This year we are celebrating Adam Smith’s tercentenary, reflecting on the lasting impact of his work and ideas. A critical part of understanding Smith is understanding the context in which he developed and refined his thinking. After all, he and his fellow Scottish Enlightenment thinkers were empiricists.
Thanks to anti-racist campaigners, educators and the Black Lives Matter movement, our contemporary society has been taking a closer look at how the slave trade impacted Enlightenment era thinkers, how the proceeds of slavery were used to fund public life, and how slave owners and those who upheld slavery laws have been remembered and memorialised.
To explore these issues further, Panmure House’s Programme Executive, Laura Smith-Gulliver sat down with Sir Geoff Palmer, Professor Emeritus and Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University and human rights campaigner. Sir Geoff chaired the independent Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group.
Laura Smith-Gulliver (LSG)
Many people today don’t connect the Scotland they see today with the transatlantic slave trade and slavery. It is generally accepted that historical record should change in response to emerging facts. Why do you think many people in Scotland have divided opinions and views on how we should view and respond to our history – particularly around slavery and colonialism – in relation to emerging facts?
Sir Geoff Palmer (SGP)
As you said, views should change because of new evidence. If we find something that was believed is actually wrong, we should change our views. However, even ‘bad evidence’ is important as it shows attitudes of the time, whether it was incompetence of the researchers at the time or their attitudes. We cannot change the past, but we can change the consequences.
I think education is one of the most significant ways we can do this. Whenever I’ve given lectures in Edinburgh and elsewhere, one of the consistent questions has been, “Why hasn’t anybody told us this before”. People are entitled to know the truth of their own history. They are not children; they don’t need defending from their own history.
I have not been in favour of removing statues, like we saw with the tearing down of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol. In my view, if you remove the evidence you remove the deed. So those who want statues to come down, the next ‘statue’ should be racism, not a bit of metal, wood or stone. When Colston’s statue came down, what did it actually do for changing attitudes. Nothing.
I argue instead that we need to provide this updated historical record and context alongside the monuments and statues. For instance, the plaque that has been placed on Henry Dundas’ statue in Edinburgh has sparked conversation and received a tremendous response. The point is that the public can go and read and check for themselves. The power of the plaque is that the public become more educated. Many people would prefer a statue comes down than a plaque added, but statues are part of the context. If we remove them, we remove the daily reminder of our true history.
Smith attempted to set himself apart from some of his peers in terms of his views on slavery. What are your thoughts on Smith’s views compared to some of his compatriots whose views are less nuanced?
I’m not an expert on Smith, however I think he was a very perceptive man and he realised that slavery could not be right – that human beings should not be subjected to this type of treatment. He was concerned with capital and how to make society more economically efficient.
It has been noted by historians that Smith was the most eminent critic of his time of the colonial systems. However even he talked at length of how profitable the sugar plantations were. Therefore, his view was that not paying people and instead enslaving them, beating them to death to work, wasn’t effective.
He believed strongly in the principle of self-interest, that giving people proper working conditions would result in better performance. Slavery wasn’t as economically productive as slavers often think it was, and he thought that better conditions were less harmful to workers while being more profitable. The average life span of a slave was less than 10 years. The slave trade managed this inhumanity.
In terms of self-interest, it may sound alright to talk about slavery in economic terms, but if you were a person taken away from Africa, away from your family, your experience and views will be different. You have lost your language, your culture and even your life expectancy.
While Smith may have been on the right side of history when it comes to slavery – for economic reasons and due to his belief in self-interest - I don’t see any evidence that he had any more progressive views on the racism of slavery. Many of his contemporaries held Kant’s view that black people were an inferior race and used it to justify enslavement.
Smith and his compatriots chose their words carefully, they were products of the Enlightenment and studied Greek and Latin, so when they used a word, they knew exactly what it meant. We have to be careful not to misinterpret people’s intentions in Smith’s day. Dundas’ gradual abolition meant that abolition would be delayed. It was widely felt that slavery was a necessity, Smith gives a more sympathetic view than others, but the argument is still largely an economic one.
What lessons should we be learning from this period in history and the way these issues were viewed and discussed?
Self-interest is still a dominating idea today and continues to be seen as quite natural. I feel that humans aren’t naturally wicked or evil, but we will act within our self-interest if we believe it isn’t illegal or morally wrong. Kant said if the majority believes in something then it is classed as moral. In Smith and Kant’s days there were many who believed that slavery was ok and should not be abolished.
Today, despite knowing the full the horrors of slavery, there are still those who defend slavery, as James Boswell did, by arguing that decedents of slaves are better off in western or imperially influenced countries than they would have been had they stayed in Africa. A few months ago, I gave a talk and a man afterwards said to me, “Well Geoff you would not be in the position you are now if your ancestors had remained in Africa”. I responded that the enslaved people’s potential had been the same as mine, but at the time they were cutting sugar cane. I haven’t suddenly become capable, and I wouldn’t cease to be capable if I were cutting sugar cane.
Colonialism had a great influence on geography, and a lot of people’s potential in the world is tied up in their geography. If you can’t access clean water, it’s nothing at all to do with your intelligence. The contradiction still exists; we won’t give the Benin bronzes back because they are too sophisticated and too precious. We enslaved the people because they were inferior, but we won’t give their stolen art back because it is too sophisticated, valuable and precious.
What role do you think universities have in reviewing the historical record and shaping and decolonising our contemporary interpretations?
I did some work on decolonising the curriculum and one of the key things I pointed out is that you cannot decolonise the curriculum if you are ignorant of the history. It isn’t enough to just mention one or two stories of specific black people. That is not ‘decolonising’. Instead, each department should have someone who has the responsible for teaching this history across their department, the lecturers have to be educated on this too. That’s critical. It’s not just about getting a paid equality officer.
I think that institutions who don’t manage this well, or are indifferent to decolonising efforts, are at risk of being called institutionally racist and students may choose not to go there. Society is becoming more educated in its views; young people especially are becoming more knowledgeable. When we surveyed people in Edinburgh Council on slavery and colonialism, we found that the younger people were clear in their views that this needed to be in the curriculum. That is telling us that they will begin to choose their institutions based on this.
Glasgow University produced a report [Report into Historical Slavery] in 2018 and as a result has signed a unique memorandum of understanding with the University of the West Indies to exchange academic thought. New scholarships are also available. People are often afraid to talk about ‘reparations’ because they worry about it meaning to give money, I believe in the power of educational and social reparations - setting up these links with countries that we previously had links with through slavery. Thus, improving our links, making positive steps and changing attitudes for the better. To me that’s what decolonising means.