The Legacy of George Watson

The Legacy of George Watson

Published on 2 April 2021

On Tuesday 30 March, staff, pupils, academics and members of our Watson’s community joined to discuss the legacy of George Watson in the light of new evidence of his involvement with the trade in enslaved African people at a symposium called “George Watson and his Contexts”.

Principal Melvyn Roffe introduced the discussion, explaining the need to consider George Watson’s legacy in a range of contexts, both historical and contemporary. He said he believed we had a responsibility to consider both the good that George Watson had done by his legacy and the evil of the slave trade in which he was involved, evil that continued to have real consequences today.

GWC Archives Officer Tom Bennett presented his research into George Watson in the Edinburgh City Archives which had confirmed Watson’s involvement in the slave trade. Dr Hugh Ouston, author of George Watson’s profile in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography provided the context of the long-denied but very real Scottish involvement in slavery.

GWC Head of History, Bobby Chaudhry, stressed that we should neither ‘vilify nor sanitise’ historic figures. He argued that people could be considered as either tainted or defined by their actions. Watson’s actions should be set alongside the educational legacy that has benefited countless young people.

Our pupil anti-racist ambassadors Tanvi and Emma (S6) spoke about the practical steps we should take to reconcile George Watson’s past, with our present-day effort to become an anti-racist school. They suggested that we need to keep talking and keep digging into the school’s history and suggested the revision of symbols connected with slavery but did not feel that the name of the school should be changed.

Celebrated academic and activist, Professor Sir Geoff Palmer spoke about symbols of slave trading society such as statues to buildings. He stressed the importance of installing plaques next to these symbols, explaining the context, rather than taking down these physical markers of the past. To do so, he argued, was to obliterate black history.

Dr Melanie Newton, Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto, concluded the lineup of speakers. She contrasted the ubiquitous recognition of Melville in the UK and Canada with the poor understanding of the significance of the slave trade and the continuing lack of respect for the memory of its victims. She praised our pupils and other attendees for having this ‘brave and remarkable conversation’. 

The webinar finished with a robust and insightful question and answer session. Summing up the evening, the Principal thanked everyone for their involvement and pledged to continue the discussion and deliberation after the Easter break.

The Legacy of George Watson event was facilitated through our online events platform, GWC Plus, and is available to stream on-demand.