SOME of Scotland’s top academics have become embroiled in a row over racism and Edinburgh’s connections to the slave trade.

The dispute has seen Sir Geoff Palmer, an emeritus professor and chancellor of Heriot-Watt University, label Jonathan Hearn and Sir Tom Devine, current and emeritus professors at Edinburgh University, members of “an academic racist gang” amid a disagreement over the role of Henry Dundas in abolition.

Dundas has been at the centre of much controversy, with some arguing that he helped in the ending of the slave trade. Proponents of this view have pointed to a statement he made in the House of Commons in 1792 in which he said “the slave trade ought to be abolished”.

He was also known for defending Joseph Knight, a slave brought to Scotland who was later freed when the Court of Session ruled slavery was not recognised by Scots law.

READ MORE: There is more than the slave trade to confront in Scotland’s colonial past

However, Palmer and others believe Dundas held back abolition. They say that Dundas argued for a gradual end to the trade, which could have happened 15 years before the passing of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 had it not been for his intervention.

It is also argued, as Palmer has, that abolitionists of the time did not see Dundas as one of their number. Some say he has been unfairly credited with helping to end the vile trade.

A 150-foot column with a statue of the politician – known as the Melville Monument – stands in St Andrew Square in Edinburgh. It was defaced during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, with a plaque later installed explaining historical context.

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In the wake of the BLM movement, Palmer was appointed to lead two separate reviews into the Edinburgh city and university’s involvement in the slave trade.

Hearn published an article in the right-wing magazine The Spectator in which he criticised the Palmer-led review, saying it “risks being historically superficial when it seeks to ‘correct’ history with its revised account”.

He went on: “There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Dundas’s gradualist approach to abolition – however unsatisfactory it may seem to us in the present day – was the only approach which would be politically successful at the time, and as a skilled political operator, Dundas was very aware of this.

“Ironically, it was the abolitionist revisions to his bill that led to it being killed and delayed any progress to abolition. Dundas wasn’t a saint, but history is complex.”

Responding to the article on Twitter, Palmer accused Hearn of writing “racist propaganda” and being part of an “academic racist gang”.

Speaking to The Times, Sir Tom Devine, professor emeritus of history at Edinburgh University, accused Palmer of “appalling slurs of racism against those whose only fault was to have a different view from his own”.

Devine called for Palmer’s dismissal as chair of the two review groups, saying: “Those roles crucially demand qualities of impartiality, sensitive appreciation of different opinions and the capacity to encourage consensus and complex decisions.”

Palmer responded saying he would not cave in to the “biased (racist) demand”. He added: “If [my critics] provide me with valid evidence that they are right about the historical facts, and I’m wrong, I’ll resign.”

Amid the row, Edinburgh University issued a statement saying it was "committed to freedom of expression and academic freedom".

Devine said he was deeply shocked by the “shameful and fatuous response from an institution which ought to have a duty of care for its staff”.

“There was no hint of support or even an inquiry into these disgraceful slurs, nothing other than supine platitudes," he added.

READ MORE: Michael Fry: Scots shouldn’t feel guilty about ancestors’ role in the slave trade

Peter Mathieson, the University's principal, emailed all senior academic staff saying he had met Palmer “to clarify expectations under the university’s dignity and respect policy”.

The Times reported that the email had been widely seen as a “rap on the knuckles” for Palmer. However, the academic dismissed any idea that he had been reprimanded, saying he was not able to comment on the letter as he was not employed by the University and the email's content did not apply to him.

Other academics have since been dragged into the row. Michael Rosie, senior lecturer in sociology at Edinburgh University, described Palmer’s statements as “outlandish and bizarre”.

He told The Times: “That Edinburgh University has remained silent whilst its employees are repeatedly defamed, and that no one close to Palmer has persuaded him to reflect on his social media behaviour, must give all of us serious pause for thought.”

However, Tommy J Curry, the UK’s first professor of black male studies, who also works at Edinburgh, told The Guardian the response to Palmer revealed “a naivety of Scottish culture that it wants to have the debate but is not used to having arguments about race where black people themselves have the power to name racism in society”.

He said: “This isn’t a difference of opinion, it’s about whether history should change based on fact. We’ve acknowledged that Dundas didn’t abolish slavery and did participate in the trade.”

Palmer became the first black professor in Scotland in 1989. He was born in Jamaica before moving to the UK as a teenager.

The National: Edinburgh City Council group leader Adam McVey. Photograph: Gordon Terris

The leader of Edinburgh Council, the SNP’s Adam McVey (above), said earlier this week that he had been inundated with thousands of "blatantly racist" emails from supporters of right-wing organisations looking to interfere with the council's ongoing Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review.

He said Palmer had been a particular target of the vitriol from "people who have no association with Edinburgh" who were seeking to "frustrate the work that we are engaging in".

"I have been emailed by thousands - and I mean thousands - of people overwhelmingly down south from organisations I would describe as right-wing, if not far right-wing,” he said.

“The purpose of this exercise is not to distance ourselves from [Edinburgh’s past] or try and run away from it. It's to tell that story more honestly and hopefully build a greater appreciation for what our city actually is, not just the heavily edited version we feel much more comfortable with."