Helping the Sun to Finally Set: Louise Welsh on The Empire Cafe at Jura Unbound

One creative initiative is looking beyond the Commonwealth Games countdown to examine the roots of Scotland’s relationship with Empire and the transatlantic slave trade. Author Louise Welsh talks to us about The Empire Café

Feature by Ceris Aston | 03 Jul 2014

In 2012 Louise Welsh worked with architect Jude Barber on the project Merchant City Voices, which explored Glasgow’s relationship with the slave trade through a series of sound installations in the city. "It’s a really tangled history," Welsh explains. "We’re quite rightly proud of our history, our working class culture, our buildings – but we’ve got to realise that a lot of these buildings were built with money made by working slaves on plantations in the Caribbean. The widening of the Clyde – which enabled our ship-building industry – was initially for import of products of the Empire from overseas."

Unlike England, whose big port cities typically have some memorial recognising their past links with slavery, Scotland has rarely acknowledged this sobering aspect of its history. While it can be difficult to come to terms with national culpability for such atrocities, Welsh believes it is important to remember our national past, including those who fought against the slave trade. She recounts that "Glasgow, like other big ports of that time, was a centre of abolitionism, a place where people were actively fighting against the idea that you could own other people and use their labour for profit."

The Empire Café was born out of this earlier project. Welsh remarks: "When we finished Merchant City Voices we felt as though the story wasn’t finished, there was more to do." The Commonwealth Games – once the British Empire Games – provided a timely opportunity to revisit the subject: "Commonwealth is intimately connected with Empire and we still feel uncomfortable with this association. We don’t really know what it means to Commonwealth countries to be part of the Commonwealth. It would have been nice if we’d had this discussion ten years ago, twenty years ago – but it’s still relevant today."

“All these things that make up the quintessential Scottish tea table came from Jamaican slavery” – Louise Welsh

Together, Welsh and Barber came up with the idea of The Empire Café – opening up ‘a welcome conversation’ about Scotland’s imperial past to coincide with the Commonwealth Games. They have created a programme of readings, debate, films, workshops and installations in a specially designed café venue at the Briggait, Glasgow. "So many of the conversations of the Enlightenment went on in tea shops," Welsh says of the venue. "Sugar, tobacco, cotton – all these things that make up the quintessential Scottish tea table – came from Jamaican slavery."  

In collaboration with the Scottish Poetry Library and Scottish PEN, The Empire Café has also commissioned a poetry anthology, in which Caribbean and Scottish poets respond to themes of Empire and the slave trade. "We’ve been extremely lucky – everyone has been so generous," Welsh effervesces. "They’ve all been intrigued, or angered, or moved to write something – really different pieces from different angles. There’s an essay too, by Stephen Mullen, putting everything into context. It’s a really textured anthology."

On 10 August The Empire Café will bring poetry, music and discussion to Jura Unbound. The aim of the event is to provoke conversation, "to make the audience aware of our history – and then aware of what is happening now. We still have so many people in the world enslaved. These things haven’t ended." Historian Stephen Mullen, author of The Truth about Glasgow and Slavery will introduce the event with a short talk on Scotland and the slave trade. A number of poets from Scotland and the Caribbean will perform a set of poems from The Empire Café anthology, which will be available at the event. Already confirmed are Millicent Graham, Dorothea Smartt, Malika Booker and Sanesarine Persaud. Alternative hip-hop band Stanley Odd will bring music to the evening with a high-energy set including a song composed specifically for The Empire Café. The band is known for intelligent, impassioned social commentary and vibrant performances to get audiences moving. It’s a stunning line-up for what promises to be a brilliant, eclectic and thought-provoking event.

The Empire Café is on Sun 10 Aug in the Guardian Spiegeltent, part of Jura Unbound

The Empire Café, 24 Jul-1 Aug, The Briggait, Glasgow