Empire Cafe event explores Scotland's links to slave trade as part of Commonwealth Games programme
Author Louise Welsh and architect Jude Barber serve up a series of events examining slavery from their locally-sourced, fusion cafe
Thanks to the huge success of Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave and the anti-slavery bill currently being drafted in the House of Commons, slavery has hit the headlines once again. And this month the Empire Cafe brings this timely discussion right to the heart of Glasgow.
The project is the brainchild of author Louise Welsh (The Cutting Room, A Lovely Way to Burn) and architect Jude Barber, from Collective Architecture. Based in the Briggait in the Merchant City, the nine-day event will provide a bustling forum for discussing the links between Glasgow and the North Atlantic slave trade.
‘It’s unfortunate that we’re not having this debate until the second decade of the 21st century,’ admits Welsh. ‘You feel we might have talked about it a wee bit earlier.’
‘I think it’s just casually accepted that Caribbean slavery was an English problem,’ says historian Stephen Mullen, author of It Wisnae Us: The Truth About Glasgow and Slavery. ‘In fact, Scots have quite a profound involvement across the West Indies.’
Scotland had limited involvement in direct slave trading compared to other Atlantic ports such as Liverpool, Mullen explains, and Glasgow also played an integral role in the abolitionist movement. But Scots did make vast amounts of money from slave labour in the Caribbean, trading directly with plantation owners. Over the course of the 18th century, Scots took over the world trade in tobacco and later on, sugar, cotton and rum became more important. ‘The Glasgow merchants sent over a lot of young men to do business,’ he says. ‘They called them sojourners – they went there, earned as much money as quickly as possible and came back. They think up to 20,000 young Scots went between 1750 and 1800. That’s why 65% of names in a Jamaican phone book today are Scottish.’
And much of the wealth that flowed back went into the grand buildings of Georgian Glasgow, in what we now call the Merchant City.
‘It’s easy to marvel at these buildings,’ says Barber, ‘because the people who accumulated the wealth to build them carried them out in an exceptional way. And because they were built so well, we can still enjoy them today. This isn’t about detracting from that level of craft and design ingenuity – it’s just being aware of those who profited from other people’s labour and how that manifested itself in our city.’
At the centre of the Empire Cafe will be, as its name suggests, a cafe. Appropriately, it’ll be run by McCune Smith, the Duke Street cafe named after James McCune Smith – an African American abolitionist who studied at the University of Glasgow. Heading up the food programme is artist and food activist Clementine Sandison, who’s been working with several community cooking groups to develop a thought-provoking menu.
‘We’re trying to showcase local, sustainable and organic produce as much as possible,’ she explains, ‘as well as looking at how food cuisines have become fused and influenced each other, and the legacy of sugar plantations on how we eat today. If we hadn't had sugar plantations in the West Indies, our food culture would be completely different. It’s trying to tease out some of those aspects but have a lovely cafe to be in at the same time.’
The changing menu will reflect Glasgow’s diverse communities, promising everything from Thai pastries to Gambian Scotch eggs (‘they’re just like Scotch eggs, but with lamb’). On the Sunday of the event, there’ll also be a series of Food Sovereignty workshops and a special set menu designed by local restaurants Babu Kitchen and Fire in Babylon, inspired by the history of Indian indentured labourers who went to the Caribbean after abolition and influenced the local cuisine.
Most of the events and workshops in the Empire Cafe’s packed programme will be free, though places can be reserved in advance. Highlights include walking tours run by Mullen and the Glasgow Women’s Library; new work from artist Graham Fagen (Scotland’s representative at the 2015 Venice Biennale); and a reading of Jackie Kay’s The Lamplighter at the Tron Theatre. There’s also a free poetry anthology with contributions from nine Scottish and nine Caribbean poets, many of whom will be at the event, and there’ll be an Empire Cafe strand at the Edinburgh International Book Festival the following month.
The organisers are hoping it’ll have a broad appeal. ‘You do want to lure the artists, writers and uni folk in,’ says Welsh, ‘but you want everyone else as well. We like the idea that people might come in for a coffee and discover something else is going on.’
‘For the people who want to dig a bit deeper into the nature of the Commonwealth Games and the Commonwealth itself,’ Barber adds, ‘I think the Empire Cafe’s a perfect place to do that.’
The Empire Cafe, the Briggait, Glasgow, 24 Jul–1 Aug.