He sits, a little stooped, on his plinth.

National icon James Watt, engineer and perfecter of the steam engine, is celebrated in metal and stone across Scotland.

But his statue in the heart of Glasgow makes him look tired, even dejected. And so it should.

Because he was a people trafficker.

Watt was born in 1736 into a family heavily implicated in to the Atlantic trade in sugar and tobacco, with all its exposure to chattel slavery.

As a young man, he personally sold a child, a black boy called Frederick, just a few hundred yards from where his likeness now sits.

The statue of Watt is a good place to start to understand Glasgow’s role in one of the greatest crimes in the history of humanity: the kidnapping of millions of Africans and the forced labour exploitation of them and their descendants in the New World.

The monument is situated in George Square, which is named after an imperialist monarch who opposed the abolition of slavery. Around the square are the streets of the Merchant City which honour the great tobacco lords, the robber barons whose wealth was made on the backs of slaves: men like Ingram; Buchanan; Cochrane; Dennistoun; and Glassford.

The statue itself was put up in 1824, five years after Watt died, at the order of one Mungo Nutter Campbell, Lord Provost of Glasgow, West India merchant and enslaver.

Campbell was, by today’s standards, a multi-millionaire, thanks to his slave plantations in the Caribbean.

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Watt too made a fortune. His Boulton-Watt steam engine was exported to the sugar colonies of the West Indies – albeit after his retirement.

He was to condemn the slave trade in later life. But it was a business he knew first hand. The engineer has been endlessly lauded.

Nobody knows what happened to his victim, little Frederick, after he was sold to a family of the gentry.

It was historian Stephen Mullen, of Glasgow University, who found the record of the boy’s sale. The academic is an expert in quantifying and detailing Scotland’s exposure to chattel slavery.

Before the pandemic, Glasgow council asked Mr Mullen to investigate the city’s role in slavery. Yesterday, the local authority published his 137 pages of findings.

It makes grim but fascinating reading. Watt’s statue is one of very few in the city commemorating a figure who either benefitted from or defended slavery or the slave-based Atlantic economy.

George Square, however, numbers among 62 street names linked to the business. Campbell was one of 40 Lords Provost who were – to one extent or another – embroiled in slavery. That is half of the 79 civic leaders the city had in the 200 two hundred or so years of legal chattel slavery, from 1636 to 1834.

This is not – as some on the right and far right have claimed about similar exercises – an attempt to re-write or to erase history. This IS our history. It is not always comfortable. Or even straightforward.

That is partly because – unlike, say, Bristol – Glasgow was not a huge slave-trading city. There is no figure here quite like Sir Edward Colston, the industrial-scale slave trader people trafficker whose statue was pulled down and thrown into the River Avon during recent Black Lives Matter protests last June.

Instead, Glasgow merchants largely profited from the Atlantic trade in less direct ways. Some owned plantations and slaves, “yonder awa” over the Atlantic, out of sight and mind.

Some provided goods and services to the plantation and slave economy. And some bought and sold the goods from slave plantations. There were, also, of course, an entire class of politicians, officials and professionals who propped up this commerce.

So big was Glasgow’s exposure to chattel slavery that it hosted a substantial campaign against abolition.

“By 1833, Glasgow was described as the ‘great den of colonial slavery’ by a missionary resident in Jamaica, partially due to the influence of the pro-slavery Glasgow Courier newspaper,” wrote Mr Mullen. “The city hosted the Glasgow West India Association, established in October 1807 in a defensive reaction after the trafficking of enslaved people was abolished earlier that year. This group became one of the most powerful lobbying groups of their type in Great Britain, mounting a pro-slavery defence up to emancipation arguing that if plantation slavery were to be abolished, planters should be compensated for the loss of property.”

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A fortune was paid in compensation. This – and the money made from slavery – have left a legacy in the fabric of Glasgow. Mr Mullen has catalogued this legacy. It will now be up to politicians to decide what Glasgow should do about the history he has is unearthed. Apologise? Pay reparations? Or simply make sure citizens know their real history?

Some of Mr Mullen’s findings, however, will take time to digest.

The streets IT IS far from easy to tell the history of place name.

There was a time – up till 1750 – when Glasgow had only 13 streets. Now, inside the city’s modern boundaryfrontiers, there are 6100. Of these, Mr Mullen says, 62 have links to slavery, 43 directly. Only one, Fox Street, is named after an opponent of slavery, Charles James Fox.

There are four streets named after anti-abolitionists, six after plantation slavers, another six after pro-slavery politicians, six after Virginia merchants, four after West Indies merchants.

There are 18 streets whose names derive from the estates of slave-related families.

“There is only one known example of a street named after a trafficker in Black people (James Watt Street),” writes Mr Mullen. “Atlantic merchants feature more prominently. The names Buchanan, Glassford, Ingram, Cochrane and Speirs are synonymous with Glasgow, Atlantic slavery and tobacco, and are commemorated in city centre streets and Speirs Wharf. It is now apparent that West India merchants are also prominent in Glasgow’s streetscape: Gordon Street and Robertson Street being key examples. Cotton merchants and manufacturers are also commemorated: Oswald Street (near the Broomielaw), Houldsworth Street (Anderson), and Monteith Place and Row (Glasgow Green).”

There has been one name that has really stood out in Scottish debates over slavery: Dundas.

Henry Dundas, the first viscount Melville, was a late 18th-century Scottish politician who delayed the abolition of slavery. As it happens, Mr Mullen also did the definitive peer-reviewed report on Dundas. It found, among other conclusive evidence, that Dundas was responsible for a policy of buying slaves to serve as soldiers in the British Army.

There have been campaigns to rehabilitate Dundas, led by one of his descendants. However, his name is now toxic, even in Canada where it is found on one of the biggest streets.

Glasgow too has a Dundas Street. Mr Mullen, however, has linked this not to Melville but to a “kinsman” called Lawrence Dundas, who died in 1781. He was the governor of the Forth and Clyde Navigation Company and cut the first sod on its landmark canal. And so his name went on Port Dundas and streets and lanes to that inland harbour. This Dundas owned two slave estates, in Dominica and Grenada.

Buchanan Street, Scotland’s main shopping drag, is named after its developer, Andrew Buchanan, whose father made a fortune in the Virginia and North Carolina tobacco trade.

There are also whole neighbourhoods of Glasgow named in honour of the estates of slavery-linked figures, such as Dowanhill, Dennistoun, Kelvingrove, Craigton, Gilmorehill and Possil.

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Statues MUCH of the anger over around slavery around the world has focused on physical public commemoration. But Glasgow just does not have any statues of its tobacco lords.

There are, however, monuments to other men linked to slavery, and not just Watt. George Square has statues to politicians and soldiers who upheld the slave economy. There is one to Colin Campbell, an army officer who served in the West Indies, including in Guyana during the Demerara slave revolt. And also to John Moore, a general-turned MP, who reimposed slavery in the former French colony of St Lucia after the Napoleonic Wars.

Nearby is a monument to William Gladstone, the four-time Victorian prime minister whose Scottish father was an enslaver who bankrolled his early political career. George Square also has a state of Robert Peel junior, a former home secretary who stood up for the West Indian plantation lobby.

Perhaps the most sensitive monument is that of William III in Cathedral Square. King Billy was a personal shareholder in the Royal African Company, the same business led by Edward Colston. During the pandemic and BLM protests, the statue was vandalised and put under police protection amid concerns it could become a flashpoint.

Provosts and politics GLASGOW council may have paid for Mr Mullen’s investigation. But even the institution has uncomfortable slavery links. Among the 40 Forty of its former provosts who had links to slavery were men who . Some even owned slaves while in office.

It is when Mr Mullen talks money that the scale of slavery in Glasgow really comes across. He lists bequests, financed with cash from the Atlantic trade, to various institutions now managed by the council. They are worth £322 million at today’s value. Take the Mitchell Library, funded by a bequest now worth £110m from Stephen Mitchell, whose father made a fortune in the Virginia trade.

Aside from the Mitchell, at least another almost nearly a a a dozen buildings still stand that were paid for – at least partly – by slavery, some built after abolition, including the Cunninghame Mansion, now GOMA, and Glasgow Academy.

The council, or corporation, even invested in slavery. It put £3000 in to the Company of Scotland in 1696. That is worth millions in today’s money.

The company is usually linked with the disastrous Darien adventure to establish a Scottish colony in Panama. But the company ended up trafficking slaves in Madagascar. Its investors, aside from the city, included four provosts.

This is one of the big revelations about Glasgow and slavery. Many people like to think the city – and indeed Scotland – only got involved after the Union of 1707. But this country tried to set up its own empire – and traded slaves on its own behalf.

The biographies of Lord Provosts illustrate this history of Glasgow and its connections with slavery. First, before independence, men like John Anderson were involved in the Company of Scotland. Then, as Glasgow got access to former English colonies in the Americas, Provosts included tobacco and cotton merchants, like Andrew Cochrane, after whom Cochrane Street is named. Later, after the American Revolution, local politicians tended to be refocused on the slave plantation economy of the West Indies. Such Provosts include John Hamilton of Northpark – who has four streets named after him – and Mungo Nutter Campbell, the man who put up that statue to Watt in George Square.