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Memorial to Glasgow slave history to finally go ahead

GLASGOW City Council is finally planning to permanently mark the city's links to the North Atlantic slave trade, the Sunday Herald can reveal.

Louise Welsh of the Empire Cafe
Louise Welsh of the Empire Cafe

Calls have long been made for the city to do more to acknowledge its historic links to the trade, a debate reignited as part of a Commonwealth Games cultural project.

Now the city council has said it will be consulting after the Games on how to represent this element of Glasgow's past in museums, libraries and archives.

Plans are also under way to stage a display in the Riverside Museum which will highlight the role of the Blockade Runners. These speedy steam ships, with reinforced decks and armour, were built on the Clyde and sold to the Confederacy to get through the Union blockade during the American Civil War, which had brought a halt to the lucrative cotton trade between Scotland and the South.

Glasgow City Council said its libraries and museums had been addressing the city's links with the slave trade for well over a decade, with a series of exhibitions, including displays exploring the issue at the Mitchell Library and Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum during the Commonwealth Games.

The council claimed the "global conversations" that have taken place during the Commonwealth Games had brought the issue into clearer focus than ever before and that recent academic research had shed more light on how the prosperity of Glasgow - and Scotland - in the 18th and 19th centuries was significantly linked with slavery.

Councillor Archie Graham, chair of Glasgow Life, said: "We will take stock of all of these issues after the Games, consult with interested communities and stakeholders, and take a strategic approach to how the city's museums, libraries and archives represent this element of our past.

"We all feel proper pride in our city's positive contributions to world history, but we must also reflect on and be honest about the darker aspects of our past."

The move was welcomed by author Louise Welsh, who set up a Commonwealth Games cultural project exploring Scotland's links with the slave trade. The Empire Cafe, based in the Briggait in Glasgow's Merchant City, hosted a series of debates, literary readings, films, art installations and discussions over seven days.

Welsh said: "The Empire Cafe has shown that many people in Glasgow believe we should not erase difficult aspects of our history.

"A discussion about our country's connections with transatlantic slaving inevitably leads to discussions about class, capitalism and modern day exploitation.

"Museums and galleries could and should help to inform and facilitate this conversation."

Architect Jude Barber, co-founder of the Empire Cafe project, added: "Audience members at The Empire Cafe raised rich and textured ideas and questions about how Scotland might represent this challenging part of history.

"It is therefore encouraging and welcoming to hear that Glasgow City Council is making a commitment to engage with a number of agencies and groups.

"This conversation should also take place nationally to encompass Scotland's other major cities and rural areas."

Dr Michael Morris, a lecturer in English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, who has researched Scotland's links with Caribbean slavery, said the plans could lead to a "new dawn" in the cultural life of the city.

"It is clear that there are a number of appropriate sites in Glasgow, such as Kelvingrove and the Gallery of Modern Art, which could explore the topic in their own way," he said.

He added that another key step would be developing material on the issue for use in schools.

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