Scotland’s first black professor has accused fellow academics of discrimination after an explosive row over Edinburgh’s links with slavery prompted calls for him to quit as chair of two groups re-examining the city’s history.
The row began when Sir Geoff Palmer – who is leading two separate reviews into the city and the university’s involvement in the slave trade – denounced Jonathan Hearn and Sir Tom Devine, current and emeritus professors at Edinburgh University, as members of “an academic racist gang” after Hearn published an article in the Spectator suggesting the city council review risked being “historically superficial” and Devine stepped in to defend him.
Palmer criticised Hearn and Divine in a series of tweets, which focused particularly on their views of Sir Henry Dundas, a controversial figure whose monument in the Scottish capital was vandalised in June 2020 during a Black Lives Matter demonstration.
Palmer and others believe Dundas, the leading Whig politician of Scotland in the late 18th century, has been unfairly credited with fighting slavery in Scotland when he held back abolition for a generation by delaying tactics in parliament, and a revised plaque explaining this background was erected at the monument last year.
But in his recent article, Hearn argued that historians were still debating whether Dundas delayed abolition and that there was “plenty of evidence to suggest that Dundas’s gradualist approach to abolition – however unsatisfactory it may seem to us in the present day – was the only approach which would be politically successful at the time”.
After Palmer’s tweets, Devine called for his dismissal from the review groups, accusing him of “appalling slurs of racism against those whose only fault was to have a different view from his own”.
Palmer told the Guardian: “I have been making the same arguments for a long time, but I think this timing has to do with this project, the fact that this work is gaining significance but some historians are unhappy that they are not involved.
“This is a public debate and if some people are demanding my dismissal without providing any evidence for it then that is discrimination. If they can provide evidence that I am incompetent and biased then I will step down.”
Devine is understood to be taking legal advice, but another prominent academic figure in the city, the UK’s first professor of black male studies, Tommy J Curry, said the row exemplified a naivety in Scottish culture around discussions about race.
Hearn said that while he stood by his Spectator article, he had “no ill will” towards Palmer and would be “happy to engage in civil, face-to-face public discussions about our disagreements … My main concern in this is that inquiries into public history need to be conducted in an open manner, with respect for diverse viewpoints.”
As the public consultation on the city review comes to an end this week, the council leader, Adam McVey, revealed it had generated thousands of “blatantly racist” responses from supporters of rightwing organisations looking to interfere with the process, saying: “The personal targeting of Geoff that I’ve seen is appalling. I’ve seen groups that are nothing to do with Edinburgh throwing abuse and scaremongering about a process they clearly know nothing about.”
He added that the review group, led by Palmer, would now digest the thousands of responses to the consultation in a “considered and mature response”, with the aim “to more honestly tell our city’s history”.
Curry, also a professor at Edinburgh University, said the response to Palmer revealed “a naivety of Scottish culture that it wants to have the debate but is not used to having arguments about race where black people themselves have the power to name racism in society”.
“This isn’t a difference of opinion,” he said, “it’s about whether history should change based on fact. We’ve acknowledged that Dundas didn’t abolish slavery and did participate in the trade.”
Reassessments such as this one had been going on for decades, said Curry, “but there is also a well-established pattern of UK scholars with no knowledge of black or brown scholars’ work in a global context, so everything reads as a political threat, with their only lens of understanding being woke culture of BLM”.