Report sheds light on historical links to Transatlantic slavery of University of Strathclyde’s forerunners

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The University of Strathclyde has published a report which reveals how its 18th century antecedent institution had connections to the profits of slavery and to a number of merchants who had benefited from money derived from slavery.

The investigation found that, between 1812-1840, four Presidents of its predecessor’s governing body had been enslavers.

It also found that the early institution was gifted monies likely derived from the profits of slavery but, due to the lack of comprehensive historical records, was unable to establish an exact sum. However, donations from slavery-derived income are believed to have constituted a small, albeit important, part of the nascent institution’s finances.

The report was instigated by the University’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Jim McDonald.

Whilst Strathclyde was created in 1964 through the award of Royal Charter to the Royal College of Science and Technology – the modern-day University traces its origins to the foundation of Anderson’s Institution in 1796. This Institute was the result of a bequest by Professor John Anderson (1726-1796), who wished to create ‘a place of useful learning’ in the city following his departure from the University of Glasgow.

However, Anderson left insufficient funds for this new institution and the 81 Trustees named in his Will and Legacy were left to raise the necessary money to fulfil his wish. The report found that some of these funds came from the city’s merchants, much of whose wealth derived from the profits of businesses involving enslaved people in the Americas and which flowed into many of the city’s civic institutions.

The research, carried out by historian Professor Richard Finlay in the Department of Humanities, identifies individuals in the University’s past with links to slavery who donated money or played a significant role in the institution’s governance.

These include four past Presidents, all of whom were members of the Glasgow West India Association – a group that lobbied in favour of slavery before the Abolition of Slavery Act 1833. Several other Presidents and Trustees had indirect links with the slave trade through their professions, business activities, relatives or associates.

While there is no evidence that the management of Anderson’s Institution promoted pro-slavery sentiments, neither did it promote anti-slavery petitions.

Racial equality

In response to the findings of the report, the University is strengthening its continued commitment to advancing race equality for students and staff and will maintain and expand its investment in work which furthers racial equality and which raises awareness of the legacy of slavery in the city of Glasgow.

Strathclyde has been engaged for many years in a range of activities which are aimed at advancing racial equality. This includes curriculum review and revision, the establishment of a Race Equality Steering Group, the appointment of the University’s first Senior Race Equality Officer, and the introduction of a reporting facility where anyone can disclose behaviours or issues they believe puts the safety of the Strathclyde community at risk.

Professor Sir Jim McDonald said: “Today the University of Strathclyde prides itself on being a socially progressive institution that champions equality and diversity.

“This important report has revealed that in our early history, our antecedent institution was a beneficiary of money that was derived from business profits involving slavery, and that some of its governors, trustees and donors were enablers, supporters and profiteers of slavery.

“As an institution so closely entwined with the City of Glasgow, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be connections to the abomination that is slavery. It is nonetheless shocking and provides new context regarding the University’s foundational story.

“It is only right that we acknowledge this uncomfortable truth and to recognise and accept that much of our city’s, and our nation’s, history and prosperity has been built through the exploitation of other peoples and this is deeply regrettable.

We must also recognise the enduring effects of this exploitation and enslavement which continue to be felt in our society to this day. So, while we must not gloss over our past, we should use this knowledge of our own history to inform our actions and tackle injustice today.

“This is why these findings have encouraged us to set out a series of actions to help ensure we play our part in tackling racism and discrimination in all its forms. Our actions will not be time limited and will be shaped through engagement in open and frank discussions with our student and staff communities in the weeks and months ahead.”

Challenging racism

Between 2020-2022 the University’s Race Equality Working Group (REWG) held a number of engagement sessions with BAME staff and students, which has led to race equality work being prioritised within the University. These sessions have informed the University’s next phase of work in this area which is now focused on Challenging Racism, Representation and Visibility and Belonging for BAME staff and students.

In response to the findings of the report, the University will continue to invest in work which furthers racial equality and which raises awareness of the legacy of slavery in the city of Glasgow. This includes:

  • Engaging with the Strathclyde student and staff community to guide how the University can further advance racial equality. The Race Equality Steering Group will be a major focus for maintaining that engagement.
  • Host a student-led facilitated discussion of the report this autumn to help further shape the University’s response for the longer term as a shared enterprise across the campus.
  • Developing openly accessible, online resources on researching the history of slavery in Glasgow using the University of Strathclyde as a case study. This resource will evolve as historical insights emerge and opportunities for its use evolve.
  • Engage and educate young people on the impact in Glasgow of the trade in enslaved people, its legacy and racism today. The University will explore doing this with the Strathclyde Institute of Education helping to develop new anti-racism resources for teachers. As Scotland’s largest provider of teacher education, this is intended to have a far-reaching impact. We will engage with local school pupils directly through the University’s Young Strathclyder programme.
  • Use the new knowledge revealed in the report to build on work already underway to decolonise the curriculum, making what is taught consistent with history and the University’s values.
  • Delivering the action plan created by the Race Equality Steering Group. This is a far-reaching plan designed to challenge racism, improve the representation of BAME staff at Strathclyde, and create an inclusive environment for all staff.
  • Engaging with the recommendations of Glasgow City Council’s Working Group on Slavery Legacy as they come forward and seeking to work with the Group in joint actions.

Eva Curran, President of Strath Union, said: “This report, detailing Strathclyde University’s historical links to Transatlantic slavery, is a welcomed step in the right direction. As a Student Union, we stand for racial equity and actively work to fight prejudice and discrimination in all its forms.

“The impacts of colonialism continue to reverberate through generations – by discussing the failings of the past, we can create a better future for all our students. The student Executive Team and I look forward to continuing our partnership with the University, keeping Black students and the wider student community engaged in our work.”

Jennifer Ba, the University’s Senior Race Equality Officer, said: “In a series of focus groups, surveys and Principal-led workshops, Black, Asian and minority ethnicity staff and students highlighted the fundamental importance of trust, transparency, and accountability. Recognising these core values, the publication of the report encourages us to strengthen our commitment to race equality and actively address the historical impact of colonialism on knowledge and learning.”

Precarious period

The research, carried out by Professor Finlay, identifies four past Presidents: John Hamilton (1812-1814); James Euing (1816-19); James Andrew Anderson (1824-30 and 1839-44); and, James Smith of Jordanhill (1830-1839) as members of the Glasgow West India Association.

The report suggests that Glasgow’s merchants provided much needed social cachet and financial acumen at a precarious period for the fledgling Anderson’s Institution, and that might explain why its management were indifferent to the source of their donors’ wealth, or indeed the support for slavery professed by four of its Presidents by dint of their membership of the Glasgow West Indies Society.

The report also looked into any connections to slavery of its founder Professor John Anderson and concluded that his views on slavery could only be conjectured, given the lack of any document outlining his explicit views.

However, the author found circumstantial evidence to make the case that Professor Anderson would likely have been in favour of the abolition of the Slave Trade by the 1790s. This conclusion is based on his religious views, subscriptions to anti-slavery publications and associations with those in favour of abolishment.

Professor Finlay said: “Anderson’s Institution was founded in a city that was still sucking in the profits from slavery. Indeed, it came into existence at a time when trade with the slaving economies was at its most lucrative.

“Glasgow’s merchants, through ruthless efficiency and business innovation, established themselves by the 1760s as the main port in the United Kingdom for the tobacco trade.

“Great fortunes were made and the legacy of tobacco can be seen in the street names of the Merchant City, and on the eve of the American War of Independence, Glasgow accounted for 40 per cent of British trade.

“The Tobacco Lords did not just profit from the labour of enslaved Africans; they actively promoted and extended the use of enslaved labour through the supply of credit and loans for plantation development.

“Given the omnipresent nature of the engagement with the slaving economies of the Americas in Glaswegian society in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries… many of the hundreds of individuals who served as Trustees of the institution will have had some kind of casual acquaintance with or participation in business connected to slavery.”

The report of the findings into historical links to the Transatlantic slave trade comes as Strathclyde celebrates Black History Month during October with a series of events, including: anti-racism training, an open-mic/spoken word and cultural night at Strath Union, a panel discussion celebrating black women in business, politics and activism, an allyship workshop, and an official opening event for the Jackie Kay Plaza which forms part of the Learning & Teaching Building attended by the Scottish poet and playwright whom it is named after.