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Taking responsibility: an interview with Professor Sir Geoff Palmer

Taking responsibility: an interview with Professor Sir Geoff Palmer

Professor Sir Geoff Palmer has just found out he’s part Viking. The academic, who was recently appointed chancellor of Heriot-Watt University, has, along with his wife, not long before speaking to Holyrood, received the results for a home DNA testing kit. 

“She brought in the results, and she said you’re 97 per cent African in terms of genes, which Jamaicans are, and she said you’re three per cent Viking from Shetland.”

The 81-year-old researcher chuckles. “A lot of the Jamaicans or Caribbean people of slave descent are not only part of the Scottish diaspora, in terms of history, in terms of names, but also in terms of genes,” Palmer says. 

“This is the extent of our linkages, and therefore Scotland’s, with the enlightenment. We should also look at, now, Scotland [becoming] enlightened about its history with the Caribbean.”

The academic has found himself in the firing line in recent months. His determination to force Scotland to confront its past has led to clashes with historians, academics, activists and the aristocracy.

He chairs an Edinburgh Council panel reviewing the city’s historic links to slavery. Such is the controversy over the job, he’s the only member of the panel we know. The identities of the others are being kept anonymous over fears they could face abuse.

For years, Palmer, Scotland’s first black professor, has been calling for Scotland’s role in the empire and the slave trade to be acknowledged and taught in schools.  

Following the killing of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s a call Scotland’s political parties are slowly, cautiously moving towards. 

During the election, the SNP, Labour, Green and Lib Dem manifestos all contained explicit commitments to increase the teaching of Scotland’s historical role in the empire, colonialism and transatlantic slavery. Though not all of the pledges promised to include it in the curriculum.

The SNP’s pledge was to fund an online teaching programme that would highlight “Scotland and the UK’s colonial history”. However, it wouldn’t be compulsory, with councils only being encouraged to teach the lessons in all schools.

The cross-party calls for more teaching of Scotland’s colonial history were met with criticism in some quarters, with some academics warning of a need for balance, that Scotland’s role in the slave trade is taught alongside the country’s role in abolition. 

Palmer has little time for this argument: “The idea is that you can balance evil with goodness. If it’s all balanced, then nobody’s responsible for anything.”

He points out that while the Royal Navy may have policed the seas after abolition to make sure Africans were not transported into slavery, that doesn’t take away from the fact millions of people suffered horrifically in the years before.

Currently, slavery can be covered in different areas of the curriculum, including history, modern studies, and religious and moral education, but it depends on the particular focus of the teacher. 

Palmer says the government needs to go further. 

“The fact is that we want this history in the curriculum.”

He adds: “We want it to be examined just like maths, physics and chemistry. It must be part of the curriculum that forms part of examinations because that then embeds it into the consciousness of the students. 

“If we’re going to change attitudes for the better, then we will need that significant change.” 
Scotland benefited massively from slavery and it wasn’t just the elites who profited. Research by historian Dr Stephen Mullen has found a disproportionate number of Scots receiving the payouts for slave owners compensated after abolition in 1833-34. 

The money made in the plantations funded key infrastructure such as canals and waterworks, creating thousands of jobs.

“Slavery and its commerce also had wider effects; powering the Scottish Industrial Revolution and providing large scale employment in cotton mills from 1778, funding philanthropic initiatives in universities, schools and hospitals, as well as the repatriation of wealth to families of lower rank in wider Scottish society,” Mullen told the Herald last year. 

Last month, the Press and Journal revealed that slave trade money was still being used to support teacher training in the North East. The Dick Bequest, a fund established in the early 19th century following the death of a Forres-born merchant, still has £1.7m of cash left to be spent. 

There are calls now for the money to be sent back to the West Indies, though there is some resistance from the trust responsible for administering the cash, made up of representatives from the local councils and Aberdeen University. 

They say they have no discretion to change the use of the money because it is “a statutory scheme established by statutory instrument with purposes and procedures directed by central government”.

“We cannot change the past, but we can change the consequences of the past,” says Palmer. 

He praises Glasgow University’s recent attempt to redress its role in the trade. 

The ancient institution discovered in 2018 that it had benefited financially from Scottish slave traders in the 18th and 19th centuries. It responded by setting up a programme of restorative justice with the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, pledging to raise £20 million for the centre, chiefly in research grants and gifts.

Palmer said: “They looked at their history and they wrote a report and said they made about £200 million and they’re going to set up reparation programme with scholarships and they set up links with University of the West Indies.”

Crucially, he added, the university didn’t attempt to balance its role. “Glasgow could say, ‘but we supported abolition’ and then do nothing. The Scottish people are bigger than that.”

The significant change Palmer talks about will come, he says, when we stop trying to find that balance, softening the evil with good.

One of Palmer’s biggest fights has been over the 200-year-old monument to Henry Dundas in Edinburgh’s St Andrew’s Square.

Last year the council agreed to a plaque detailing the 1st Viscount Melville’s role in the trade and his part in delaying the abolition of slavery. His decision ultimately forced about 630,000 slaves to wait more than a decade for their freedom.

The descendants of Dundas have hit out at the council and dismissed Palmer as a “political activist”. They say their ancestor was “the first MP to advocate in Parliament for the emancipation of slaves in the British territories along with the abolition of the slave trade.”

They also point out that in a landmark court case in 1778, he was the lawyer for a slave called Joseph Knight, helping him win his freedom and gaining a ringing declaration in Scotland’s highest court: that the enslavement of people was illegal in Scotland.

Palmer says he has investigated the case thoroughly. He argues that Knight was on a contract, meaning he was no slave: “The boy was a servant, not a slave. Now, all these stories have said that he was a slave. The case was about perpetual servitude.”

Indentured servitude was brutal, but unlike slaves, servants were not regarded as property.

It’s a controversial stance of Palmer’s, disputed by other historians, but one he stands by.
“What we have are these misconceptions put out over the years to moderate slavery for the Scottish people. Joseph Knight wasn’t a slave.”

The professor says things have changed markedly since his childhood, growing up in London in the 50s and 60s when he’d often be too scared to leave the house. 

Newspaper headlines about immigration, walking past someone writing KBW [Keep Britain White] on the wall. He was, he says, a “terrified boy,” certain that someone was going to kill him. 

But still, while there has been improvement, he says, David Hume’s claim that “negroes and in general all other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites” is still pervasive. 

“I went to give a lecture in Edinburgh a couple of years ago. I arrived and I said I’ve come to give a talk and the lady said, what time, I said two o’clock, and she said no you can’t be giving a talk at two o’clock because Professor Sir Geoff Palmer is giving a lecture at two o’clock.”

In another institution, he was mistaken for the principal’s chauffeur. 

“I don’t blame any of those people because they still believe Hume. And somehow when we say no, no they can’t – the point is that people are being seen in that way. 

“And the guy with hands in his pocket killing Floyd, that exactly was his view and believing he could get away with. 

“So the Parliament is critical in terms of education, ensuring that education is truthful and also helping community organisations that are doing significant jobs out there in order to help the public and educate the public.”

He adds: “I was at a school the other day, a very significant school, virtually discussing, and they had a policy now which meant kids could be expelled for racial statements, and I said to the teachers at the end of all that, have you ever told the pupils that race is a myth? 

“It was made up by Hume and Kant. And if the kids think that I’m inferior it’s because they’ve been told so. Don’t penalise them when they haven’t been told that it’s not true.”

The academic is hopeful for the future: “My brother died because he dealt with drugs. I’m not afraid to say that. And it killed him. And we’re from the same house. So, you know, I’ve lived with that and what I want is to make sure that black kids and white kids live together and arrive at their potential, without anybody saying that you’re inferior, because your skin’s a different colour. That isn’t right, and we must stop that.”  

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