Scotland’s first black professor caught up in racism row with fellow scholars

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·3-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Sir Geoff Palmer of Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh - Urquhart Media
Sir Geoff Palmer of Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh - Urquhart Media

Scotland’s first black professor has rejected calls to quit a slavery review after he accused fellow academics of being part of a “racist gang”.

Sir Geoff Palmer, who is leading a probe into Edinburgh’s historic links to the slave trade, also vowed to defend himself should Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s leading historian, follow through with threats to sue him over the allegation after criticisms of the work sparked an extraordinary row.

The 81-year-old, who was born in Jamaica and moved to the UK as a child, is leading a council-backed review into what should be done about Edinburgh’s links with slavery and colonialism in the “civic realm”, such as street names, buildings and statues devoted to historic figures with ties to the trade.

He accused Sir Tom and Prof Jonathan Hearn, both University of Edinburgh academics, of being part of “an academic racist gang” after the latter wrote an article claiming his review risked being “historically superficial”.

It is understood that Sir Tom, who was attacked after he publicly backed Prof Hearn, has taken legal advice following the accusation and is set to decide next week whether to push forward with a libel case against Sir Geoff, a scientist who is the chancellor of Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University.

Sir Tom Devine - Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Sir Tom Devine - Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

The historian has called for Sir Geoff to be dismissed from his role as chairman of the review, claiming that he lacked impartiality and the necessary “appreciation of different opinions”.

“It’s a free country and he can do what he likes,” Sir Geoff told The Telegraph. “But they are suggesting I am not competent enough to understand what I’m talking about and I regard that as abuse.

“It may be academic abuse, but I don’t think that’s any different from verbal abuse on the street which someone may regard as racist. They’re calling for me to step down – I’m not. He has a right to take legal action but I will defend myself. The court can make a decision.”

The row erupted after Prof Hearn’s article in The Spectator cited the case of the First Viscount Melville, an 18th century Whig politician. His supporters credit him with helping to end slavery, but opponents claim he delayed abolition. Sir Geoff has denounced Lord Melville as a “slaver”.

A revised plaque was put up by Edinburgh Council last year next to a city centre statue of Lord Melville, which has been vandalised by Black Lives Matter activists, stating he was “instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade”.

The Melville Monument in Edinburgh - David Williams/Corbis Documentary RF
The Melville Monument in Edinburgh - David Williams/Corbis Documentary RF

Prof Hearn, who teaches political and historical sociology, claimed that the review consultation repeated “distortions” about Lord Melville and said the signs were “not promising” that the review led by Sir Geoff would not also present an unfair view of history.

A public consultation over Edinburgh’s “slavery and colonialism legacy review”, which was set up in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, closed this week.

Sir Tom has accused Sir Geoff of “appalling slurs of racism against those whose only fault was to have a different view from his own”. He declined to comment further on Friday.

Prof Hearn told The Guardian that he had “no ill will” towards Sir Geoff and would be “happy to engage in civil, face-to-face public discussions about our disagreements”.

Sir Geoff said that he would welcome a public debate, adding: “I wouldn’t mind that at all. We can have a debate. But why didn’t he discuss it with me before he published his article?”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting