In a powerful, no-holds-barred interview, Scotland’s foremost black academic, Professor Sir Geoff Palmer, says this country must finally acknowledge the horrific truth about slavery, empire and colonialism. Here, he talks to our Writer at Large Neil Mackay

IT’S as if fate has been waiting 200 years for Geoff Palmer to come along and finally force Scotland to confront the most shameful aspects of its past.

Our leading black academic is, without doubt, the nation’s most determined campaigner when it comes to demanding Scotland acknowledges its colonial wrongs and the nation’s role in the sins of the British empire.

The dreadful irony is that as Scotland finally begins to listen to him, Professor Sir Geoff Palmer is facing the possibility of his own death as he deals with a diagnosis of prostrate cancer at the ripe old age of 82.

Despite the seriousness of his work, and the personal struggles he is facing, he is a man full of laughter. He uses humour to balance out the cruelty he spends his life documenting.

Palmer upends all the lazy preconceptions his detractors throw at him. “Some people think I must be the most anti-white person in the world,” he chuckles – then points out that his wife is white and so are his children’s partners.

Today, Palmer is hailed as the first black person to ever become a professor in Scotland. He is a scientist by training and has been lauded internationally for his work. Currently, he’s Professor Emeritus in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University. But scratch the surface and you discover that Palmer’s life here isn’t one simply garlanded with praise and acclaim – he has experienced appalling levels of racism in his adopted country.

No dogs, No Irish, No blacks

In 1955, Palmer arrived in London from Jamaica as part of the Windrush generation, alone and aged just 14. He was astonished by the racism he witnessed. He remembers the hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric of Enoch Powell, and statements from Conservative politicians like “if you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour”.

“As a young lad you were terrified when you bought the newspaper and saw headlines like ‘500 more have arrived’,” Palmer says of the insidious reporting about Caribbean immigration into Britain. “That would mean I had to be careful that day.”

At the time, London was full of signs reading “No dogs, No Irish, No blacks”, he recalls. White women would move away from him if he sat near them. “The myths and lies they had heard made them think I was a robber, inferior.” Palmer quotes from Shakespeare: “Mislike me not for my complexion.”

Come 1964, Palmer was in Edinburgh embarking on his doctorate. When he tried to rent a room, he experienced racism in Scotland first hand. “I’d look in the newspaper for somewhere to rent. I’d phone and be told to come along. As I walked up the path I’d see the curtain move and by the time I got to the door, I was told the room had been taken.”

Palmer eventually found lodgings, but even then the rooms where black students could stay came with echoes of empire. Some landladies took in students only from the Caribbean, others only from Africa. “It was because these families had some connection to colonialism,” he says. “Mainly through missionary work, but sometimes the Civil Service.”

Slavery and statues

HEREIN lie the roots of Palmer’s lifelong struggle to make Scotland come to terms with the racism in society and our legacy of empire. He is at the forefront of the campaign for Scotland to recognise the central role it played in slavery and was part of the team which placed a new plaque on the statue of Sir Henry Dundas in Edinburgh detailing the politician’s part in the slave trade.

Until recently, Dundas was celebrated as one of Scotland’s greatest statesmen. Today, however, the plaque notes he was “instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade”, and that “as a result … more than half a million enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic”. Palmer adds: “Yet he stood up there on his statue and nobody asked ‘why?.”

He wants cities like Glasgow – where many streets are named after merchants involved in slavery – to publicly recognise the past in a similar fashion. It has led to clashes with opponents, vilification, and insult. He has been mocked, he says, for being a scientist not an historian, and so considered academically unequipped to judge the past. It is an intellectual insult, Palmer feels, which stings as badly “as the N word”.

Enslaved family

THE need to make Scotland face up to the past, however, is quite literally in Palmer’s blood. His family in Jamaica lived on land once owned by Earl Balcarres, a Scottish aristocrat who became governor of Jamaica and a slave owner on the island. The Palmer family’s land was once called “Marshall’s Pen” – the name of one of Balcarres’ slave plantations. “There’s streets named after Balcarres today in Edinburgh and Glasgow,” he says. The Balcarres family seat can be found in Fife.

The word “Pen”, Palmer explains, means “slave pen”, the place where enslaved human beings were kept. His family still has a receipt for the land bearing the words “Marshall’s Pen”.

In later life, Palmer realised that the reason his great-aunt was more fair-skinned than the rest of the family is because generations back, one of his female ancestors had been owned and raped by a slaver. There were many other light-skinned Jamaicans besides his aunt – all living reminders of the horrors of the past.

Palmer tells the story of Robert Wedderburn by way of illustration. Robert was born in Jamaica in 1762 the son of a Scottish slave-owner, James Wedderburn, and Rosanna, an enslaved woman, who he had raped. Wedderburn sold Robert’s mother after he was born – while she was pregnant with his third child. Robert went on to become an acclaimed abolitionist.

“Someone in my great aunt’s family would’ve been the same,” Palmer says. “The woman would’ve had no say in the relationship with the man who owned


Rape and DNA

PALMER explains that his family’s small plot of land was bought after slavery ended. When Palmer recently had his DNA analysed, he discovered he was 97 per cent African, and 3% Shetland/Viking –meaning it is highly likely a white Scot raped one of his enslaved female ancestors.

“Someone from the Shetland/Highland area went to Jamaica, became involved in slavery and I’m a genetic product,” he says.In one of his many comic asides, used to relieve the horror of the discussion, he jokes that his wife says his Viking ancestry “explains a lot”.

Palmer says genealogical research revealed that his great-grandfather was “a Balcarres slave”. His mother’s family name was “Larmond”. There’s a slave called Larmond on “the Balcarres slave list”.

Palmer notes that it was Sir Henry Dundas who sent Earl Balcarres to Jamaica as governor. He feels it seems almost “fated” that he would one day confront the legacy of men like Dundas. By way of an easy lesson on just how deeply Scotland was involved in slavery, Palmer says people should flick through the Jamaican telephone directory.

He once studied the listings and found that “60% of the names are Scottish surnames”, indicating that nearly two-thirds of the population had ancestors once owned or raped by a Scot. “There’s more Campbells in the Jamaican telephone directory than the directories of Edinburgh and the Lothians.”

Palmer recently gave a talk where he read out “place names like Dundee, Moneymusk, Hampden, Elgin, Aberdeen, Inverness. I asked ‘do you know these places?’. They’re all in Jamaica. My cousin lives near Glasgow in Jamaica.

“It’s estimated about 30% of the slave plantations in Jamaica were owned by Scots.”

Education’s failure

SLOWLY but surely, more and more people are now listening to Palmer, despite the stubborn refusal by many to accept what went on in the past. He once appeared as a special guest on the Antiques Roadshow with a silver sugar bowl. “The bowl was made to hold sugar from a place where people were being killed to make sugar,” he told viewers. “Their life span was less than 10 years.” He went to the local shops in Penicuik, where he lives, the next day, and “a couple of ladies told me that, for the first time, they really understood what slavery was about.

“That’s why I speak out because we’ve had an education system that has avoided slavery, downplayed it, excused it.”

He is particularly disgusted by those who say Dundas should be recognised for his role in finally abolishing slavery. Palmer angrily points out that Dundas was responsible for promoting what has been called a “gradualist” approach to abolition – which in reality meant extending the duration of slavery and causing widespread death and suffering.

He notes that at the time, then-Prime Minister William Pitt said gradual abolition meant “waiting for some contingency … till a thousand favourable circumstances unite together”, and as a result “the most enormous evils go unredressed”. He also quotes the abolitionist Charles Fox who said “gradual abolition was gradual murder”.

Excuses for evil

PALMER feels many people wouldn’t be so quick to defend Dundas if he wasn’t Scottish. “They’re defending someone they wouldn’t defend normally.” In education, he says, there has been “a strategy of avoidance”. Those who argue against any criticism of the past – such as placing plaques on statues – are simply “making excuses for the evils of slavery”. Palmer adds: “There’s nobody in Germany making excuses for the Holocaust.”

The transatlantic slave trade saw 10-15 million Africans forcibly transported. “This was British slavery, and Scotland played a major part in it.”

Slavery, he says, “is a stain on the soul of all people who know about it and do nothing. We cannot change the past but we can change the consequences of the past”, adding: “One of the consequences of the past is the racism we see today. We can change that using better education.”

A product of suffering

Just a few weeks ago, during another talk, Palmer was told “look what slavery has done for you”. The speaker, he says, “meant I’d still be in Africa if my ancestors weren’t enslaved”. It is the same mentality as saying the British empire “brought civilisation” to those who were colonised, Palmer adds. “What these people should realise is that I’m the product of the suffering of millions of people … We’re living in a society where we’ve inherited the prejudices that black people are inferior.”

Too many people in Scotland, Palmer says, “have allowed themselves to be comforted” by phoney narratives about slavery. He repeatedly hears people claim “the Romans had slaves, the Africans had slaves” in an attempt to excuse Scotland’s role.

He is weary of claims that because some Scots were subjected to “indentured servitude” – a system which saw people working unpaid, often for years, as punishment, debt repayment or a form of apprenticeship – that this somehow cancels out the sin of chattel slavery.

Palmer adds, however: “I don’t believe in taking down statues. It’s inconsistent. If you take down a statute, you’d have to knock down the Gallery of Modern Art, and nobody wants to do that.” The GoMa in Glasgow was once the home of William Cunninghame, a “Tobacco Lord” who made his fortune from slavery. Palmer simply wants streets, statues and buildings linked to slavery to be clearly marked with signs explaining the past.

Hope for scotland

The public, Palmer believes, “is ready for change”, despite those who still try to excuse the past. Glasgow University recently publicised its historic links to slavery; Palmer is working with Scottish museums on how to come to terms with the legacy of empire; and Edinburgh Council had him advise on the Dundas statue. There are positive moves, Palmer feels. Canadian authorities are currently talking to him about what they should do with Dundas Street in Toronto.

“So Scotland is ahead of Canada,” he says. “We’re discussing it openly at last. That’s good. We’re starting to try to address the past. The Jamaican government is aware of what’s happening here. People are watching us.

“The essence of a good person is to recognise you were wrong and then try to redress that rather than cover it up.” Palmer also supports the creation of a Scottish slavery museum. “We’ve got plenty of stuff to fill it with,” he adds wryly.

The Darien scheme

HOWEVER, despite a growing acceptance that Scotland played a central role in the evils of slavery, there is still a long way to go until the nation fully acknowledges its colonial past, Palmer feels. The infamous Darien scheme is proof. In the 1690s, Scotland attempted to establish a colony in Panama. The effort failed miserably and partly paved the way for union with England – at which point a combination of England and Scotland working together accelerated empire-building.

“If you walked down a street in Edinburgh or Glasgow, I doubt if 1% of people have heard of Darien,” he says. “That’s the key issue: why don’t they know? We can say ‘Scotland must recognise its history’, but you can’t recognise what you don’t know.” Palmer puts blame squarely on the education system. “Once the public knows this stuff, they get it. We’re getting there as a society but there’s been too much dilly-dallying when it comes to history.”

Scotland’s sense of itself as “an egalitarian nation” also holds the nation back from confronting the past, he feels. Slavery clashes up against that narrative. “If you think you’re a good person and then learn your relative was actually Jack the Ripper, it can cause a bit of jolt,” he says ironically.

“People have put forward the perception that Scotland is less racist than England or elsewhere. I say to them: ‘Look around. Look at where you work. Do you have a fair representation of the diversity of society? Look where you live.’ Because if you don’t have a fair representation, then you better think again.”

All one humanity

THE failure to deal with the past is what is partly leading to so much tension around race today, Palmer believes. Young black people know what happened in the past, and after the murder of George Floyd – which Palmer describes as a “crucifixion” – they felt there was “resistance” from within parts of the white community to their demands for change. That meant Black Lives Matter campaigners become angry, and “we don’t want people starting to get aggressive”, he adds.

Palmer has no animosity to white people – his white wife is from Aberdeen. He has an old-fashioned “colour-blind” view of race. “We’re 99.99% the same as far as our DNA. We’re one humanity, nothing less,” he says. “Most of my immediate family is white – my son-in-laws, my daughter-in-laws. I’ve got mixed race grandchildren – oh, and my children, I almost forgot about them. I’ve three of those and they’re mixed race,” he laughs loud and long at momentarily missing out his own kids.

Given his irrepressible sense of humour, Palmer turns to a joke he once heard in Ireland, when he was consulting for Guinness as a chemist, to explain the ideal society he would one day like to see. “I remember this fellow joking that there was once an undercover agent in Kerry during the war, and he was black – but nobody noticed.” He explodes with laughter. “To me, that’s brilliant. We’ve got to work towards a society where everybody is just like everybody else and nobody notices what colour your skin is.”