Edinburgh Council agrees to slavery review recommendations

Wednesday August 31st 2022


The Review’s chair Sir Geoff Palmer at the Policy and Sustainability Committee.

Written by Local Democracy Reporter, Donald Turvill

An apology will be issued to all who suffered as a result of Edinburgh’s role in the slave trade by the council after it agreed to act on recommendations set out in a review of the city’s colonial past.

Statues, monuments and street names associated with slavery and colonialism will also to be looked at, but not removed, with an agreement to ‘re-present’ plaques which explain historical context.

Among the street names, statues and monuments highlighted as problematic are the First Minister’s official residence in Charlotte Square, of which three historic owners “directly benefited from Atlantic slavery,” the report stated.

The report added that India Street and Jamaica Street in the New Town were both “named as a celebration of empire as part of the second New Town expansion”.

St Andrew Square’s controversial Melville Monument dedicated to Henry Dundas was also listed.

Vandalised during BLM protests in 2020, the monument’s plaque was subsequently changed to explain that Dundas was “instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade” and it is anticipated similar alterations will be be made elsewhere in the city in line with the review’s suggestions.

In total, the Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review, which was commissioned in 2020 in the wake of the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, made 10 recommendations for the city to address its past.

The Review’s chair Sir Geoff Palmer, who presented the 150-page report to councillors yesterday, said the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin – which sparked BLM protests including several in Edinburgh – was “one of the most significant moments in the history of slavery”.

And he said many people in the city were “surprised” to learn about Edinburgh’s historic links to slavery and colonialism in the debate which followed.

“They had no idea,” he added, “People are now asking me to explain and give talks about this report because they have no reference other than this report in terms of their own history.”

Council leader Cammy Day said the Review, which cost the local authority £18,500, shows “commitment from the council to be progressive, open and honest about the history of Edinburgh”.

Around 4,000 people were surveyed alongside extensive historical research and engagement with 35 organisations.

Following consultation, the Review Group identified five areas for potential action which were: removal of monuments and renaming of streets or public buildings, civic redress, active learning, policy development and cultural interventions.

The report stated most participants viewed Edinburgh’s links with slavery “as an abhorrent” but “an important part of the city’s history which should not be hidden from view”.

Sir Geoff said: “The report says that putting up plaques or names were critical and this is what we should do rather than knock things down.”

The recommendations unanimously agreed by councillors included the introduction of city-wide observance of the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition every August 23 and for teaching and learning materials to “fill the gap in respect of Scotland’s and Edinburgh’s role in slavery and colonialism”.

It was also agreed that friendship agreements will be initiated between the capital and “cities in countries most impacted by Edinburgh’s historic involvement with slavery and colonialism” and a “significant public artwork” will be commissioned “acknowledging Edinburgh’s links with slavery and colonialism”.

Sir Geoff told the Policy and Resources Committee a legacy group to oversee the implementation of the recommendations should be set up “as soon as possible”.

He added: “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.

“Slavery contributed to the flow of wealth into Edinburgh that manifested itself in the elegant construction of the New Town.

“Compensation to slave owners was often reinvested in the railway boom. Statues were erected to honour people whose deeds linked them to perpetuation of slavery or notions of racial superiority.

“So it is that our streets, fine buildings and monuments need to be seen through fresh eyes; enjoying and valuing the best of our past and the contribution it makes to our daily life, while also recognising dark aspects and using historic places to stimulate discourse, challenge and positive change in the present.”

The recommendations agreed in full are:

– For the Council to publicly acknowledge the city’s past role in sustaining slavery and colonialism, and to issue an apology to those places and people who suffered.

– Statues, monuments, buildings and street names associated with slavery and colonialism in Edinburgh are retained and re-presented in accordance with a new, dedicated interpretation strategy which explains the nature and consequences of that involvement.

– City-wide observance of the annual, UNESCO-designated International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition every August 23 is introduced and resourced.

– Teaching and learning materials are developed and delivered to fill the gap in respect of Scotland’s and Edinburgh’s role in slavery and colonialism.

– Friendship agreements are initiated with cities in countries most impacted by Edinburgh’s historic involvement with slavery and colonialism.

– Universities and research bodies are encouraged to fund, develop and publish studies into the many under-researched aspects of Edinburgh’s 6 connections with slavery and colonialism, prioritising the objectives of the new interpretation strategy.

– A significant public artwork is commissioned acknowledging Edinburgh’s links with slavery and colonialism. This initiates the development of a city-wide strategy for public art that fairly represents the diversity of the city and its histories, and capitalises on the creative potential of a multicultural city.

– A positive programme of cultural commissions is established, empowering and resourcing emerging Black and Minority Ethnic creatives in Edinburgh to participate in and shape existing festivals, arts and heritage programmes.

– For the Council to endorse the work of the Empire, Slavery and Scotland’s Museums steering group (ESSM) which was established by the Scottish Government, and commits to exploring how the capital can contribute to the creation of a dedicated space addressing Scotland’s role in this history.

– An independent legacy stakeholder group is established, supported by the Council, to ensure approved recommendations are actioned, resourced and monitored, and progress is reported annually.

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