Empires Featured Institutions Slavery

Professor Nigel Biggar on the Distortion of Glasgow’s Imperial History

Glasgow City of Empire
Nigel Biggar
Written by Nigel Biggar

After a recent visit to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, Nigel Biggar wrote to the Museum’s manager to protest about the Museum’s presentation of Glasgow’s role in imperial history. We publish his letter in full below.

A shorter version of this letter was also published in the Scottish edition of The Times on 28 May and can be read here

Dear Ms Macinnes,

I am writing to register a protest against the travesty of history represented by the display in the Kelvingrove Museum entitled, “Glasgow—City of Empire”.

I do not object to your museum’s communication of discreditable and lamentable truths about the history of Glasgow and Britain. Rather, I object to its absolute exclusion of creditable and admirable truths. The partisan distortion of the past your display presents is so demonstrably extreme that it amounts to a lie. Instead, I urge the Kelvingrove Museum to make itself thoroughly inclusive, telling the whole truth and not just those bits of it that serve an empirically dubious and racially divisive political agenda, slavishly imported from the United States.

On slavery

“Glasgow was one of the major port cities in Britain which benefited from the triangular trade between Europe, Africa, and the Americas.”

The display misinforms the public by (1) suggesting that Glasgow was a major centre of slave-trading; (2) maintaining complete silence over Glasgow’s leading role in the movement to abolish slave-trading and slavery; and (3) omitting any mention of the costly British (and Scottish) imperial efforts at slavery-suppression worldwide for a century-and-a-half.

(1) According to Dr Stephen Mullen, Lecturer in History at the University of Glasgow, there was “a general lack of direct Scottish involvement” in the slave-trade. “In all, there were twenty-seven recorded slave voyages that left Scottish ports, [and] a further four were funded from Scotland…. This level of involvement—thirty-one voyages over a forty-nine- year period—is small when compared with prominent slave ports in England, where the trade was much greater and lasted longer”.[1]

(2) The abolition campaign was “the first human rights crusade in British history,” writes Mullen, “with an unprecedented mobilisation of public opinion and support”. Scotland played an important part in the initial campaign to abolish slave-trading, sending 185 of the 519 pro-abolition petitions to Parliament in 1792, by when abolitionist societies had been established in five Scottish cities, including Glasgow. The subsequent campaign to abolish slavery itself, which was launched in 1814, elicited a “strong” response in Scotland, which sent 141 petitions from sixty-seven communities, including all the major cities. Notwithstanding resistance from the pro-slavery Glasgow West India Association, overall opinion in Glasgow “was firmly behind the abolitionists”. Glasgow University alumni—such as Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, and John Millar—“influenced the development of anti-slavery societies globally… and the ”level of commitment of the later abolitionist movement in Scotland, especially in Glasgow, was a hugely significant factor in promoting an international conscience”.


(3) After abolishing slave-trading throughout her empire in 1807, Britain took the lead in suppressing the slave trade and slavery at sea and on land, worldwide, over the course of the following century and a half. The economic historian, David Eltis, has reckoned the cost to British (and therefore Scottish) taxpayers of transatlantic suppression alone as a minimum of £250,000 per annum—which equates to £1.367–1.74 billion, or 9.1–11.5 per cent of the UK’s expenditure on development aid in 2019—for fifty years.[2] Moreover in absolute terms the British spent almost as much attempting to suppress the trade in the forty-seven years, 1816–62, as they received in profits over the same length of time leading up to 1807. And by any more reasonable assessment of profits and direct costs, according to Eltis, the nineteenth-century expense of suppression was certainly bigger than the eighteenth-century benefits.[3]

Chaim Kaufmann and Robert Pape took a broader view. In addition to the costs of naval suppression, they considered the loss of business caused by abolition to British manufacturers, shippers, merchants and bankers who dealt with the West Indies. They also factored in the higher prices paid by British consumers for sugar, since duties were imposed to protect free-grown British sugar from competition by foreign producers who continued to benefit from unpaid slave labour. Overall, they “estimate the economic cost to British metropolitan society of the anti-slave trade effort at roughly 1.8 per cent of national income over sixty years from 1808 to 1867”.[4] Although the comparisons are not exact, they do illuminate: in 2021 the UK spent 0.5 per cent of GDP on international aid and just over 2 per cent on national defence. Kaufmann and Pape conclude that Britain’s effort to suppress the Atlantic slave trade (alone) in 1807–67 was “the most expensive example [of costly international moral action] recorded in modern history”.[5]

  1. On the abolition of slave-trading and slavery


“Persistent uprisings of enslaved people, increasing activism throughout Britain, and more profitable opportunities elsewhere all contributed towards the ending of chattel slavery in the British colonies.”

In this description, the museum’s display diminishes the achievement of the sustained, partly Enlightenment, mostly Christian humanitarian movement to abolish slavery.

The British movement to abolish the slave-trade and slavery gathered momentum before the famous slave uprising in Saint Domingue (Haiti) in 1791: the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was established in 1787. While slave uprisings in Haiti and later in Jamaica did garner support and add momentum to the abolitionist campaigns, they did not start them.

The thesis that the British only abandoned slave-trading and slavery because it had become uneconomic is highly controversial, and it is irresponsible of the museum to present it as uncontested fact. Indeed, one American economic historian, Seymour Drescher, has argued that, for the British to abolish the trade when they did, amounted to economic suicide—or, as the title of his book puts it—‘econocide’.[6]

The British, including the Scots, were among the first peoples in the history of the world to abolish the hitherto universal practices of slave-trading and slavery, and thereafter they used their imperial power to suppress the trade and the institution from Brazil, across Africa and India, to Australasia—at considerable cost in money, naval resources, and lives. Your museum’s display is unjustifiably silent about this.

On racism

“Abolition did not mean the end of racism. Racist ideologies that were used to justify enslavement were used to legitimise the colonisation of millions of peoples by the British Empire”; “white supremacy”, “Our education … often promoting white racial supremacy. This has contributed to the spread of racist ideas that still shape our lives today.”

The museum’s display implies that, even after the abolition of slave-trading and slavery, the British Empire continued to be simply motivated by the same ‘white supremacist’ racism that had justified them.

This is quite wrong. The Christian humanitarianism that dominated so much colonial thinking in the wake of the abolition of slavery was based on the premise of the fundamental equality of all races under God, which implies that such racial inequality as exists is merely developmental, not essential—‘Whites’ are not destined forever to rule over ‘Blacks’, as ‘white supremacist’ ideology in the south of the United States and among Afrikaners in South Africa held. This Christian view was not generally eclipsed by its social Darwinist rival in the English-speaking world. As Colin Kidd, formerly of the University of Glasgow and now Professor of History at the University of St Andrews, has written:

even at the high noon of nineteenth century racialism, theological imperatives drove the conventional mainstream of science and scholarship to search for mankind’s underlying unities. The emphasis of racial investigation was not upon divisions between races but on race as an accidental, epiphenomenal mask concealing the unitary Adamic origins of a single extended human family … quietly, subtly and indirectly, theological needs drew white Europeans into a benign state of denial, a refusal to accept that human racial differences were anything other than skin deep … Theological factors, more than any others, dictated that the proof of sameness would be the dominant feature of western racial science.[7]

Accordingly, for example, “[a]lthough it was growing in influence in the [sic] late nineteenth century Canadian political life, biological determinism never had the field entirely to itself … it was scarcely possible to stand in the House [of Commons] to make a speech denigrating a ‘race’, without someone rising in principled objection to remarks that they considered unBritish, unchristian, illiberal, or just plain prejudiced”.[8] The vigorous persistence of Christian racial egalitarianism throughout the 19thcentury is attested by the fact that the vote was granted to black Africans on the same terms as to whites in South Africa’s Cape Colony as early as 1853, to New Zealand’s Māori in 1867, and to Eastern Canada’s Indians in 1885.

There is no unbroken line of continuity running from the dehumanising racism that justified slavery in the 18th century to the present day. The widely popular abolitionist campaign broke it. Consequently, as the Harvard historian of anti-slavery, John Stauffer, has written, “Almost every United States black who travelled in the British Isles [in the 19th century] acknowledged the comparative dearth of racism there. Frederick Douglass [the famous African American abolitionist, who visited Scotland in 1846] noted after arriving in England in 1845: ‘I saw in every man a recognition of my manhood, and an absence, a perfect absence, of everything like that disgusting hate with which we are pursued in [the United States]”.’[9]

On violence

“The use of police violence towards local communities helped Britain maintain colonial rule”; “brutal policing often being integral to the maintenance of empire”;

“HEROES OF OUR EMPIRE, ABOUT 1908 … disregarded the acts of violence that many of them committed.”

The museum’s display insinuates that the British Empire was essentially violent and that its violence was always unjustified.

The British Empire was frequently violent, but, as the eminent historian of empire worldwide, Professor John Darwin of the University of Oxford, has observed, that is hardly remarkable: “Plainly, [the Empire’s] authority depended ultimately (and sometimes immediately) upon the use of violence. But then so has that of almost every state in history, precolonial, colonial and postcolonial (and things are not getting any better). To say that violence played a central part in Britain’s imperial history is not to add much to the sum of knowledge”.[10]

Except for pacifists, not all violence is morally wrong. Sometimes imperial violence was immoral; sometimes, it was moral. For example, the British Empire was at its most violent in the struggle to defeat Nazism in 1939-45—a violent struggle that most Scots regard as morally justified.

On the British Empire

“British Empire … engaged in widespread colonial violence and oppression”; “The British Empire left a legacy of injustice, pillaging and stealing, with no concern for the long-term impact on indigenous lands and peoples.”

As an overall summary of the British Empire, such statements in the museum’s display are historically insupportable, for at least the following reasons:

  • The British Empire was among the first states in the world’s history to abolish slave-trading and slavery on the Christian principle that all human beings are basically equal under God, regardless of race or degree of cultural development;
  • it subsequently devoted the second half of its life to suppressing slave-trading and slavery worldwide—from Brazil across Africa, the Middle East, and India, to Australasia–for a century-and-a-half;
  • it liberated slaves, women, and captives by suppressing human sacrifice in West Africa, female genital mutilation in East Africa, suttee and female infanticide in India, and head-hunting in New Zealand;
  • it eliminated famine in India by 1900, according to the Bengali-born economic historian, Tirthankar Roy;[11]
  • its war against the Boer Republics in South Africa in 1899-1902 was supported by most black Africans and African Americans, because the republics were constitutionally committed to permanent white supremacy;
  • its war against Nazism in 1939-45 was widely supported by black Africans, not least in South Africa, who were well aware of what they could expect from a triumphant Hitler;
  • it, alone with Greece, offered the massively murderous racist regime in Nazi Germany the only military resistance between May 1940 and June 1941;
  • and it provided refuge for millions of Chinese, when they fled war, anarchy, and communism in China by entering voluntarily the British colony of Hong Kong in the 1950s.

On William Burrell

“WILLIAM BURRELL … exploited his Chinese crews…. His business partners exploited enslaved Africans.”

This account of one of Glasgow’s greatest public benefactors is slanderous.

Burrell (1861-1958) was active in the shipping business at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Slave-trading and slavery had been abolished in the British Empire for well over half a century and the Empire had used its power to persuade other slave-trading nations, not least Brazil, to cease by the mid-1800s. The enslavement of African Americans had been abolished in 1865. It is not at all obvious, therefore, where Burrell’s business partners could have been exploiting enslaved Africans during his lifetime in business. But even if they were exploiting them somewhere, Burrell was not directly involved (and perhaps entirely unaware), and so he cannot be held responsible. The display’s suggestion that he was culpable is an indication of its unscrupulous determination to blacken his name, come what may.

It is true that Burrell’s ships employed Chinese seamen. It is also true that their working conditions were very poor—as were the working conditions of many Scots in industrial, turn-of-the-century Glasgow. But since they had not been compelled to sign up, we can infer that the seamen had done so, because conditions in China were far worse. Most people in the past, even in our own country, suffered conditions that we, highly privileged to live in the twenty-first century, consider intolerable.

Perhaps Burrell can be blamed for not improving the lot of Chinese seamen, if he was aware of it. However, when he was aware of poor living conditions, he sought to alleviate them. In 1906, he authored a paper on Glasgow’s housing crisis, in which he wrote that the council “should clean up the town so that it would be impossible for any man, woman, or child to live in a house that was not fit for human habitation”.[12] And according to the latest biography by Martin Bellamy and Isobel MacDonald, Burrell’s dedication to relieving the slum crisis had been so notable during his lifetime that in his 1958 obituary in the Glasgow Herald, the then Lord Provost wrote that Burrell “had become so much impressed by the necessity of doing something about Glasgow’s serious housing problem that he decided to sell all his ships”.[13]

Moreover, according to Bellamy and MacDonald, it was Burrell’s “business ethics” that had earned him nomination as a town councillor in 1899.[14]

On the Kelvingrove Museum

“Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is a museum of empire.”

To be more exact: the south balcony, where the ‘Glasgow—City of Empire’ display now sits, used to celebrate the truly extraordinary engineering and shipbuilding achievements of Glaswegians during the imperial period, whereas now it damns them all as ‘racist’ and ‘white supremacist’ by association with the British Empire.

On the political abuse of historical truth

“GLASGOW—CITY OF EMPIRE”: “Slavery and colonialism shaped the way we now live”; “PLACARD FROM BLACK LIVES MATTER PROTEST, GLASGOW GREEN, 7 JUNE 2020: Institutional racism exists here …– it is the child/product of empire and white supremacy”; “We invite you to … consider how we can tackle racism together”.

The reason for the travesty of the history of Scotland and the British Empire represented by your museum’s display is clear: the display is a vehicle for Black Lives Matter ideology, imported without any critical filtering from the United States. In its British and Scottish versions, the BLM narrative runs like this: Britain and Scotland are systemically racist; this systemic racism is caused by the idea of ‘white supremacy’ that has thoroughly infected contemporary British and Scottish culture through the British Empire and its colonialism, which can be summed up in one word: ‘slavery’.

Not only is this narrative historically untenable, as I have shown; it is also untenable empirically. Empirical evidence indicates that contemporary Britain (and Scotland) are not generally or systemically racist. The 2018 report of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Being Black in the EU, found that the prevalence of racist harassment as perceived by people of African descent was lower in the UK than in any other EU country except Malta, and the prevalence of overall racial discrimination was the lowest in the UK bar none.[15] The 2021 report of the UK government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, ten of whose eleven commissioners (including its chair) were not white, argued that contemporary Britain is not in fact structurally racist.[16] And two books published in 2023 and written by non-white Britons argue along the same lines—Tomiwa Owolade’s This is Not America: why black lives in Britain matter and Rakib Ehsan’s Beyond Grievance: what the left gets wrong about ethnic minorities.[17] (Ehsan identifies himself as a member of the Labour Party.)


For the avoidance of doubt, let me be clear and repeat what I wrote at the beginning. I am not objecting to your museum’s communication of discreditable and lamentable truths about the history of Glasgow and Britain’s Empire. Rather, I am objecting to its absolute exclusion of creditable and admirable truths. The partisan distortion of the past your display presents is so demonstrably extreme as to be tantamount to a lie. Therefore, I urge the Kelvingrove Museum to make itself thoroughly inclusive, telling the whole truth and not just those bits of it that serve an empirically dubious and racially divisive political agenda, uncritically imported from the United States.

Yours sincerely,

Nigel Biggar

Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at the University of Oxford

and author of Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning (2023, 2024)


[1] Stephen Mullen, It Wisnae Us: the truth about Glasgow and slavery (Edinburgh: The Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, 2009): https://it.wisnae.us/.  The italics are mine.

[2] For an explanation of the method by which the contemporary figures were calculated, see Nigel Biggar, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, 2nd edition (London: William Collins, 2024), pp. 390-1n.63.

[3] David Eltis, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 96, 97.

[4] Chaim D. Kaufmann and Robert A. Pape, “Explaining Costly International Moral Action: Britain’s Sixty-Year Campaign against the Atlantic Slave Trade”, International Organization, 53/4 (Autumn 1999), pp. 634–7, esp. 636.

[5] Ibid., p. 631.

[6] Seymour Drescher, Econocide: British slavery in the era of abolition (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Caroline Press, 1977, 2010).

[7] Colin Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600–2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 26.

[8] Glen Williams, Blood Must Tell: Debating Race and Identity in the Canadian House of Commons, 1880–1925 (Ottawa: willowBX Press, 2014), pp. 27, 29.

[9] John Stauffer, ‘Abolition and Antislavery’, in Robert L. Paquette and Mark M. Smith, The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 564.

[10] John Darwin, ‘Imperial History by the Book: A Roundtable on John Darwin’s The Empire Project: Reply’, Journal of British Studies, 54/4 (Oct. 2015), p. 994.

[11] Tirthankar Roy, How British Rule Changed India’s Economy: The Paradox of the Raj (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Pivot, 2019), p. 130.

[12] Martin Bellamy and Isobel MacDonald, William Burrell: A collector’s life (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2022), p. 71.

[13] Ibid., pp. 69-70.

[14] Ibid., p. 53.

[15] European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Being Black in the EU: Summary of the Second European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey (Vienna: EUAFR, 2019), pp. 2, 3, 7, 9.

[16] Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, The Report (London: HMSO, 2021), pp. 8, 36, 77. Referred to variously as the ‘CRED’ or (after its chair, Dr Tony Sewell) the ‘Sewell’ report, it is controversial, of course, and has been angrily dismissed by Guardian journalists and left-wing activists, among others, often by appeal to the ‘lived’ experience’ of ‘Black people’. ’Lived experience’, however, is never pure; it is always interpreted, and not all interpretations are accurate. But even where the interpretation is accurate, it represents the accurate experience only of some individuals. The commission’s report, however, looks beyond the perceptions of particular individuals to hard, social scientific data, in order to ground reliable generalisations. Moreover, it takes explicit pains to disaggregate ‘Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic’ or ‘BAME’ people, observing that the situation of, say, Chinese Britons is often dramatically different from that of Black Caribbean Britons. For a judicious comparison of the Sewell report with the subsequent, counter-report of the Runnymede Trust, Race and Racism in England, see John Root, ‘Runnymede vs Sewell?’, in Out of Many, One People, no. 40, 27 July 2021: https://johnroot.substack.com/p/runnymede-vs-sewell-40-27072021. The Sewell report wins, hands down.

[17] Tomiwa Owolade, This is Not America: why black lives in Britain matter (London: Atlantic, 2023); Rakib Ehsan, Beyond Grievance: what the left gets wrong about ethnic minorities (London: Forum Press, 2023).

About the author

Nigel Biggar

Nigel Biggar

Nigel Biggar, CBE is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, Oxford, and Director of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life. His works include What’s Wrong with Rights? (2020), and Between Kin and Cosmopolis: An Ethic of the Nation (2014). His latest book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning will be published by William Collins in 2022.