As It Happens

How the University of Glasgow plans to pay back $32M in slave trade profits

After a University of Glasgow report finds that the school benefitted significantly from the profits of slavery — it commits to spending millions to make up for that legacy.

Glasgow Coun. Graham Campbell calls the historic agreement 'an act of reparative justice'

Members of the University of Glasgow and the University of the West Indies signing the Memorandum of Understanding between the two institutions. (University of Glasgow)

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The University of Glasgow is trying to acknowledge and atone for its past.

Last year, a report by the university found the school benefited significantly from the profits of slavery in the 18th and 19th century. The donations the university received back then would equal between $27 million and $320 million today.

But now the university is hoping to make up for that. 

At a ceremony on Friday, the school signed an agreement with the Caribbean's University of the West Indies.

The University of Glasgow says it will raise and spend  £20 million ($32 million Cdn) to make amends over the next 20 years by building the Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research.

Graham Campbell, a Glasgow city councillor and activist for African-Caribbean issues in Scotland, was an advisor for the report. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about the historical agreement. 

You were at Friday's ceremony at the University of Glasgow, where a Jamaican flag was raised on campus. What does it mean for you to see that in that moment?

It meant a hell of a lot to us.

It's the first time, as I'm aware, that we've had the flag flying from Glasgow University. So it was a very major privilege for us to see it happen.

It was a very emotional day for us as the University of West Indies and the University of Glasgow made this really historic memorandum.

A beautiful plaque was unveiled and the universities made a very strong gesture of reparative justice.

In addition to the signing of the memorandum a plaque was also unveiled at the University of Glasgow. (University of Glasgow)

What exactly is the University of Glasgow committed to doing with this £20 million?

It is going to be a Caribbean department for research.

It will do scholarships. It will do, obviously, specialized study and this commitment, I suppose, to the truth.

It's been slightly misreported as we're giving £20 million of reparations. It's not quite that. But it's certainly not the last gesture of reparative justice. We expect a lot more.

What this has done is put the idea in British institutions, particularly Scottish ones, that we need to make reparation. We need to make amends.

Glasgow Coun. Graham Campbell calls the historic agreement 'an act of reparative justice.' (Glasgow City Council )

Tell me what you hope this move will achieve — not just within the University of Glasgow — but in broader terms, beyond the university as well, in looking at the past and addressing it.

Scotland's historical memory, shall we say, has been one of organized forgetting about the legacy of slavery and colonialism.

Scots have tended to see that as an English thing. Whereas, actually, Glasgow was very deeply involved in slavery and, in fact, was one of the main beneficiaries in that the city became wealthy off of three commodities produced from enslaved Africans and plantations. They were tobacco, sugar and cotton.

They were the cheap substances the British ships were transporting along with enslaved Africans in the triangular trade.

So you can't talk about those commodities without slavery as Glasgow, unfortunately, in its history, has done.

We have a legend of the merchants, the tobacco merchants, the sugar lords, the cotton kings — but we've forgotten slavery in that story too.

The BBC spoke with an academic who questions this effort and said, "to suggest that people alive today are responsible for the sins of their ancestors is a step too far." As institutions like the University of Glasgow grapple with how to make up for past links to slavery, what do you say to people like that academic who argue against either reconciliation or reparations or both?

I would, first of all, say to that particular one ... go and read some more books. You're a profoundly ignorant person.

So you think that anybody who has that view is profoundly ignorant?

I think that person is profoundly ignorant. I think it's not surprising that there's a general ignorance amongst the public because, of course, we weren't told that Scotland had this [history].

Even if you did the history of the Atlantic slave trade, you weren't told that Scotland was part of it. You were told about Liverpool, Bristol and London, maybe, if you did learn that in school.

In international law it's an accepted fact, that reparations are paid in situations where countries pay for historic crimes of the past.

The Japanese do it for the South Koreans, for the comfort women. The Holocaust is reparatively paid for by Germany, Austria and Switzerland, still to this day and will be for some time.

So if that's true for the Holocaust, how much true is it for a crime, a holocaust that lasted for nigh on 300 years, which denuded Africa, West Africa, of its working-age population, its best, youngest, fittest, brightest people, destroyed its economy, and then helped to build the new world?

You can't say that slavery didn't massively benefit the development of Western Europe and North America.

We've inherited that wealth — and I say we, I mean anybody who's a citizen, who lives in these countries now, including myself — we inherit those buildings, those institutions, those structures, which derive their wealth from those things.

This is still current money. It's not past money. There are still scholarships now from those slave plantation origins, which are paying for scientists, engineers to do scholarships now. So it's not the past. People are benefiting from this money now.

Written John McGill. Produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.