Once it was the Empire’s Second City where even the street names saluted the tycoons, traders and tobacco barons building fortunes around the world.
Today, civic leaders in Glasgow have just launched the most far-reaching investigation into how the fortunes that built Scotland’s biggest city were amassed on the back of slaves.
Academic Stephen Mullen, author of a book on Glasgow’s connection with the trade which was abolished 180 years ago, has been asked to examine the street names, statues and buildings now synonymous with Glasgow but have links to slavery.
Council leader Susan Aitken, launching the initiative, the first of its kind in Britain, at the City Chambers, she pointed to one of the famous statues outside in George Square.
Councillor Aitken added: “For almost 200 years the statue of the great Scottish inventor and engineer James Watt has sat in George Square.
“Every schoolchild is taught how he was a catalyst in the Industrial Revolution.
“What’s less well known is that Watt’s father was a slave trader, a colonial merchant who subsidised his son. The development of the steam engine was funded by slavery.
“We went from one of the poorest nations to the workshop of the world in little over a century and streams of capital from the Caribbean, India and North America were driving that.”
She admitted the project could draw controversy, adding: “We will face criticism including from those who will accuse us of needless self-flagellation and of dredging up aspects of our past that we cannot change.”
But she said she was “borrowing the words” of Heriot Watt University academic and human rights activist Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who attended an event on Friday to announce the study, by adding, “we cannot change the past but we can change the consequences of the past and we can change the future”.
She said how the council should deal with the issues raised by the research will be decided after public consultation.
Councillor Aitken said: “On conclusion of the study we will ask the people of Glasgow for their response and hold a public conversation on notorious names which include Glassford, Ingram, Buchanan, Dunlop and Dundas.”
Referring to the renaming of the Candleriggs area around 20 years ago as Merchant City, she added: “What we certainly will do is draw a line under the continued use of names associated with the slave trade when it comes to new buildings, streets or developments. There will be no more Merchant Cities.”
She added the city is also looking at the possibility of a new collection or facility to mark connections with the slave trade.
The study, the first of its kind by a British city, is expected to take a year and will also look at former Lord Provosts’ connections to slavery.
Councillor Aitken said: “Self-reflection asks us to accept the role systematic slave labour, mass humanity and racism played in allowing Glasgow to flourish.
“But it’s also to recognise the role played by some in this city in the abolitionist movement and how many of us have proudly carried that spirit forward to today.”
Speaking at an event at the City Chambers on Friday to mark the launch of the study, Sir Geoffrey said: “I expect that thousands of people in the cane fields or the coffee plantations, who had a life span of just seven years, will have said they hoped one day someone would recognise what they were subjected to – and this study helps that hope come true.”
Glasgow University expert Dr Mullen detailed connections with slavery in his 2009 book It Wisnae Us: The Truth about Glasgow and Slavery. A major public consultation will follow his research to determine precisely how the city should respond to his findings.
The work could lead to plaques being erected to lay bare how slave profits paid for some of the city’s best known landmarks, including the Gallery for Modern Art, the former home of a merchant whose fortune benefited from slavery.
Dr Mullen said: “An attempt is being made to address how the citizens of Glasgow should confront the past.
“This will include a systematic audit of bequests, statues, street names and finance for the city itself including the City Chambers.
“We are interested in examining links with tobacco, sugar and cotton trades as well as areas such as shipbuilding, manufacturing and cotton.
“Mill owners became fabulously wealthy and banking and financial sectors associated with all of this also benefited.
“I am not aware of any statues dedicated to sugar or tobacco lords but there are others with more complex connections such as James Watt
“We know of street names and buildings linked to slavery and I will seek to confirm the exact nature of these connections.
“I do not think any other British city has commissioned such a study although there have been moves by Bristol and London to recognise their past.
“I have a duty to try to uncover without fear or favour.”
The slave trade retains the ability to shock and is anything but ancient history, according to Councillor Graham Campbell.
He will chair a special group supporting the research and said: “It is always interesting to see people’s reaction when they find out that the British Government took out a long term loan to pay for compensation to wealthy slave owners from the 1830s – and that British citizens only finished paying this loan off in 2015.
“We are on a journey and this research which will be carried out is part of the journey.
“Three years ago, myself and Dr Mullen began trying to assess how we might look at reparative justice for this city. There was some momentum on the issue but it was incumbent on the council to take the next steps.
“We have, therefore, been lobbying for work of this kind to be carried out for some time.
“The question was always precisely how to do it and how to look at the legacy of slavery and empire.
“It remains to be seen what the end result will be. It may be some kind of institution to recognise the links with slavery – but we need to engage the public and see what the response is.
“I believe we need to address the city’s history and acknowledge the failings of the past. We need to work out what we can do and what we should do now.”