If Glasgow University Is Serious About Slavery Reparations, It Would Pay Those Still Affected

Reparations are meant to redress the structural and profound financial imbalances created by the slave trade, not to boost the reach and status of a western university, writer Claire Heuchan writes.
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Glasgow University has announced plans to raise and spend ÂŁ20 million in slavery reparations.

Like much of the city, the institution as we know it was built from the wealth generated by the labour of enslaved African and Caribbean people. It simply would not exist in its present form – as one of the country’s most prestigious education establishments – without having been financed by the transatlantic slave trade.

“But wouldn’t the truly just and brave course of action be to offer the descendants of those enslaved people, whose exploitation built Glasgow University, direct financial restitution?”

And yet, the university’s intention to channel the money back into its own institution with the creation of a Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research has raised serious questions about whether the plans can be described as reparations.

The centre, which will be based in both Glasgow and the Caribbean, will be run in partnership with the University of the West Indies. The university’s vice chancellor Professor Hilary Beckles described Glasgow’s project as a “bold, moral, historic step” in coming to terms with the city’s role in the enslavement and exploitation of Black people.

But wouldn’t the truly just and brave course of action be to offer the descendants of those enslaved people, whose exploitation built the University of Glasgow, direct financial restitution? Nowhere in this announcement did the plans mention paying those reparations.

While the Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research has the potential to host valuable new research, it’s unlikely to do any tangible, material good in the lives of people who are still harmed by the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade.

It’s easy to forget that Britain’s infrastructure, healthcare service, education system, and welfare state (however grudging and punitive it may be) were all ultimately funded through colonial projects such as the slave trade. And we are encouraged to ignore the flip side of the United Kingdom’s wealth – the devastating poverty Britain has inflicted on generations of people in countries across the global south by profiting from natural resources to human beings. As Professor Kehinde Andrews points out, Britain’s economy would collapse if the nation were to pay proportionate reparations for plundering African and Caribbean countries.

“I can’t help but feel that creating this centre does more to bolster the university’s liberal image than serve restorative justice.”

A walk through the streets of Glasgow is proof of what slave labour made possible in Scotland. Merchant City, the posh part of town, was named for the men who grew rich off tobacco, cotton, and sugar. Its stunning architecture was funded by the backbreaking work of enslaved Black people. Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art was originally built as a mansion for William Cunninghame, a tobacco merchant. Buchanan Street, Glassford Street, Ingram Street, Oswald Street – each is a tribute to the Tobacco Lords whose ill-got fortunes flowed through the city.

Yes, there is intense poverty in Glasgow. But there is also extreme wealth – and its source was systematic, brutal violence against black people. Jackie Kay is not wrong when she says that Scotland still has a long way to go when it comes to unpacking our colonial legacy. The poet Makar points out that Scotland is yet to “grow up” and accept accountability for mistreating people of colour.

On the surface, it looks like the Glasgow University is starting to take responsibility for its stake in the enslavement of black people. But it will also be the main beneficiary of the Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research. I can’t help but feel that creating this centre does more to bolster the university’s liberal image than serve restorative justice.

If the establishment truly wanted to provide reparations through education, they could have given the money directly to the University of the West Indies to spend as they see fit, or used it to fund full scholarships for generations of African and Caribbean international students. Instead, the University of Glasgow has named and prioritised its institution first in this project.

Reparations are meant to redress the structural and profound financial imbalances created by the slave trade, not to boost the reach and status of a western university. Campaigns for reparations exist because that money has the power to improve not only the quality but the very length of lives in which the material harms of Britain’s imperialism are still felt to this day. And no university venture, however well intended, has the scope to right one of the world’s most horrifying wrongs.

Claire Heuchan is an author and essayist who blogs as Sister Outrider

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