Edinburgh slavery review: Capital should apologise for historic links to slave trade and colonialism, says report

The city council should apologise for Edinburgh’s past role in slavery and colonialism, the Capital’s independent slavery review has recommended.

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But it said statues, monuments, buildings and street names associated with slavery and colonialism should be retained and “re-presented” to explain the nature and consequences of the involvement.

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The review, led by human rights campaigner Professor Sir Geoff Palmer, who was Scotland’s first black professor, endorsed a call for a national museum to confront Scotland’s historic links with the slave trade and colonialism and said the Capital should explore how it “can contribute to the creation of a dedicated space addressing Scotland’s role in this history”.

It also recommended that the city observes the annual, Unesco-designated International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition every August 23; that it develops teaching and learning materials on Scotland’s and Edinburgh’s role in slavery and colonialism; and that a significant public artwork is commissioned acknowledging Edinburgh’s links with slavery and colonialism.

Sir Geoff praised the council for its “innovative decision” to commission the independent review. In his foreword he said: “I was born in Jamaica. I am descended from slaves and Scots who enslaved them, and there are Scottish names in my family such as Gladstone, Mowatt and Wood.” He noted that a list of chattel slaves “belonging to Lord Balcarres” in Jamaica in 1819 included the name of his great grandfather.

“Although it has been said in some quarters that we should forget the past, our slavery and colonialism exploited many for the financial gain of the few, and had other unacceptable consequences such as racism which we can change for the better using education.”

He said the views of the public had been key to the review’s findings. Opinions were sought through a 12-week online consultation and a series of workshops. Altogether, more than 4,000 people and 35 organisations took part in the review.

Professor Sir Geoff Palmer chaired the Edinburgh slavery and colonialism legacy review. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Other recommendations in the review included friendship agreements with cities in countries most impacted by Edinburgh’s historic involvement with slavery and colonialism; cultural commissions to empower and resource emerging Black and Minority Ethnic creatives in Edinburgh to participate in and shape existing festivals, arts and heritage programmes; and universities and research bodies funding and publishing studies of under-researched aspects of Edinburgh’s connections with slavery and colonialism.

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The report said the profits of the slave trade had helped shape Edinburgh. “Shining a light on this legacy is long overdue, and it is a necessary part of learning to live together harmoniously as citizens of today’s world. It is not about erasing history, rather it is about presenting a fuller picture that enables us all to better understand who we are, and how this history influenced the development of Edinburgh itself."

The recommendations will be debated by councillors next week.

Council leader Cammy Day said: “We commissioned this independent review because we felt it was an important and useful starting point for a wide-ranging public discussion about the modern-day impact of this legacy, and to acknowledge that race-based discrimination has deep roots in our Capital. It still shapes the life experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic residents today, and that is unacceptable. Racism must be talked about, and action to end it must be supported if it is to be stamped out and we are to be the inclusive and welcoming city that the vast majority of its residents wants and expects it to be.”

The Melville monument commemorates Henry Dundas, who delayed the end of the slave trade. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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