Now the statue-topplers come for abolitionists

30 March 2022

7:36 PM

30 March 2022

7:36 PM

Susan Aitken, we meet again. The worst council leader in Britain is back in the news. What, pray, is it this time? Has Aitken finally fixed the rats which ran riot before COP26? Are Glasgow’s finances now back in order? Will the 500 taxi trips on expenses be refunded now? Good God, no. For Aitken is above such petty, mundane trifles. Instead she has decided to focus on the issues that really matter: problematic statues and the eighteenth century slave trade.

The Glasgow slavery audit has finally reported this month and identified eight statues in the city as representing people connected to the Atlantic slave trade. Apparently, gifts inherited from those linked to the slave trade are valued to be worth £30 million today – about the price of an adolescent Wayne Rooney circa 2004. Aitken says the report showed Glasgow’s complicity and that an official apology is needed. Finally, something the SNP will apologise for…

Mr S isn’t exactly sure though whether the audit is correct in all of its judgments. For among the aforementioned eight statues is one of David Livingstone, the great Victorian missionary and, er, noted abolitionist. What crime has Livingstone, who loathed the Arab slave traders, supposedly committed? Well, according to the council-backed audit, Livingstone worked in a cotton manufacturer owned by Henry Monteith, who ‘likely’ sourced the material from the West Indies. The report sniffs that:

Livingstone mounted a strong defence of cotton masters,whom he regarded as paternalistic and benevolent. Perhaps this was understandable:Livingstone’s rise was based upon the high wages provided by Scottish cotton manufacturingwhich was itself dependent upon Atlantic slavery economies.

What the author neglects to mention of course is that Livingstone was just ten years old when he went to work in that cotton mill. He was a victim of child labour, forced to work there because of extreme poverty, who publicised the horrors of the East African slave trade to millions at home. In much of Africa he is still regarded as a hero of freedom: not for nothing are towns still named after him in Malawi and Zambia.

Livingstone’s reputation should mean his statue does not meet the same fate as Edward Colston in Bristol or Cecil Rhodes in Oxford. Then again, given the way her party tore down Alex Salmond, Aitken and her colleagues are well adept at felling icons.

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