Christine Bird reviews a new performance exploring Scottish links to slavery
Who knew that Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art is housed in the 18th century mansion of tobacco merchant William Cunninghame? There is not so much as a plaque to commemorate the thousands of enslaved people who grew the crop that brought so much wealth to the merchants of the city. In fact, you’d be hard pushed to find anything comparable to Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum (1), or similar exhibitions in Bristol and London, anywhere in Scotland.
Emancipation Acts is the inaugural Scottish celebration of Emancipation Day, celebrated annually across the Caribbean on August 1st. The play, written and directed by Alan McKendrick, is set in various locations in Glasgow’s Merchant City, bringing to life the story of the city’s role in Caribbean slavery and its abolition, using drama, dance and music.
The emotional clout of the piece arises in part from the jarring of sometimes familiar facts and arguments with the civic setting. As we enter the rich merchants’ graveyard at the Ramshorn Kirk, we are asked to imagine ourselves in a different time and place. As new settlers from Europe, we’re invited to enjoy European-style amenities without the tropical discomforts. Life afforded the richest of the rich colonialists an endless playground for their own pleasure – golf, rum, tobacco, every species of animal to eat, each whim catered to by golf-caddy slaves clad in tartan loincloths. Yet on the way out, we hear African voices, narrating contemporary accounts of slaves’ lives, a reminder of the terrible cost of Glasgow’s wealth.
Clever scripting puts historical debates around Abolition into context. Ethical and economic arguments to end slavery seem contradictory at times. The vile treatment of slaves was seen as morally reprehensible by some. However, Adam Smith’s argument in “The Wealth of Nations,” that it is cheaper to make workers compete to sell their labour than to force people to work (often badly) for free, was a greater incentive to many in the British ruling class.
Scotland’s role in the British Empire anchors the piece. Scottish people were colonial financiers, administrators, lawyers, generals and soldiers. As Caribbean nations push European governments for reparations for slavery, the question arises – what if Scotland votes ‘Yes’ on 19th September? Would an independent Scotland own up, accept and acknowledge its slave-owning past? (2)
The play is ultimately uplifting, thanks partly to the community casting of local Black people of all ages, united in music and dance. It felt special to witness this final act on the street outside Cunninghame’s mansion, city-centre-stage and proud, for the world to see.
Emancipation Acts is showing 1pm, Thurs 31 Jul and Fri 1 Aug, The Briggait, Glasgow. Free, but ticketed – book here:
2. Further reading “It Wisnae Us: The Truth About Glasgow and Slavery,” by Stephen Mullen