Call and Response: The University of Glasgow & Slavery


13 September 2019
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Members of the public are invited to react and respond to a new exhibition at the University of Glasgow that features a selection of items with links to slavery – many of which might not at first glance seem to be related to the slave trade.

Members of the public are invited to react and respond to a new exhibition at the University of Glasgow that features a selection of items with links to slavery – many of which might not at first glance seem to be related to the slave trade.

Call and Response: The University of Glasgow & Slavery is part of the university’s pro-active programme of reparative justice after a year-long study found that it had derived ‘financial’ support donated from profits made in the slave trade. In 2016, the University of Glasgow acknowledged that despite the strong abolitionist stance in the 18th and 19th centuries, it continued to accept gifts and bequests from people who profited from slavery to further institutional goals.  

The exhibition presents a selection of items, four of which are showcased below, and invites members of the public to offer their thoughts and responses to help create an open dialogue about the slave trade and modern-day reparation.

The items on display explore the ‘often unknown and unexpected ways’ in which some items within the university’s collections are linked to the history of slavery and the abolitionist movement. A number of people connected to the university were asked to give their response to an object and its history.

Item spotlight

1. General arrangement drawing for the Sailing Vessel Jamaica, 1854 
University of Glasgow Library, William Simons & Co Ltd Archive, UGD114/71

Chosen by Professor Sir Geoff Palmer, Jamaican Honorary Consul to Scotland

This 146 foot long, three-masted iron sailing vessel known as the Jamaica was built on the Clyde in 1854 by William Simons & Co. In the 1860s, the company constructed blockade running vessels to assist wealthy Glasgow merchants evade the economic consequences of the American Civil War. The Jamaica was built for Stirling, Gordon & Co, West India Merchants, whose partners owned plantations in Jamaica. The family of one of the partners donated £3,000 towards the construction of the University buildings on Gilmorehill in the 1860s.

Professor Sir Geoff Palmer said: ‘This 1854 design of a Glasgow-built sailing vessel, named Jamaica, reminded me of Jamaica’s long historical links with Glasgow. Jamaica Street was opened in 1763 for trading in goods produced by chattel slaves in the West Indies. The Stirling and Dennistoun families made large fortunes from this cruel slavery. Although the history of this slavery cannot be changed, exhibitions such as this can enlighten and change the consequences.’

2. Select parts of the Holy Bible for the use of the Negro Slaves in the British West-India Islands 
London, 1807 
University of Glasgow Library, Sp Coll Euing Da-g.23

Chosen by Councillor Graham Campbell, Glasgow City Council

This rare ‘Slave Bible’ was among 10,000 books donated to the University by insurance broker William Euing in 1874. It was published in London for Christian missionaries and was heavily edited to remove anything that might be seen to incite a rebellion.

Councillor Campbell said: ‘Bob Marley once sang about mental slavery “none but ourselves can free our minds”. Pro-slavery “Christians” were very deliberate in editing the Bible to exclude its most inconvenient truths about freedom, emancipation, liberty, justice and mercy. Enslaved Africans and their descendants had these mental chains smelted from a peculiarly Scottish mixture of white-supremacist racial hatred and enlightenment rationalist missionary zeal. This bible was as effective a tool of enslavement as any cast-iron chains.’

3. The Interior of the Academy of Fine Arts 
David Allan (1744-1796) 
The Hunterian, GLAHA:43390

Chosen by Jules Koch, Museum Studies postgraduate student, University of Glasgow

This artwork depicts the Foulis Academy of the Fine Arts, established in 1754 within the University of Glasgow buildings on the High Street. Its founders were Andrew and Robert Foulis who sought funding from the wealthy merchants of the city to start their school. Those merchants - Campbell, Glassford and Ingram - made their money from the slave trade in the West Indies. David Allan was a student at the Academy from 1755-62. His paintings and illustrations can be found in collections across Scotland, including The Hunterian, Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh.

Jules Koch said: ‘It is a privilege to study and work at an institution with such historic collections. Objects in museums have the ability to speak to, or share, “hidden histories” from a multitude of perspectives. Understanding the back story to beautiful objects, like this image of the Academy of the Fine Arts, can be shocking and difficult. But it is fundamental to how we interpret and understand our connection to the past.’

4. The Child’s Instructor or Picture Alphabet 
Early 19th century 
University of Glasgow Library, James Lumsden & Son Archive, DC112/16/1

Chosen by Tawona ‘ganyamatope’ Sithole, Poet in Residence, Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network, University of Glasgow

This book was printed and sold by the Lumsden family printing business. The most prominent member of the family was Sir James Lumsden who was knighted for his services to the City as Lord Provost when the foundation stone for the University’s new buildings on Gilmorehill was laid by the Prince of Wales in 1868. In 1864, Lumsden, like many other wealthy Glasgow businessmen, profited from investments in ships built on the Clyde for the purpose of evading the port blockades in the Southern states of America. The blockades were set up by President Abraham Lincoln as part of the fight to abolish slavery.

‘B is for black, c is for captain: alphabet-themed misadventures of a terribly seasick crew with stoic colonial disposition in unrelenting tidal waves of historical inadequacies.’

Copyright © 2019, Tawona ‘ganyamatope’ Sithole. All rights reserved.

Exhibition details

Call and Response: The University of Glasgow & Slavery is on display at the University of Glasgow Chapel until 31 January 2020, with items also available to view online. The responses received as a result of the exhibition will be preserved as part of an archive relating to the reparative justice programme.

Call and Response: The University of Glasgow and Slavery
Runs until 31 January 2020
University Memorial Chapel
Admission free

For more information, visit the website.

(images copyright Martin Shields)