James Watt, Slavery and Statues

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A staff post from Dr Nicky Reeves, Curator of Scientific and Medical History Collections, The Hunterian.

On the afternoon of Sunday, June 07 2020, a statue in Bristol of slave trader Edward Colston was dramatically toppled. One of the many accomplishments of this action, and others, was an increase in public discussion of statues, their history, and their function. A statue of Scottish engineer James Watt is currently on display, unlabelled, in The Hunterian. Given that, additionally, James Watt’s legacy has recently been reassessed, in particular with respect to his connections to slavery, what follows is some reflections from me as Curator of Scientific and Medical History Collections at The Hunterian on James Watt, statues, their functions, and their current and future display.

In September 2018 the University of Glasgow History of Slavery Steering Committee published a report entitled Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow. This was a comprehensive report into the institution’s historical links with racial slavery. It documented bequests, support and other ways the University might have benefited from the abhorrent system of racialised chattel slavery. Among the many things it highlighted were the extensive connections to slavery of James Watt (1736 – 1819).

James Watt’s first paid employment with the University of Glasgow – then known as Old College – was inextricably connected with the Caribbean. Watt was commissioned by the University to repair a suite of astronomical instruments bequeathed to the University by alumnus Alexander Macfarlane, a merchant, planter and slave-owner who died in Kingston, Jamaica in 1755. Macfarlane’s observatory was exceptionally well-equipped with precision instruments, and its donation to the University directly led to the establishment in 1760 of a University Observatory, named the Macfarlane Observatory in his honour. Measuring the intellectual capital generated by these instruments is difficult to gauge but underlines that the University’s connections with chattel slavery was not simply financial. The repair work led directly to Watt establishing a workshop in the University and styling himself ‘Mathematical Instrument Maker to the University’.

James Watt’s immediate family were intimately connected in transatlantic commerce, including on occasion trading enslaved persons in Greenock. Watt’s father traded sugar and tobacco with middlemen in North America and the Caribbean from 1733 until 1771, the profits from which supported his son’s formative apprenticeship in London in 1755. Watt’s younger brother, John Watt, worked in his father’s business, and on at least one occasion he imported and sold an enslaved child, Frederick, in Scotland in 1762. Further archival research revealed in 2019 and published in early 2020 by Dr Stephen Mullen shows that James Watt himself was also directly involved in this particular sale, as well as emphasising the extent of James’s involvement in his father’s business throughout the 1750s and 60s.

In the 1760s, Watt was tasked with fixing the faulty model Newcomen steam engine owned by the University of Glasgow. This repair work led to Watt’s development of the “separate condenser” to improve engine efficiency; the model Newcomen engine remains in the possession of the University and on display as Hunterian GLAHM:C.29. Watt’s improvements to steam engines had a profound impact on British industrialisation. Boulton-Watt steam engines were also used for the milling of sugarcane and the boiling of sugar syrup, and Caribbean planters were the main overseas customers of this technology between 1800 and 1830. Although by this point James Watt and Matthew Boulton had retired and the business managed by their sons, what is clear is that James Watt’s improved engines helped the slave-owners squeeze more profits from their plantations towards the abolition of Caribbean slavery in 1834. Hence the career and success of James Watt, certainly Scotland’s most famous engineer, was extensively and directly connected to the practices and profits of the slave system.

Greenock-born Watt has been extensively memorialised and commemorated in Glasgow and at the University of Glasgow for over 200 years, yet Watt’s links to slavery have seldom been highlighted. Historians of science have long noted the multiple images of James Watt which have been created through the display of objects and relics, portraiture, statues, and biographies. Watt was posthumously appropriated to various causes, and carefully staged iconography was central to this. Images of James Watt as a child with the apocryphal domestic kettle emphasise a playfulness and natural curiosity, for instance. Others depict the adult Watt intensely observing the behaviour of the model steam engine whilst simultaneously holding a pair of dividers over a diagram on a large sheet of paper, depicting a constant interplay between practice and theory: a model lesson in how to experiment, perhaps. James Watt has been at different times, by different people, portrayed as a humble artisan, an engineer, an inventor, a businessman, a philosopher, a chemist, a figurehead of “Enlightenment”, and both a Scottish and a British hero. Watt has been represented and re-represented at different times, by different people, for different reasons, and this continues to today.

The University of Glasgow has often sought to emphasise its connection to its former employee, an association beneficial both to the University and to the image of Watt. One of the key objects which the University has used to do this is the marble sculpture of James Watt currently on display in The Hunterian. One of the beneficiaries of James Watt’s engineering and business success was his son, who was central to the creation in the 19th century of the image of James Watt as a Scottish Enlightenment hero. It was his son who commissioned a marble statue of Watt which went on display in the original Hunterian Museum building in 1830, and is still on display, unlabelled, today as Hunterian GLAHA:44337.

The recent removal and/or toppling of statues of men involved in the slave trade has brought several things to unprecedented public attention and interest. One of them is that the seeming permanence of statues is not just illusionary – statues can often be materially very flimsy – but this seeming permanence has been one of their key rhetorical functions. One of the ways that statues have power is through appearing literally monumental, unchanging, timeless. Understanding the particular historical circumstances in which they were built, erected, and displayed, and understanding the particular historical motivations for all of this, is necessary. In particular, understanding these historical particularities might undermine the apparent authority of the statue and what it represents, and that might be a very good thing.

One of the things that has come to public attention recently is just how unhelpful statues are for the very thing which many people claim they are for: learning about the past. Casting people as heroes, as statues invariably do, is often a fantastically simplistic and caricatured type of history. It also often sets up a profound problem: if you insist on creating heroes, this can be a problem when often entirely unheroic behaviour is revealed. Indeed that is often one of the political or polemical functions of statues, namely to make it difficult to acknowledge anything other than the supposedly heroic behaviour. This does not have to be the case for all statues, not least if we recognise that statues and other forms of memorialisation need not be permanent, nor need aspire to permanence or timelessness. Nevertheless this is often a problem, as is the whiteness of much existing statuary and memorialisation, which can be used to create and maintain an extremely selective and exclusionary history. Who is typically memorialised and who is typically not is also relevant to the meaning and function of statues and memorials.

Naming and renaming buildings and institutions are also acts of major significance in this respect. As part of its current campus transformation, The University of Glasgow is naming its new Learning Hub after James McCune Smith (1813 – 1865), who graduated in Glasgow in 1837 and was the first African American to get a medical degree anywhere in the world. Also in 2019, the University of Glasgow renamed its School of Engineering after James Watt. It may be time to review all buildings named in honour of famous alumni and benefactors, reflecting now on all aspects of their past.

The marble statue of James Watt in The Hunterian, just like its equivalent on a plinth in George Square, central Glasgow, was intended to be monumental, permanent and stately. It presents Watt as a literally gleaming icon, commanding, thoughtful, scholarly, just. It is in my opinion a problematic object in its current display given the belated recent recognition by the University of Watt’s links to slavery. Many museum workers have in recent weeks noted with exasperation the declaration that problematic statues “belong in a museum”. This is partly because there is insufficient storage or display space, and also because the idea that the museum is a place for distasteful things, or for discarded things, or old and unwanted things, needs to be queried. But also, museums have plenty of statues already! Statues in streets or squares can have complex meanings, and publics are capable of complex reactions to them, and the same is true of statues in museums. I would nevertheless suggest that the interpretation of GLAHA:44337 invited by its current presentation is overwhelmingly as a object of veneration, and I don’t think that’s how The Hunterian should display a statue of James Watt in 2020. The Hunterian has been too slow previously with respect to reflecting on James Watt and his legacy, and it’s really good that the Black Lives Matter UK movement has brought the question of statues to such urgent public prominence. A previous exhibition at The Hunterian in 2018 included a telescope GLAHM:105684 which was probably from Alexander Macfarlane’s Jamaican Observatory. This was displayed in such a way as to make explicit the fact that he was a slave owner, that the telescope was purchased with the profits from slave ownership, and that the fixing of the telescope was a crucial episode in James Watt’s association with the University, and hence the exhibition made the point that slavery, astronomy at Glasgow and Watt are all connected. An exhibition at the University Library in 2019 also explicitly and clearly reflected on Watt’s slavery connections. But, much more needs to be done in the permanent Hunterian displays. The tendency to try to separate the practices of scientists and engineers from the historical context in which they existed is not a good idea. The conclusion to recognising James Watt’s links with slavery should obviously not be to – quite falsely – claim that slavery was acceptable “in the past”, and it should also not be to minimise those links. It should also, importantly, not be to try to separate science and engineering from politics and culture. Good historical engagement and understanding requires us to see science (and engineering, and medicine…) as part of politics and culture, neither separable nor insulated from them.

So this is all merely a way of saying that whilst the very heavy and imposing sculpture is unlikely to be moving anywhere imminently, in the interim it urgently needs at the absolute minimum some better labelling, particularly as it currently has none. Re-historicising the statue, explaining why it was made, and when, and for what purpose, is a minimum. As has been demonstrated recently, slightly better labels for statues are often not sufficient, however, and nor should they be. More imaginative and collaborative reflections on how and if to display or redisplay this statue and other objects relating to Watt need to happen. It is also the case that writing a slightly better label is in no way decolonising the museum, not least because decolonising the museum as a serious and sincere project requires amongst many things looking inward, where reflection on staffing and recruitment policies is as important as developing exhibition ideas. A museum that co-opts or absorbs the labour and lessons of curators, historians and activists of colour whilst itself not changing is not decolonising, but something closer to just colonising. The Hunterian should not do that. A kind of disingenuous forgetfulness whereby a museum embraces change, “going forward”, but does not reflect on how and why it was in the situation it was previously in, is also not helpful. If The Hunterian has been slow or resistant to recognising things which should be quite obvious, then the institution needs to reflect on what structures and attitudes allowed that to happen.

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