Campaigners wanting to remove Glasgow street names linked to the slave trade should instead focus on modern slavery, writes Shan Saba
Everyone is aware that many of Glasgow’s merchants became rich throughout the 18th and 19th century on the back of the slave trade. The many, fine city centre buildings of my home town are symbols of the wealth that arose from the hard, bloody labour of slaves many thousands of miles away in the plantations of the Old South and the Caribbean.
Ingram Street, Glassford Street and what is now the Gallery of Modern Art, all stand as tributes to the men, the tobacco lords, who prospered mightily from their investments in sugar, tobacco and slavery.
I was born in Glasgow, the son of migrants from Sri Lanka who worked hard all their life to give their children a better life than they had.
Not long ago I visited Thomas Cunningham’s mansion, now converted into the city’s world-famous Gallery of Modern Art, without realising this history. Over the years I’ve frequented pubs and wine bars in the Merchant City unaware of the history behind the area. On many occasions I have walked along Jamaica Street and never questioned why a Glasgow street should be named after a Commonwealth nation in the Caribbean.
On New World plantations and factories, enslaved Africans worked about 96 hours a week and had a 50 per cent chance of living to the age of 40. There is clear historical evidence that Scottish overseers were amongst the most brutal and it is indisputable that Scotland’s and Glasgow’s history are intertwined with the roots of slavery.
Enslaved lives have been lived, often under the brutal supervision of Scots and our responsibility for that shameful period must be taught and discussed.
I read recently an article by Scottish model and actress, Eunice Olumide, pictured, about how she planned to organise a vote to rename city streets associated with Glasgow’s links to the plantations and to the slave trade.
Ms Olumide also raised the issue of financial reparation for the slave trade and instanced the US bank, JP Chase, which has set up a $5million scholarship programme for African American students as means of reparation for the bank’s role in funding slavery.
This got me thinking: discussion and education of our past can only be good for the future of our city. We should be rightly proud of Glasgow’s history, for the long journey that it has been on, for the religious settlement which was its origins, for its undisputed role for decades, as the industrial hub of the world, for its response to industrial decline by becoming renowned throughout the world as a cultural magnet.
But while Glasgow has changed, the horrors of slavery still exists amongst us. In a BBC Panorama investigation by Sam Polling in 2017 she uncovered a direct route from the slums of Slovakia direct to Glasgow’s southside district, Govanhill, where young immigrants were being exploited and traded within the sex industry.
In one scene shot in Slovakia, a group with very limited English language skills, and no real awareness of Scotland, spoke knowledgeably about the notorious “Daisy Street” area of Govanhill.
Modern Slavery is on the increase in Scotland. In the last three months of 2018, 68 potential victims of modern slavery were rescued by the authorities. In 2017, 207 victims were identified as were 150 in 2016.
Due to their vulnerability, mental illness, drug or drink dependency or even because their lives or those of their immediate families are threatened, victims are tricked into modern slavery. Housed in inhumane conditions, some are forced to work in the sex trade. Many others are made to work within the labour force where unenlightened employers employ them without realising that they will never see their hard-earned wages, which are routinely hoovered-up by modern day slave masters.
This is the shame of Modern Slavery. Glasgow’s history is just that: history. Changing street names will not relieve the human misery that is happening today in our society. Raising awareness amongst all of us in the business community is the main aim of Scotland Against Modern Slavery. It’s a campaign worth joining.
Shan Saba is business development director at Brightworks