Last Updated on August 24, 2019
Glasgow University announced that it will spend £20 million to implement a “programme of restorative justice” to apologise for its links to the slave trade.
A report commissioned by Glasgow University into its historical links to the Atlantic slave trade found that it had received between £16.7 million and £198 million in today’s money from 23 donors who profited in some form from slavery. One of those identified was James Watt, the pioneer of the steam engine, whose father was a “West Indie merchant and slave-trader who supported Watt in his career,” the report said, and that it is therefore “certain that Watt profited from slavery and its commerce.”
Another individual noted in the report was Robert Cunninghame Graham, who was the rector of Glasgow University between 1785 and 1787. He lived in Jamaic during his years, where he made his fortune from owning slaves on the island – he was even appointed to Receiver-General for Taxes in 1753.
In a ceremony in Glasgow on Friday morning, the university committed to put £20 million towards the creation of the Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research. This was praised by the University of the West Indies as a “bold, moral, historic step,” who will be co-running the centre with Glasgow University. Most of the money will come through the form of grants for the centre, which will raise awareness of the history of slavery and its global impact.
Professor Sir Anton Muscaletti, the principal of Glasgow University, said that while the past could not be changed, the consequences of it could be:
This is the story of our journey to do this to further enhance awareness and understanding of our history and the university’s connections to both historical slavery and the abolitionist movement…
Talking about any institution’s or country’s historical links to slavery can be a difficult conversation, but we felt it was a necessary one for our university to have.
The move was commended by people both in the media and politics. Graham Campbell, a councillor for the Scottish National Party and its first of Afro-Caribbean descent, said that it was a “necessary first step in the fight against institutionalised racism and discrimination… and for the international fight for reparative justice.” Writing in The Guardian, Afua Hirsch praised the university for “breaking through the paralysis of fear and denial,” and encouraged other institutions to follow suit.
It is thought that this is the first attempt at “restorative justice” by a British higher learning institution, but it is certainly not the first worldwide. In April of this year, students at the University of Georgetown voted to directly compensate the descendants of 272 slaves that were owned by the university but sold to pay off debts.
However, not everyone agrees with the university’s actions. Some have pointed out that it is wrong to hold it to account for the actions of its donors, when it also has strong links to the abolitionist movement: it petitioned Parliament many times to end institutional slavery; it awarded an honorary degree to William Wilberforce, the leading figure in the abolitionist movement; and many of its staff members “adopted a clear anti-slavery position” during the years that it was still in effect.
Academic and author Joanna Williams said that the university paying reparation money suggests that “people who are alive today bear some historical responsibility for what their ancestors did in the past”:
[These were] truly barbaric and criminal acts, but to suggest that people alive today are responsible for the sins of their ancestors is a step too far…
It also suggests that other people who are alive today are victims of what happened to their ancestors. There comes a point we all need to move on from that and say that the past is the past.
Some on the left have actually argued that the university has not gone nearly far enough. Claire Heuchen wrote in an article for The Huffington Post that “the truly just and brave course of action [would] be to offer the descendants of those enslaved people… direct finanical restitution”:
If the establishment truly wanted to provide reparations through education, they could have given the money directly to the University of the West Indies to spend as they see fit, or used it to fund full scholarships for generations of African and Caribbean international students. Instead, the University of Glasgow has named and prioritised its institution first in this project.
Reparations are meant to redress the structural and profound financial imbalances created by the slave trade, not to boost the reach and status of a western university.