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Examining the slave trade over tea and cake

IT is the darkest part of Scotland's history - and it usually remains hidden, seen only in the names of streets and buildings which still exist today.

Jude Barber, left, and Louise Welsh, aim to spark debate with their Empire Café projectPhotograph: Colin Templeton

But now a Commonwealth Games cultural project is to lay out Scotland's links with the British empire's once-thriving slave trade - over tea and cake.

The Empire Café, the brainchild of leading Scottish author Louise Welsh and architect Jude Barber, will open for seven days to coincide with Glasgow's hosting of the Commonwealth Games, once known as the British Empire Games.

The café, based in the Briggait in Glasgow's Merchant City, will host debates, literary readings, films, art installations and discussions on the theme of Scotland and slavery, and even have food based on products connected to the slave trade, such as Jamaican ginger cake. Events will run from July 24 to August 1.

An anthology featuring contributions from leading Scottish and Caribbean poets has also been compiled to be given to customers.

Welsh said while the history of the slave trade was acknowledged in other cities such as Liverpool and Bristol, it had been generally overlooked in Glasgow.

She said: "It might be that to an extent our history gets subsumed in the history of the UK, so we don't think of Scotland being involved.

"I think perhaps as a country we see ourselves as being colonised rather than also being colonisers."

But she added: "This project isn't at all about shaking the finger at anyone or preaching, it's trying to put [the history of slavery] into a place that everyone can access.

"Although the subject we are exploring is a difficult one, I think there is an appetite for people to explore this history - we are a mature nation and we need to look at all aspects of our history."

Although few slaves passed through Scottish ports in the 18th century, large numbers of Scots owned or managed plantations, while others worked in roles such as accountants and book-keepers. By 1817, Scots owned almost one-third of the slaves in Jamaica.

Many of Glasgow's elite families made fortunes from the tobacco and sugar trade built on the backs of slaves - reflected in street names such as Buchanan, Glassford and Oswald, named after the so-called "Tobacco Lords", as well as buildings such as the city's Gallery of Modern Art, which was once was a slavemaster's townhouse.

A recognition of the failure of Scotland to acknowledge its role in slavery within the British Empire has been growing in recent years - historian Professor Tom Devine has said Scotland has suffered a national "amnesia" over the subject.

Welsh - who has a new novel out in March - said the project would also acknowledge the contribution of the many Scots who were active in the movement to abolish slavery.

She said: "One of the connections we also want to make is the politicisation of women … when you have people getting politicised, they don't just stop because that particular campaign has ended.

"So you have people who run these abolitionist campaigns and then go onto the women's suffrage movement."

Barber, of Glasgow-based Collective Architecture, added: "There are current contemporary issues associated with slavery, such as trafficking and racism, that are pertinent and still exist within Scotland and Britain, so the conversation continues around that."

Stephen Mullen, author of It Wisnae Us: The Truth About Glasgow And Slavery, who has written an introduction to the Empire Café anthology, said the Commonwealth Games presented an "ideal opportunity" for the nation to reconcile with its imperial past.

He pointed out that Glasgow was the only great Atlantic port city which did not have a permanent exhibition or memorial acknowledging links with slavery.

"Glasgow has got the Merchant City - there seems to be an act of celebration of this mercantile past," he said. "This was the beginning of Scotland's first trade, but it should not be forgotten it was based on chattel slavery."

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