Slavery and Colonialisation Review Consultation – Comments 19 January 2022

Posted on: January 19, 2022

Our response to the Council’s Legacy of Slavery and Colonialism consultation exploring Edinburgh’s slavery and colonialism legacy.

Public Consultation By: City of Edinburgh Council

Overview: The Council has opened a consultation to learn local residents’ views on the most constructive ways that the city could address issues of historic racial injustice as a means to stem modern-day discrimination

Opened for comments: 27 October 2021

Closing date for comments: 19 January 2022

Cockburn Response

The Cockburn Association welcomes this review and the work of the review group chaired by Professor Geoff Palmer.

This is a complex and challenging subject and has, in part, been driven by debates on the role of Henry Dundas, Lord Melville played in the abolition of slavery in Scotland and the international Black Lives Matters campaign fuelled by the killing of George Floyd in America.  The events in Bristol with the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston and subsequent trial has highlighted many issues associated with subject. However, here in Edinburgh, the issues are much wider and more contemporary than the case of Dundas.

Furthermore, we also need to acknowledge that slavery, in all its modern-day forms, continues. British companies and institutions may still be exposed to current slavery practices in their operations and supply chains both at home and abroad, the most common of which in contemporary society are forced labour, child labour and debt bondage.

The Review should aim to set in place a process that fills in gaps in the received history of the city, and in doing so reconciles past and present by recognising the contributions to Edinburgh’s development and prosperity made by people who were enslaved or colonised. Equally, it is important to recover and celebrate the voices of those who contested the institutions and individuals that sustained the injustices. The legacy of slavery and colonialism is multi-faceted and enduring, and the Review should be seen as a way of beginning to engage fully with it.

The Cockburn is also aware of other related challenges in the interpretation of people and events.  The stellar work the Witches in Scotland group highlighting the huge miscarriages of justice, and the writings of Sara Sheridan on the lack of public commemoration of women in Edinburgh are but two.  Therefore, we believe that the Slavery and Colonial Legacy Review should be considered as a catalyst for a new wider and inclusive reflection of the history of the city.

The Cockburn comments in the review consultation will concentrate on the wider principles and processes.  An evidential approach focusing on awareness, communication and education about the history and key issues is the best way forward.   In doing so, we will not address individual or specific issues regarding particular monuments or place names other than to argue that any proposed changes should be subject to a public consultation and education processes supported by a strong evidential basis.

In all of this, the need for recognition of the positive contribution to Edinburgh that many persecuted individuals and groups have made should be an objective. This is a forgotten and hidden history and the lived experience of the many, many individuals who through slavery and colonial oppression were forced to contribute to the development of Edinburgh, and wider Scottish society, remains, for the most part, deeply buried. In fact, the ways in which this forgotten history has been hidden and suppressed, and the reasons for this, are also something worthy of examination and exposure to contemporary scrutiny.

To facilitate this ongoing process, we suggest the following as our contribution to this current consultation:

  • Establish a centre of research and reconciliation supported by CEC and academic institutes to carry the work forward looking not only at major individuals, events, networks and institutions based in the city, but also at ways in which the general public were impacted by slavery and colonialism. An additional role should be to monitor current trends in the city to ensure that all citizens are benefitting from what Edinburgh offers.
  • Create a museum / interpretation centre on the theme of justice, preferably by reusing an existing building that had links with slavery and colonialism, such as the Custom House in Leith. It would highlight slavery and colonial issues, as well as other societal issues such as witchcraft, historic abuse of women and children etc., while also recognising those resisting such practices, and highlighting their relevance today.
  • Work with schools to help learners become aware of these issues.
  • If the current consultation and subsequent Review Report suggests there is a case for changes to monuments and/or place names, views should also be sought from local community and civic groups as well as any other representative or specialist groups, recognising practical issues that might be involved (e.g. changing a street name will have consequences for postal addresses, etc). Similarly, where monuments or buildings have listed or scheduled status, consideration will need to be given to whether that status needs to be reviewed or amended.
  • An interpretation policy using all modern techniques to highlight the issues and injustices should be established. This would need to include a prioritisation system (which is a major challenge).
  • Host an international conference/online event connecting Edinburgh to places overseas that were linked to the city through slavery and colonialism, to better reveal the legacies.

In summary, the Cockburn would encourage the Review to recommend a number of practical steps designed to fill gaps in past understandings of Edinburgh’s history by promoting rigorous research, and to identify ways to share that new understanding widely.