Members of slave trade legacy group 'fear for safety' if identities made public

Members of a group investigating the legacy of slavery and colonialism in Edinburgh have raised concerns about their personal safety and that of their families if their identities are made public.

The review, which is being led by human rights campaigner Sir Geoff Palmer, was launched in 2020 in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and is examining the slavery links of the capital’s street names, statues and buildings.

However, it has been embroiled in controversy amid claims of secrecy and accusations of “bad history”.

The City of Edinburgh Council has refused to disclose the identities of the eight other members of the panel, citing concerns about online and offline abuse.

The Melville Monument in Edinburgh was previously targeted by protesters. Picture: Urquhart Media/BBC

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A Freedom of Information response, published on the council’s website, reveals members have also raised safety fears.

It says: “Due to concerns about both online and offline abuse raised by the review group, the chair has agreed not to release the names or biographical details of the any members until appropriate safeguarding supports are approved and operational, and the review group consents to their details being publicised.

“The council has a duty of care to its staff, and by extension, also to any private individuals who take part voluntarily in work it has commissioned.

"Members of the Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group have raised concerns about their personal safety, and the safety of family members, should their identities by publicised in connection with this work, which is subject to high levels of media interest currently.

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Tom Devine

"As a result, the council is working to establish safeguarding procedures to give them confidence that their well-being is of paramount concern and practical support is available if required.”

The review has previously attracted criticism from senior academics including the renowned historian Sir Tom Devine.

One row centres on the legacy of Henry Dundas, the 18th century lawyer and politician who has a monument dedicated to him in St Andrew Square.

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Sir Tom and others have criticised the wording of a plaque that says the enslavement of 500,000 Africans was a consequence of Dundas's actions in “deferring” the abolition of the slave trade.

After Sir Geoff accused Sir Tom and another senior academic of racism, the historian said he had received “unequivocal” legal advice that he had been defamed.

Sir Tom told Scotland on Sunday: “I’m extremely sorry that these people feel that their own personal safety and their family’s might be involved in this.

"But nevertheless I think there is a higher requirement, and that is to ensure that all these issues are in the public domain, and the individuals involved who eventually take a view on all this are in the public domain.

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"And therefore if they joined, or decided to join, a group which was then going to give public pronouncements based on the authority of the town council, then they should accept that some issues come with that.”

He said Sir Geoff’s credibility has been “entirely undermined”, and called on Edinburgh’s new minority Labour administration to “revisit this issue, including the continuing controversial issue of the Dundas plaque, and do much better than their predecessors”.

He said: “This is not an issue of little consequence. I know that there is global interest, among the academic community at least, in the outcomes of these developments in Scotland’s capital city.”

Sir Geoff, Scotland's first black professor, said the review group’s final report has been written and is now being checked, adding: “It’s just a matter of dotting i’s and crossing t’s.”

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He said: “It’s not one-sided. We are trying to produce a balanced report about Edinburgh and slavery and colonialism.”

He added: “We cannot change the past, but we can change the consequences, such as racism, for the better using education.

"And education is one of the central recommendations we are asking the council to look at, because that’s critical in terms of changing attitudes.”

Sir Geoff said that while some members did not want to be known, he was happy to be visible.

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He said: "Despite familiar attacks from various quarters, I don’t mind being a known member of our group.

"I will continue to speak evidence-based truth to the Scottish people who expect nothing less.”