On Reparations, Strathclyde, and Scotland’s Implication in the Profits of Enslaved Labour

Photo by British Library on Unsplash

Stephen Ramsay (He/Him)

The University of Strathclyde released a report on historical links to Transatlantic slavery on Monday. It comes over a year after the release of Glasgow City Council’s Slavery Audit, and four years after the announcement of the University of Glasgow’s joint £20 million reparations venture with the University of the West Indies.

The new report points to a wide-ranging involvement of Strathclyde’s predecessor, the Andersonian Institute, with slavery through the 1800s, and its economic legacy beyond – both financially, via the receipt of its profits, and politically, via the four enslavers who were Presidents of its governing body. Nonetheless, it hesitates to recommend any specific sum towards a reparatory investment scheme along the lines of University of Glasgow’s, despite uncovering various streams of questionable income, including a bequest by prominent enslavers James Buchanan and James Ewing that likely amounted to between £1.37 million (adjusting for inflation) and £8.4 million (as a proportion of national income) in 2016 money. Despite this, the release by the University does not engage with or specifically mention the idea of making ‘reparations’, although it does set out a series of ‘actions’ intended to tackle racism and discrimination.

This comes just a few days after NHS Lothian’s controversial announcement that it would be making reparations for its own historical links to slavery. Thanks to the predictably idiotic right-wing pearl-clutching which ensued – the Daily Record ran with the headline, “Crisis-hit NHS board offer reparations to ‘make amends’ for slavery links”, setting a variety of overpaid columnists running with barely concealed glee to their keyboards, like hopped-up greyhounds chasing the false rabbit of the culture war – the whole concept of reparations is once again subject to widespread debate and criticism. Most of this criticism ignores the fact that the NHS board’s commitment was to non-financial reparations, which consist of an unspecified arts commission, and a statement of intent about addressing health inequalities.

Making an effort to reach out to minority communities is something the NHS should be doing regardless of any implication in the profits of slavery. That said, expecting the NHS to make meaningful strides towards closing the racial health gap at this late stage in the Tories’ campaign of systematic destruction would be a bit like expecting your ailing grandfather to absorb a lecture on intersectional theory while simultaneously being smothered to death with a pillow. (Perhaps the right-wing reaction is correct in some sense, and rather than trying to improve it, we should just leave the NHS to die in peace – better still, we could gather around the bedside and clap for it as it passes into the fiscal afterlife)

A similar argument might be made regarding Glasgow City Council, whose finances have been struggling under the burden of the equal pay settlement and rampant inflation. I raised this point at the GCC Black History Month panel last Friday, questioning whether the Council could finance a meaningful program of reparations given the lack of funds. Council Leader Susan Aitken assured me that Glasgow is “not Birmingham. We’re not bankrupt. We may have to phase this work over… two or three years to budget it, but we will make sure the resource is there to implement the recommendations that have come out of the Working Group.” She also suggested that a national museum of colonisation or slavery, located in Glasgow, could be funded by the Scottish Government.

Regardless of your thoughts on the individual cases of the struggling NHS and City Council, we can hardly extend the same sympathy to the University of Strathclyde. Despite repeatedly insisting it is a “socially progressive” institution, the soaring profits of Universities generally and the unprecedented £50m windfall it received in 2021, Strathclyde still won’t meet striking staff’s demands to reverse falling wages and pensions.

Strathclyde is also the second biggest recipient of money from the Confucius Institute in Scotland, having received £5.6 million from an organisation with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party, another cash flow arguably dirtied by the profits of forced labour. The Xinjiang region’s lucrative cotton industry constitutes 20% of the global economy’s total, a significant amount of which is controlled by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a state-owned paramilitary enterprise which makes use of coercive “labour transfer programs” to populate its cotton fields. All told, there is little reason to believe Strathclyde can credibly address concerns about its implication in historical slavery, when it has a remarkably laissez-faire attitude towards labour rights today. Time will tell, however, and the University has made a commitment – albeit a vague one – which students can monitor and scrutinise over the years to come.

It is worth noting that while public/charitable institutions and property are, naturally, subject to endless scrutiny, private institutions and property are not. Therefore, of the millions of pounds paid out to enslavers during the process of abolition in the 1830s and 40s, only the small portion which was then donated by enslavers to philanthropic or socially-minded ends will credibly fall under the microscope of the reparations debate. The vast majority of this wealth, circulating in unknown financial and familial byways, will never see the light of any serious criticism. Indeed, attempts to illuminate these darker corners with Freedom of Information requests have proven largely fruitless thus far.

Even if we know this is wrong, we can understand intuitively why it is the case, because we have been raised into a schema where private property is held sacred above all else. This is the proprietarian ideal which economist Thomas Piketty, in Capital and Ideology, argues is central to understanding why owners of enslaved people were indemnified (paid off) during abolition, while enslaved people themselves were given nothing, or worse still, forced to work to pay off debt to their previous masters. The most flagrant case of this was Haiti, who after overthrowing its enslaver minority and declaring independence, was threatened into shouldering a crushing debt in 1825 by the ostensibly egalitarian, post-Revolutionary France, a debt consisting of an incredible 300% of their national income. Modern Haiti has still not recovered from the economic effects of this remarkable instance of gunboat diplomacy.

In the UK, by contrast, the significant public debt accrued in 1835 by the process of indemnification for its 4000 enslavers (£20 million, then 5% of the UK’s national income – a comparable proportion of national income today would be 120 billion euros, or 30 million per enslaver) was mostly paid off by middle or lower-income households within the country itself, thanks to our then incredibly regressive tax system. Thus, while our cities and various public and philanthropic enterprises benefited from the profits of slavery, the abolition process itself was exploited to facilitate a steady transfer of wealth upwards. It is crucial to recognise, however, that this wasn’t financing the cost of emancipation – it was financing the cost of maintaining a status quo for the rich, propertied classes, and sheltering them from the full, necessary trauma of abolition. Enslaved people were never compensated, despite their immense suffering, and their role as the prime economic engine of development for the industrialising West.

The only place where enslavers were not indemnified was the USA, since the matter was settled not peaceably, but via the Civil War. There was even talk of agrarian reforms, with many freed people promised forty acres and a mule once the war was over. They were told, as Gil Scott-Heron noted drily in 1980’s Real Eyes, that “a man with their legal papers could be expected on a train from Washington. There were folks who waited for him, and there are folks still waiting for him, but you can’t depend on the train from Washington – it’s 100 years overdue.”

It’s 2023, and that train – like a ScotRail service lagging so severely it stumbled into some kind of quantum purgatory – is now 150 years overdue. In the USA, the long-standing failure to redress the racism at the roots of the nation’s history continues to manifest itself in abhorrent police violence, entrenched economic inequality, and racial tension. In Scotland, the mythology of the ‘hospitable Scots’ is slowly giving way to a recognition of the pervasive nature of racism in this country, both indirectly through economic channels, and directly, as instanced by the murder of Sheku Bayoh at the hands of the police, and the anti-immigrant rhetoric and xenophobia that emanates like verbal sewage from an increasingly incoherent and panicked UK Government in the throes, and the toxic media culture flanking it.

Despite the challenges, freed people and their descendents have, by a long and arduous process, gradually carved out lives for themselves, their families, and their successive generations, in countries which have been frequently hostile to them, and which were responsible in the first place for uprooting their ancestors from their native soil, and selling them into lives of cruelty and hardship.

It seems relatively little to ask, then, that some of the misappropriated funds of indemnification be re-appropriated in a direction which moves constructively towards education, egalitarianism, and racial reconciliation. In practice, however, the crime against humanity represented by enslavement is a debt that can barely be quantified, never mind repaid – although a UN judge did estimate the UK’s to be somewhere in the ballpark of £18 trillion. The question is whether we respond to the daunting scale of this injustice by ignoring it, or by starting to make inroads towards righting it.