The leader of Glasgow council has called for the city to “step up and apologise” for profiting from slavery. Susan Aitken urged contrition after a new report exposed just how much money from the Atlantic trade was made on the Clyde.

Before the pandemic, the SNP councillor commissioned a major academic investigation into the city’s links with legal people trafficking in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

The report has now revealed that the Glasgow Corporation itself invested in the Company of Scotland, the enterprise initially set up to establish a Scottish empire but which ended up trading in slaves. And it details how 40 Lords Provost had links to slavery – half of all those elected during the period – and how no fewer than 62 streets names honour those who supported or profited from the trade.

Finally, the probe, by Glasgow University’s Stephen Mullen, calculates that bequests to the city from slave profits add up to £322 million in today’s money, including £110m that set up the Mitchell Library.

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Ms Aitken said: “This is the most in-depth picture to date of Glasgow’s role in the enslavement of people and the benefits the city accrued from trades built on the trafficking and labour of enslaved people.

“We’ve long been aware of the association of many of our street names with that past but now we understand just how far and deep the slave economy money went and how many people and organisations were involved in that, including Glasgow City Council’s own ancestor organisation.

“The report reveals the money trail – how the tentacles of the slave economy reached far into Glasgow and helped build and shape this city. It goes into a much deeper level than just what we see in front of us and talks about the legacy of enslavement in today’s Glasgow. And this must be publicly acknowledged.”

For decades many Scots have associated the slave trade and slave plantations with English ports. Glaswegians, however, were heavily invested in the business. Even before the union with England in 1707. The new report unveils these early slavery links.

“We need to be honest about Glasgow’s history, our involvement in the slave economy, the attempt at creating a Scottish empire and our deep role in the British Empire,” Ms Aitken said.

“There are people who live every day with the legacy of their ancestors having been enslaved and Glasgow, and some people with very high status within it, had a very deep role in that. We need to step up and apologise, to express contrition and sorrow for our part in the moral atrocity of slavery and what the descendants of enslaved people still live with today.”

The city council has set up a working group to look into the report and decide what to do. It is led by Graham Campbell, a councillor with Jamaican heritage who has a long-standing interest in the issue.

Ms Aitken stressed that while the elected members on the group may change – there is an election in May – that there are members of BAME organisations who will provide continuity.

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Insiders say Glasgow does not have a key monument like that to slaver Edward Colston in Bristol or to Henry Dundas, the politician who delayed the abolition of the slave trade, in Edinburgh. But street names present a headache. The most likely outcome is plaques to explain their history.

Ms Aitken said: “How do we respond to streets and monuments dedicated to people, or the very significant number of high-profile men, who owned or trafficked enslaved people?

“The discovery that a forerunner to the city council had investments in the Company of Scotland worth hundreds of millions of pounds in today’s money, and that more than 40 lord provosts benefited financially, is new and significant. So how do we reckon with these legacies? Another question we must ask ourselves is what permanent reminder should Glasgow create to recognise our role in this history?

“These questions and many others should form part of a wide-ranging public conversation about the report, our legacy, and our response to it.”