Explorer and abolitionist David Livingstone condemned by council for ‘links to slavery’

Councilors in SNP-run Glasgow are expected to vote on Thursday to extend a formal apology to the descendants of slaves “for the city’s significant role” in the trade.

Links to slavery ‘tenuous’

Christopher Whatley, professor of history at the University of Dundee, said it was clear Livingstone was “connected to slavery” alongside hundreds of thousands of Scots at the time.

However, he said the link could be seen as “tenuous” and questioned whether it was reasonable to expect a child in the 19th century to interrogate his employer’s ties to the slave trade.

“Are we to condemn ordinary people such as Livingstone, who had little or no choice but to work for a living, at a time when state support for the unemployed was non-existent?” he said.

“There were surely several factors other than wages that explain Livingstone’s subsequent career.”

Livingstone’s illustrations of how slaves were treated in Africa shocked audiences in Britain.

He also reported on a massacre of captives in 1871, in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was seen as influential in ending the East African slave trade.

However, the report omits this, instead focusing on his work at the mill.

It states the owner of the mill, where Livingstone began working in 1823, “was in a partnership with two Glasgow-West India merchants in the 1810s”.

It adds it is “likely” the cotton he worked with was “sourced from the West Indies”, with his “high remuneration” allowing him to study at university.

When he returned to Blantyre Mill as a famous explorer in 1856, he denounced slavery as the “greatest meanness ever perpetrated”.

However, the report states he made a “strong defence” of “paternalistic and benevolent” cotton masters at the same time.

‘Complicity in chattel slavery’

The 119-page document, by University of Glasgow academic Stephen Mullen, also highlights 62 Glasgow streets and locations, and 11 buildings, which have a “direct” or “associational” connection to Atlantic slavery.

It claims that Glasgow, a major port in the age of empire, had not done as much as other UK cities with historic connections to slavery, such as Liverpool and London, to acknowledge and apologise for its past.

Susan Aitken, the SNP council leader, said the report offered “an incontrovertible evidence base of the extent of Glasgow’s complicity in chattel slavery”.

A council spokesman said: “It has always been our intention to hold wide-ranging public discussions and consultation on the findings. As such, it will be for the people of Glasgow to determine the city’s next steps.”

Other problematic Glasgow statues:

James Watt (George Square)

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