Scotland's first black professor will lead slavery review

Scotland’s first black professor will lead Edinburgh University review into buildings and statues linked with slave trade

  • Edinburgh University announced it would rename David Hume Tower last year
  • Decision due to 19th century philosopher Humes’ controversial views on race
  • Sir Geoff Palmer, 80, said it was an ‘honour’ to be asked to work with the group
  • Edinburgh University said consultation would examine its ‘relationship with past’

Scotland’s first black professor Sir Geoff Palmer will lead an Edinburgh University review into buildings and statues linked with the slave trade.

The consultation follows controversy over the university’s decision to rename the David Hume Tower due to the 19th century philosopher’s controversial views on race – including that black people are ‘naturally inferior to whites’. 

Sir Geoff, 80, who became Scotland’s first black professor in 1989, said it was an ‘honour’ to be asked to work with the group.

Edinburgh University said the consultation – which is set to last around a year – would examine its ‘relationship with its past’ with recommendations to help better reflect its diversity.

Scotland’s first black professor Sir Geoff Palmer (left) will lead an Edinburgh University review into buildings and statues linked with the slave trade. The consultation follows controversy over the university’s decision to rename the David Hume Tower (right) due to the 19th century philosopher’s controversial views on race – including that black people are ‘naturally inferior to whites’

David Hume: Philosopher, historian and economist and father of the Enlightenment who rejected religion and believed passions governed human behaviour rather than reason

David Hume (1711-1776) was a UK philosopher (pictured, statue in Edinburgh)

David Hume (1711-1776) is one of the most important UK philosophers, best known for his work on scepticism and empiricism and his contribution to the Enlightenment.

Hume saw philosophy as experimental science of human nature and tried to describe how the mind works in acquiring what is known as knowledge. 

He had a profound and lasting impact on academics, his views said to have influenced the likes of economist Adam Smith, known as the Father of Capitalism, German philosopher Immanuel Kant and French sociologist Auguste Comte. 

Hume also influenced the US following the American Revolution. James Madison defended the form of republican government proposed by the Constitution in the Federalist Papers, greatly influenced by Hume’s work and drawing on his History of England. 

He is also said to have influenced the French Revolution, having been hailed as the eighteenth-century British writer whose works were most widely known and acclaimed on the Continent during the later Enlightenment period before the overthrow of Louis XVI.

Hume’s work is influential to this day, topping a 2010 survey of most admired philosophers and knocking Aristotle into second.  

At the age of only 28 he released his groundbreaking philosophical work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), an attempt to introduce scientific reasoning into moral subjects. 

In it, Hume argued against the existence of innate ideas, and concluded that no theory of reality is possible. 

He wrote that there can be no knowledge of anything beyond experience, with his views, particularly on religion, highly controversial at the time, including his rejection of miracles and the argument for God’s existence. 

Hume argued that there was no soul and wrote in the Treatise: ‘When I enter most intimately into what I call myself. I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.’  

The Roman Catholic Church, in 1761, put all his writings on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, its list of forbidden books.  

Hume was one of the leading voices of the Age of Enlightment, which dominated scholarly and academic discourse in the 18th century.

The Age of Enlightenment was a philosophical movement that spread through Europe. 

It advocated ideals such as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and also emphasised the separation of church and state.

Science was a key driver of change, with the movement split into two distinct camps. 

Firstly was the radical Enlightenment, which pushed for democracy, individual liberty, freedom of expression, and the eradication of religious authority. 

A second, more moderate variety, sought reform between the traditional systems of power and faith. 

Hume is one of the most respected voices from the period. 

He believed that passions rather than reason govern human behaviour, proclaiming that ‘reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions’. 

He studied law initially, following in the footsteps of relatives on both sides of his family, though he found the subject distasteful. 

Later, because of the intensity of his intellectual discovery, he had a nervous breakdown in 1729, from which it took him a few years to recover.  

 In 1734, after working in a merchant’s office in Bristol, he came to the turning point of his life and retired to France for three years, where he wrote his treatise. 

The Treatise was seen as Hume’s attempt to formulate a full-fledged philosophical system. 

He later attempted to run for the chair of moral philosophy at Edinburgh in 1744, though he faces accusations of heresy and atheism that saw him defeated. 

In 1748, he rewrote parts of his treatise, including a chapter on miracles where he controversially stated that a miracle can never be proved by evidence.   

Though Hume’s views on slavery were ambiguous, he infamously claimed there were human races and that non-whites were inferior to whites. 

The passage, from Essays, Moral, Political and Literary, said black people were ‘naturally inferior to whites’ adding: ‘There never was a civilised nation of any other complexion than white nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation.’ 

‘There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. 

‘No ingenious manufacturer amongst them, no arts, no sciences. 

‘On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the Whites, such as the ancient German, the present Tartars, still have something eminent about them, in their valor, form of government, or some other particular. 

‘Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men.’

Sir Geoff – a professor emeritus in the school of life sciences at Heriot-Watt University – said: ‘We will look at David Hume Tower and other buildings.

‘The university has links to buildings all over Edinburgh and we will be looking at these and the individuals linked to them. I imagine it will include statues too.’

It is not clear what buildings and statues will be examined.

Human rights activist Sir Geoff revealed in November that he would lead a separate review into controversial statues and street names across Edinburgh.

The city-wide review followed protests over the Melville monument, which commemorates 18th century Home Secretary Henry Dundas, in St Andrew Square.

In October last year, Edinburgh University said David Hume Tower will now be known as 40 George Square because the leading Enlightenment figure’s ‘comments on matters of race, though not uncommon at the time, rightly cause distress today’.

The decision prompted fury among academics and politicians – who blasted the move as ‘spineless’ and said principal Peter Mathieson should ‘hang his head in absolute shame’. 

Professor Mathieson said the decision was made because a black student might feel ‘deeply uncomfortable being in a building named after someone who considered him a lesser being than other humans’. 

In a 1753 essay, the philosopher said black people were ‘naturally inferior to whites’.

He added: ‘There never was a civilised nation of any other complexion than white nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation.’

Sir Geoff said: ‘That was a prejudice, it was prejudged and not based on evidence.

‘The only evidence that Hume had is that someone in Scotland lived in a house and someone in Africa lived in a hut.

‘When you back up prejudice with a statement of fact, then it becomes discriminatory.

‘That was applied to black people in slavery to justify their enslavement. It was also deployed by the police who killed George Floyd.’

The Black Lives Matter movement rapidly spread across the globe this year following the killing of Mr Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in the US.  

The university said the review would be an evidence-based assessment of the past associations with the slave trade, colonialism and other aspects of race and racism.

A spokesman said: ‘The process will be highly consultative with students, staff, alumni and wider relevant stakeholders asked to take part.

‘It will remain open to the widest possible sources of information and viewpoints.’ 

University principal Professor Mathieson defended the decision to rename the David Hume tower in October last year, telling The Times: ‘As a white person myself I find it difficult to dismiss or trivialise the lived experience of one of our black students, or to categorise the discomfort as “woke” or “snowflake” as some have done.’

The campaign to rename the tower began in July at the height of Black Lives Matter protests around the world after the killing of George Floyd in the US. 

The decision followed an online petition that gathered fewer than 2,000 signatures.

A statement on says: ‘Nobody is demanding we erase David Hume from history.

‘However, we should not be promoting a man who championed white supremacy. That is mutually exclusive with the goal of reducing the harm caused by racism at Edinburgh University to students of colour.

‘We can take Hume’s writings and learn about them in context, but there is no reason the tallest building on campus should be named after him.’  

According to internal correspondence seen by The Times, the decision to rename the tower was taken without consulting senior academics. 

History professor Sir Tom Devine, professor of classics Douglas Cairns, professor of political and historical sociology Jonathan Hearn, professor of policy Lindsay Paterson, Professor Grant Jarvie, Dr Nathan Coombs, Dr Gale Macleod, Dr Michael Rosie and Dr Neil Thin all signed an open letter to the University’s principal expressing their objection and arguing that the renaming would damage the university’s reputation.

They argue that Hume’s opinions were common in his day, adding: ‘Those views are not the reason the building is named after him. It is in recognition of his enduring influence in philosophy, history, and political economy.’

The letter also calls for the possibility to revert to the building’s original name in future. 

Edinburgh University said in a statement: ‘It is important that campuses, curricula and communities reflect both the university’s contemporary and historical diversity and engage with its institutional legacy across the world.

‘For this reason the university has taken the decision to rename — initially temporarily until a full review is completed — one of the buildings in the central area campus. From the start of the new academic year the David Hume Tower will be known as 40 George Square.

‘The interim decision has been taken because of the sensitivities around asking students to use a building named after the 18th-century philosopher whose comments on matters of race, though not uncommon at the time, rightly cause distress today.’

The university said the decision was taken ahead of a ‘more detailed review of the university’s links to the past’ and work is ‘considering many other issues beyond the naming of buildings’. 

Previously Neil O’Brien, the Conservative MP for Harborough, in Leicestershire, slammed the move as ‘spineless’.

He wrote: ‘Edinburgh University has cancelled / deleted the great enlightenment philosopher David Hume. What a cowardly, stupid, craven, pathetic, spineless, dumb thing to do. Shame on them.’ 

And leading historian Sir Tom Devine, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, said: ‘The current Principal of Edinburgh University should hang his head in absolute shame.’

Sir Tom described Hume as the ‘greatest philosophical mind Scotland has ever produced’ and said that if he was still employed by the university he would have ‘fought tooth and nail against this decision’. 

Sir Geoff is also leading a separate Edinburgh-wide review into statues and street names following protests over the Melville monument, which commemorates 18th century Home Secretary Henry Dundas, in St Andrew Square.

The controversial monument was erected in 1821 in memory of Conservative politician Dundas who delayed the abolition of the slave trade.

But it has become a source of controversy with a years-long debate over how a plaque should be worded.

It was finally resolved in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, as Black Lives Matter activists graffitied the monument.

The group will consider all options, including the removal of statues, as well as looking at street and building names.

Sir Geoff said at the time: ‘I regard this appointment as a great honour and duty to work with the group and the community to ensure the council’s aim of fairness and justice to all is realised.’ 

The streets and monuments in Edinburgh that have ties to the slave trade

Melville Monument

The statue in St Andrew Square commemorates 18th century Home Secretary and the first Secretary of State for War, Henry Dundas.

The monument was graffitied during Black Lives Matter protests with campaigners highlighting Dundas’ role in delaying the abolition of slavery in the 1800s. 

It was re-dedicated by council officials to ‘more than half a million Africans whose enslavement was a consequence of Henry Dundas’s actions’ in July. 

Dundas Street  

A petition has proposed to rename Dundas Street after Joseph Knight

Nancy Barrett started a petition earlier this year and proposed Dundas Street, which also commemorates Conservative politician Henry Dundas, should be re-named after Joseph Knight.

Mr Knight was a Scottish-Jamaican slave who won a court case and then an appeal in 1778 to free himself, by proving that slavery didn’t exist in Scots Law.

Dundas House

The ex-Royal Bank of Scotland headquarters has a statue commemorating John Hope

Alongside the Melville Monument, the former Royal Bank of Scotland headquarters also stands on St Andrew Square and has a statue commemorating the 4th Earl of Hopetoun, John Hope.

Hope, who governed the bank between 1820 and 1823, aided in ending a two-year slave rebellion in the Caribbean.

This led to the trade carrying on for nearly another four decades, according to Lisa Williams, director of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association.

She told Scotland On Sunday: ‘The suppression of this revolution resulted in slavery continuing for almost another 40 years.’ 

Bute House 

Nicola Sturgeon’s official residence was once home to John Innes Crawford

The official residence of the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, was once home to John Innes Crawford, who owned a Jamaican sugar plantation.

British politician Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster also lived in the residence and claimed recompense following the abolition of slavery.

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