‘Monuments, street names, civic buildings and bequests to the town council will be examined in this keen and searching light.’
Extract taken from The Cultural Memory of Georgian Glasgow
By Craig Lamont
Published by Edinburgh University Press
See what a change trade’s golden wand can do!
As if by magic make a village spring
To all the glories of a capital.
Her towers rise high in heaven, while far around
The hum of nations, gather’d like stray’d bees
By blooming commerce, to one busy spot,
Rolls like low thunder o’er the settled scene.
Dugald Moore, The Bard of the North (1833)
Glasgow’s relationship with slavery is far from straightforward. The myth that Scotland only became imperial after the Union with England in 1707 was dispelled long ago, not least of all thanks to books by Fry (2001) and Devine (2003) on Scotland and Empire. But myths die hard, and the Britishness of Empire may explain why Glasgow and Scotland escaped the spotlight of complicity for so long. As Duffill (2004) has shown, the Darien scheme (1698–1700) was a more logical starting gun for Scots merchants to begin slaving, with further evidence suggesting that Scotland’s trade on the slave coasts began as early as the 1630s. But this is not the prevailing legacy. As we will see in the next chapter the Darien ‘scheme’ or ‘plan’ has become the Darien ‘disaster’ in our minds, invoking a very specific cultural memory wherein the loss of Scottish lives and capital crystallised as the final straw that led to the Union. It is the ultimate Scots Tragedy, and a much more compelling narrative for the nation than slave trading and the evils of empire more generally.
Indeed, the big success story of Georgian Glasgow became the antidote to the ills of post-Darien life. This is the story of the first wave of merchants during the golden years of the tobacco trade. The so-called ‘Tobacco Lords’ included John Glassford (one-time owner of the Shawfield Mansion) and William Cunninghame (whose mansion is now Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art). These merchants helped boost Glasgow’s economy while increasing Scotland’s share in the British tobacco trade from 10 per cent in 1738 to over 50 per cent by 1769. The surviving images of these merchants are of them peacocking their wealth in the city’s coffee houses and clacking their canes on the ‘plainstanes’ of Glasgow Cross. Elisabeth Kyle’s The Tontine Belle (1951) portrays this world, drawn from scores of historical accounts vying to characterise Glasgow’s famous merchant class. On the other hand, the enslaved people toiling on Virginia’s plantations are not present enough as to affect cultural memory. There are, however, moves within the University of Glasgow to acknowledge and commemorate its own ties to the slave trade. As the first university in the UK to do so, these new plans will help improve public knowledge of slavery in the city. In November 2019 civic leaders in Glasgow followed this example by launching an in-depth investigation into the ties between the city’s built heritage and the gains of chattel slavery. Monuments, street names, civic buildings and bequests to the town council will be examined in this keen and searching light.
This momentum for reparation–whether culturally symbolic or financial–has been building in the past few years thanks to a swathe of studies and public events, but it follows a long-term dissociation with the subject. It was not until the Black Lives Matter movement gained popularity across Europe and the UK in 2020 that these issues became national headline news. The murder of George Floyd (b. 1973) on 25 May 2020 by a police officer in Minneapolis sparked new marches and rallies against police brutality and institutional racism. Suddenly the debate on how to exhibit awareness of historic slavery in public spaces was thrust to the fore. This will undoubtedly be the case in scholarly discussion too, which has really only dealt with the invisible economy of slavery in the past twenty years. James Walvin has made the point that British historians tend to write about slavery as something that happened mostly in the Americas. ‘Who,’ he asks, ‘when they looked the expansive and prospering face of late eighteenth-century Liverpool or Glasgow, saw that behind their handsome new buildings was the misery of African slaves?’ Time and again his book (2000) takes Glasgow in the same hand as Liverpool and Bristol, effectively setting up the three cities as a British triumvirate (outside London) of complicity: a rhetoric long absent from Scottish scholarship.
Fortunately a new wave of academic and public engagement with Scotland’s links to slavery has been gaining momentum. Three edited collections in particular have established the debate at the forefront of literary, historical and sociological studies: Invoking Slavery in the Eighteenth-Century British Imagination (Swaminathan and Beach, eds, 2013), Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past (Devine, ed., 2015), and Britain’s History and Memory of Transatlantic Slavery (Donington et al., eds, 2016). Memory plays a major role as scholars seek not only to outline the facts, but to illustrate subsequent attempts to commemorate the slave trade. As we know, Maurice Halbwachs’ term ‘collective memory’ marks the beginning of this theoretical framework. In its widest sense, it refers to the memories of events and ideas shared by small groups (i.e. witnesses of an event) and/or large groups (i.e. members of the same city or country). Therefore, historical events might be actively ‘remembered’ only by a small group while impressions of these events may be generally ‘remembered’ later by large groups. As such, the term ‘collective’ has been appropriately recast as either ‘communicative’ (short-term, generational) or ‘cultural’ (long-term, transgenerational) memory.
With a focus on the Georgian era, the majority of this book has an obvious dependence on ‘cultural’ memory. However, the rejuvenation of slavery discourse in recent years has brought about a unique situation, drawing issues of ‘trauma memory’ and ‘sites of memory’ into the same framework. These terminologies are always in danger of becoming transient and interchangeable. For instance Tom Devine’s use of the word ‘amnesia’ regarding Scotland’s memory of slavery is effective, but misleading. The term ‘amnesia’ implies that people have gradually ‘forgotten’ something about their history. If the ‘forgetting group’ here are Glaswegians, or Scots, then the deeper implication with ‘amnesia’ is that we are talking about a single generation. But we cannot make the case that Glasgow’s pedestrians in 1950 had the same opportunity to remember the origins of the names of Virginia Street and Jamaica Street–the city’s most tangible links to plantation slavery–as those walking through them in 1850. This assumption confuses ‘cultural’ with ‘collective memory.’
The Cultural Memory of Georgian Glasgow by Craig Lamont is published by Edinburgh University Press, priced £80.00.