Watt is associated.
Glasgow appointed a specialist curator in September to deal with slavery and imperialism in the city’s existing collections.
Campbell said he believed a national museum might end up having multiple locations. He said: “It has been the policy of the board to review a permanent exhibit in our museum.
“We may have to take the same path and then develop [the local exhibit] in a large national museum. It could be like the V&A or the Tate, which are galleries of multiple sites.