ALL 12 of the statues of scientists, soldiers, writers, politicians and royals in George Square in Glasgow have a variety of connections to slavery and abolition. I conduct a walking tour of the statues that tries to use the statues to demonstrate that it’s not just a question of individual slave traders, but that slavery and abolition are woven through George Square’s public memory of commerce, politics, science, militarism, industrialisation, academia and literature.

For example, the statue of Sir John Moore is best known for his valour in the Napoleonic Wars, though he was previously involved in crushing slave rebellions.

In the 1790s, slavery should have been overthrown from below. The revolution in Santo Domingo, which would create the state of Haiti, spread across the Caribbean. Moore took part in the massive naval expedition which saved the slave system. He was installed as governor of St Lucia where his journal boasts of his leading role in “reducing Negro Brigands” as an example “to inspire activity and zeal” in his troops.

Beside him stands the statue of Lord Clyde Campbell, best known for holding the “thin red line” of troops in Crimea. In 1823, 26 years after Moore’s efforts in St Lucia, Campbell was one of the highest-ranking officers during the excessively bloodthirsty crushing of the Demerara slave rebellion of 1823. Campbell was on the court martial which sentenced the missionary John Smith to death for complicity in the revolt. Smith became a martyr for the relaunched anti-slavery campaigns in the 1820s.

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The Demerara uprising began on an estate named Success which belonged to the Scotsman John Gladstone. Born in Leith, Gladstone made his fortune in Liverpool and retired to Kincardineshire near Aberdeen.

There he received the largest single payment in the slave compensation records: £106,769, nearly £83 million in today’s money, for more than 2000 enslaved people.

The statue of his son William Ewart Gladstone, who became Liberal prime minister four times, stands on the opposite side of George Square to Campbell. His maiden speeches in Parliament were in defence of his father’s slave-holding. The leaders of the uprising – Jack Gladstone and his father Quamina – are now national heroes in Guyana. There is an opportunity to commission new public artwork and information to these figures in George Square between the statues of Campbell and Gladstone. Make it something you have to chew on.

In terms of street names, it is clearly desirable to have a wider variety of people honoured. To take the example of Glasgow. I agree with Councillor Graham Campbell and would keep the likes of Ingram Street and Buchanan Street in view and re-contextualised with additional information and public art. I note however that Glasgow does have an abundance of street names associated with aristocrats. To name a few, there is George Square of course, and George Street and West George Street; Hanover Street and North Hanover Street; North Frederick Street and South Frederick Street; King Street, Queen Street and Duke Street. Are all these strictly necessary? Strategically, it would be effective to change George Street, named after George III, to Joseph Knight Street.

As a young man, Knight had been enslaved in Africa and taken to Jamaica where he was purchased by the Jacobite sugar planter Sir John Wedderburn. On returning to Scotland, Wedderburn brought Knight with him to serve him at Ballindean House in Perthshire. Knight wanted to marry and raise a family with a Dundee servant woman named Ann Thomson, but Wedderburn disapproved of the relationship.

It was Knight’s refusal to submit which eventually led to a landmark legal case in 1778 in which Knight won his freedom and he is credited with firmly establishing that slavery was not legally permitted on Scottish soil, even while it continued in the colonies.

Knight’s story is the subject of a historical novel by James Robertson (2003) and a new play by May Sumbwanyambe. George III was king when Knight won his legal case.

We might change West George Street to James McCune Smith Street – where there is already a café which bears the name of the African American who studied at Glasgow University and became a key member of the city’s Emancipation Society. Dr Wardlaw’s West George Street Chapel was the centre of anti-slavery activities in the city.

SCOTLAND’S reckoning with slavery and empire has largely been focussed, for obvious reasons, on Glasgow. But it’s increasingly clear that slavery and anti-slavery have been a shaping factor across every part of Scotland. The University of Aberdeen has recently called for research into the slavery origins of its wealth along the lines of Glasgow. Black Atlantic Research Dundee has called on the University of Dundee to follow suit. The linen mills around the North East of Scotland exported “slave cloth” to the Americas. In Dundee, we have the Langlands family who at the ending of slavery claimed compensation for their loss of “property” – meaning enslaved people on their plantations in Jamaica.

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A statue to slave owner George Kinloch MP stands outside the McManus Museum. Alasdair Pettinger’s recent project details Frederick Douglass’ crucial anti-slavery meetings in Scotland and Dundee in particular. Now is the time to commission a tribute to Joseph Knight and Ann Thomson in Dundee.

It would be a reminder of the multi-racial, international solidarity movements, however flawed, which were required to eventually bring slavery to an end. Black Lives Matter will have to go further: to take on the white supremacy which anti-slavery left intact.

In Scotland, we must condemn the killing of George Floyd and send full solidarity to the Black Lives Matter movement. But, perhaps more importantly, we should take this time to look ourselves squarely in the mirror. Let’s ask ourselves what happened to Sheku Bayoh on the streets of Kirkcaldy, and let’s not tell ourselves that this is just an American problem. We have for too long pretended that racial oppression is a thing of the past or no longer relevant here. There is much work to do, in Scotland as much as anywhere.

The full article can be read here.