University of Edinburgh: Students shine light on city’s colonial past

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Archival evidence has been collated by student interns from the University’s Centre for Research Collections for the Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialism Legacy review.

Their findings have been used alongside a large-scale public consultation to gather evidence and views on the city’s historical ties to slavery and colonialism and to re-examine the legacy these will have.

More than 4,000 people and 35 organisations took part in the independent review. City of Edinburgh Councillors have now approved a list of recommendations put forward by the review.

James Smith, Vice-Principal International was part of the Report’s Review Group, led by Professor Sir Geoff Palmer, a human rights activist and Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University.

Edinburgh has many historical connections to the slave trade and formation of the British Empire. This review has been a key opportunity to shine a light on these links and I hope the findings will be used to take action and address historical injustices going forward.

Professor James Smith
Professor of African and Development Studies at the University of Edinburgh, and member of the Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review group
Examining legacies
The three student interns joined the Centre for Research Collections in July 2021, initially to examine the University’s own links to the slave trade and wider colonial activities.

Their focus expanded to include the Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review due to themes overlapping between the institution’s historical ties and those of the city.

Archives held by the University, national records, city archives and other external organisations were reviewed during the project.

Findings showed clear evidence of colonial trade passing through buildings in the city and connections between historical Edinburgh figures and plantation owners.

Surprising discoveries included letters showing Scottish poet Robert Burns had at one time considered working as a bookkeeper for a plantation owner in Jamaica.

Abolitionist movement
Elsewhere there was less evidence showing activity around the slavery abolitionist effort.

Little dialogue could be found about the Edinburgh Ladies Emancipation Society, a highly influential abolitionist group who met at the Calton Convening Rooms on Waterloo Place.

Considering all of the fantastic leaps Edinburgh has made in adding nuance to the existing narrative on sites associated with trans-Atlantic slavery, it’s unfortunate that this particular location has yet to receive the recognition it deserves.

Ashlyn Cudney
PhD Candidate in Early Modern History and student intern for the Centre for Research Collections Histories Report
Historical ties
The University is undertaking research into its own historical relationship with slavery and colonialism.

RACE.ED is a cross-disciplinary hub on the study of race, racialisation and decolonial studies.

Elsewhere, a student-led project is aiming to situate the ‘global’ status of the University in its rightful imperial and colonial context.

UncoverEd encourages the University’s community to reflect on its links to slavery and the part this played in making Edinburgh a global institution.

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