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Host City Glasgow: signs of slavery and the imperial past are never far away

Shipping on the Clyde, 1881, by John Atkinson Grimshaw. CC BY-SA

The “second city of empire” was how this year’s host of the Commonwealth Games used to be well known. Glasgow’s imperial past is hinted at by names littered throughout the city centre, in geographic pointers such as Virginia Street and Jamaica Street; and tributes to tobacco barons in the likes of Buchanan Street and Ingram Street.

A quarter of the world’s locomotives and a fifth of its ships were built on the banks of the river Clyde in the second half of the 19th century. These were used primarily to transport goods and people around the empire. The route from Glasgow to America was much shorter than the passage from London. As a result, goods such as tobacco, cotton and sugar were all transported and stored by the Clyde. More tobacco was transported through Glasgow than the rest of the United Kingdom combined. This added to the wealth of so-called “tobacco lords”. Beyond street names, the city is still littered with prominent landmarks to these barons’ existence, like the Gallery of Modern Art, formerly the mansion of wealthy tobacco merchant William Cunningham.

Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art was a tobacco baron’s house during imperial times. nina_pic, CC BY-SA

Slavery and subjugation

This historic prosperity has a sinister side: many goods were produced on slave plantations in America and the Caribbean. What’s more, a number of Glaswegians are recorded to have actually owned slaves. The legacies of British slave ownership database – created by researchers at University College London – gives the names of all British slave owners who claimed compensation when slavery was abolished in 1833. You can find evidence of 77 individual slave owners in Glasgow, making 241 claims in total. In 1834 at least 15% of British slave owners claiming compensation were from Scotland.

Glasgow’s Ingram Street is steeped in imperial grandeur. Bob Hall, CC BY-SA

Glasgow’s imperial activities also contributed to the Scottish diaspora. Scotland, and particularly Glasgow, sent men and women as government representatives, missionaries and private-sector workers and owners to various corners of Africa, Asia, Australasia and parts of the Americas. There was a particularly rich tradition of sending Scottish-trained medical men to the empire, often as part of the army. Well regarded Scottish regiments constituted a crucial part of military expeditions, which were involved in annexing new parts of the world and maintaining colonial rule.

Popular rhetoric often portrays Scotland as under the subjugation of the English. In fact Scotland played a key part in creating and sustaining the British Empire. Glasgow continued to be involved with, and prosper from, other parts of the British empire well into the 20th century – a fact that is often overlooked. The slavery might have long since ended, but the bureaucratic and trade activities certainly had not. So while the Commonwealth Games may be a celebration of the unity of the 53 member countries, the commonwealth exists as a reminder of how Britain used to dominate and subjugate former colonies.

The Empire Bar in Glasgow’s Saltmarket, one of countless little reminders of the past. Paul Coyne, CC BY-SA

Exhibiting the empire

People living in Glasgow during the 19th and 20th centuries were made very aware of the reach of the British empire. Exhibitions were an important way to encourage imperial support and spirit within Britain. The most notable of these were the 1851 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace and the 1924 Empire Exhibition at Wembley, both in London.

But Glasgow also played host to a number of exhibitions, which displayed both objects and people from the colonies. The first was held in 1888 in Kelvingrove park and was known as the International Exhibition of Science, Art and Industry. It included collections from all over the world, but the central area was focused on India. As part of this, Indian artisans were sent to Glasgow to provide live demonstrations of their skills. The Irish artist John Lavery produced a series of paintings on the exhibition, which included one of an Indian potter. And men from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) were brought over to Glasgow to act as waiters, serving tea to visitors.


In 1938 Glasgow hosted an explicitly imperial event known as the “Empire exhibition” on the south side of the city in Bellahouston Park. The last British imperial showcase, it took place just five years after Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa had become commonwealth members.

Again the exhibition was partly an attempt to boost the pride felt by Glaswegians for their role in building up the empire. Local and national visitors wandered around the pavilions, looking at the fruits of this enterprise. Pavilions included the Canada pavilion, the South Rhodesia pavilion, the colonial pavilion, and the empire tea pavilion.

For better and worse, the empire and commonwealth also brought people from around the world together. As a result, people with Glaswegian heritage can be found all over the world. Equally the empire brought people from all over the world to Glasgow, whether to study at the university, work as “lascars” on the imperial trade ships or seek other forms of employment and refuge. Less directly, the city’s imperial legacy is also one of the reasons why it now houses large groups of ethnic minorities from countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Acknowledgement 2014

The city’s past has been well discussed by the historian Stephen Mullen in the book “It Wisnae Us: The Truth About Glasgow and Slavery”. When it was published two years ago, Mullen organised an exhibition to coincide, and he continues to run guided city walks.

I’m also pleased to report that this past is not being ignored in this key summer in the city’s history. As part of the Glasgow 2014 cultural programme to coincide with the Commonwealth Games, the novelist Louise Welsh and architect Jude Barber are hosting an “empire cafe” for a week (from July 24 to August 1) at the Briggait studios at the heart of Glasgow’s Merchant City area. To highlight Glasgow’s links to slavery, they will ask visitors to confront how the city encouraged and profited from the slave trade. Welsh and Barber are also hosting public talks during the games, and public walks by the Glasgow Women’s Library as part of the same series.

So the forthcoming games will bring together the descendants of those who profited from and those who were exploited by an enterprise which we now celebrate in the form of the commonwealth. Before a single starting shot is fired, everyone who comes to Glasgow to participate, work at or simply enjoy enjoy the spectacle should be aware of how its past is bound up with the city that we know today.

Other instalments in our Host City Glasgow series can be found here.

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