Revealing Glasgow's links to slave trade

WE have had a Games gold rush and the sizzling sunshine, not to mention a few drizzly days, now historian Stephen Mullen is describing the Commonwealth Games as a cultural reawakening.

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  • Historian Stephen Mullen
    Historian Stephen Mullen
  • Historian Stephen Mullen

"People are starting to think about Glasgow's colonial past in a new way, and it can only be described as a cultural awakening. It is historians as well as academics, there's a new historiographical understanding," says the author of the acclaimed book, It Wisnae Us! The Truth About Glasgow and Slavery.

The city, lest we forget, built its 18th century fortune on the sugar, tobacco and slavery trade with Africa and the Americas.

"I was almost a lone voice seven years ago when I started doing walking tours and exploring the public side of it. Now I see a real awareness."

August 1 has been celebrated as Emancipation Day across the countries of the Caribbean since the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 ended slavery in the British Empire.

As part of that cultural reawakening, it is being marked for the first time in Glasgow this year.

African and Caribbean dance, performance and music will feature in a carnival at Glasgow Green tomorrow.

And Emancipation Acts, a series of site-specific performances, will take place in the Merchant City today and tomorrow.

The performance locations link to city sites featured in Stephen's book, including the Tobacco Merchant's House in Miller Street, the Briggait, Virginia Galleries, Ramshorn Kirk and the Gallery of Modern Art.

"The Tobacco Merchant's House, now home to the Scottish Civic Trust," says Stephen, "was built in 1775. A small Palladian townhouse, it is the oldest house in the Merchant City.

"There would have been numerous other buildings like this.

"These are the living conditions of an average merchant, so this would have been a tobacco laird as opposed to a tobacco lord.

"If these guys were ordinary merchants you get an idea of how wealthy the tobacco lords were."

A community cast of Scottish-based musicians, dancers, actors and singers, many of whom have an African or Caribbean background, will join a professional cast - Ncuti Gatwa, Ashanti Harris, Ross Mann, Martin McBride, Joy Maria Onotu, Lou Prendergast and Paksie Vernon - for this inaugural Scottish celebration of Emancipation Day.

The performances will start at The Briggait, from where the audience will make their way in groups, via performances at Ramshorn Kirk graveyard, the entrance to The City Halls and Virginia Court, to the final scene of the performance outside the Gallery of Modern Art, former home of the tobacco lord, William Cunninghame.

The audience will tread the paths taken by Glasgow's West India merchants and planters as, in each location, the cast bring to life stories about Glasgow's mercantile past and the connections between sugar, slavery, abolitionism and the Glaswegians who supported the emancipation battle.

"William Cunninghame was one of Glasgow's four main tobacco lords, alongside John Glassford, John Ritchie and Alexander Spiers: these guys monopolised the global trade in tobacco," explains Stephen.

"If you could compare the commodity to anything today it would be oil.

"Tobacco dominated the world economy, and Glasgow was controlling it, it was is the centre of the world.

"Cunninghame's mansion [now the Gallery of Modern Art] is an ostentatious display of conspicuous consumption: he wanted to show how wealthy he was, he came from new money, so one way of doing it was to build a Palladian townhouse."

HE continues: "There's a long history with slavery at GoMA. In 1827, the Glasgow West India Association, a pro-slavery group, redeveloped the mansion into the Royal Exchange.

"So we had Jamaican sugar plantations sold in there, and it became an early modern stock exchange."

Written and directed by Alan McKendrick and produced by Glasgow Life, with African Caribbean Cultures Glasgow, Emancipation Acts is part of Culture 2014 and sits perfectly with the events at the Empire Cafe, in the Briggait, curated by writer Louise Welsh and architect Jude Barber.

The debate continues at Glasgow Green tomorrow, when Stephen joins Prof Sir Tom Devine and Karen Salt, an academic from Aberdeen University, in a discussion about Glasgow's role in Caribbean slavery.

He said: "Not everyone is interested in reading history books but with this you can teach people so many things about Glasgow and its links with slavery.

"You can teach about how Glasgow went global, how a lot of it was based on exploitation, and you can teach the contemporary issues about modern day slavery and racism."

The Emancipation Acts events today and tomorrow are free but ticketed. Visit to book.


Arts and Entertainment

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