In 2020 the Royal Society of Edinburgh issued a statement on ‘Slavery and Black Lives Matter’. In that statement, we stressed our Anti-Racist commitment to ‘standing against injustice and standing for equality’. We recognised the inextricable link between past and present and the pressing need for all – including the RSE itself – to interrogate and acknowledge our own connections to the slave trade and its abolition. Specifically, we pledged that: “We shall, therefore, engage with relevant institutions and learn from scholars of slavery, including in the global south, to better understand our history with the objective that we learn from that past for the future wellbeing of all”.

Now, two years later, it is important to take stock of what we have done since issuing the statement. Specifically, the Society has initiated a programme of work which includes the following elements:

  • Formation of an Africa Working Group as part of the International Committee and drawing up a Memorandum of Understanding with the African Academy of Sciences
  • Election of Corresponding Fellows from the African continent
  • Support for Scholars at Risk
  • An exhibition of portraits of Scholars at Risk in Scotland
  • Completion of a scoping research project on the RSE and slavery
  • Application for funding for a Ph.D project to examine the RSE archives in order to examine the links between the RSE, abolitionism and plantation slavery
  • An analysis of the portraits in the RSE building and the links of these figures to abolition and plantation slavery.

This work has involved panel discussions, lectures and the careful development of confidence and voice within the RSE to speak on these matters, led by a range of Fellows from a wide range of disciplines. We encourage robust and respectful academic debate which develops our understanding of the RSE’s links to slavery and thereby provides a basis for action.

Finally, we recognise that this work only represents a start. The challenges that now face us are how to translate our findings into action and how to ensure that a commitment to justice, diversity and equality stands at the core of long term strategy and work of the RSE.

Approved by RSE Council 28 February 2022.