NHS Lothian, a health board in Scotland, has announced that it will take steps to address its historical ties to the slave trade. The decision comes after a two-year research project that revealed the extent of the board’s involvement in slavery and its impact on the health sector.
How NHS Lothian profited from slavery
The research, funded and conducted by NHS Lothian Charity, found that the board’s predecessor, the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh (RIE), received an estimated modern-equivalent of £39.1m from slavery-related sources. The main source was an estate in Jamaica, called Red Hill pen, that was owned by RIE for 143 years and used enslaved people of African descent to produce sugar and other crops. The income from the estate was used to fund medicine, staff wages, and the construction of a new hospital building. The research also found that RIE received donations from individuals who were involved in the slave trade or benefited from it.
What NHS Lothian plans to do
NHS Lothian said it would make non-financial reparations for its slavery links, following eight recommendations from the researchers. These include:
- Issuing a formal apology and acknowledging the harm caused by slavery
- Creating an implementation group to deliver anti-racist interventions and tackle racial inequality in employment and healthcare
- Commissioning commemorative works through the NHS Lothian Charity to honor the enslaved people and their descendants
- Reviewing the current arts and culture activity within the board to ensure it reflects diversity and inclusion
- Exploring partnerships with organisations in Jamaica and West Africa to establish further connections and collaborations
- Encouraging research partnerships on the impact of slavery on British medicine and healthcare systems
Why NHS Lothian’s move is significant
NHS Lothian is the first health board in the UK to undertake such a comprehensive investigation into its slavery links and to commit to reparations. The board’s chief executive, Calum Campbell, said that the research was important to understand the history that shaped society and institutions, and to use that understanding to create meaningful change. He added that tackling racism would help reduce health inequalities and improve outcomes for the diverse population served by the board.
The announcement coincides with Black History Month, which is celebrated in October in the UK. Campbell said that this was an opportunity for black and minority ethnic staff and their allies to share their experiences and collaborate to bring change to the organisation. He also said that it was a chance to reflect on the past, look forward, and open up conversations about how to address racism, health disparities, and modern slavery.
How other institutions are responding
NHS Lothian is not the only institution in Scotland or the UK that has been confronted with its slavery legacy. Several universities, museums, churches, and businesses have also been scrutinised for their links to slavery and colonialism. Some have issued apologies, launched inquiries, renamed buildings, or removed statues. Others have faced criticism for their lack of action or transparency.
The Scottish government has also expressed its support for reparations and has established a task force to examine how Scotland can contribute to addressing historical injustices. The task force is expected to report its findings by 2024.
What are the challenges and opportunities ahead
While NHS Lothian’s initiative has been welcomed by many as a positive step towards justice and reconciliation, it also raises some questions and challenges. For instance:
- How will NHS Lothian measure the impact and effectiveness of its reparations?
- How will NHS Lothian ensure that its reparations are meaningful and respectful to the enslaved people and their descendants?
- How will NHS Lothian engage with other stakeholders, such as communities, activists, academics, and policymakers, in its reparations process?
- How will NHS Lothian balance its reparations with its current priorities and responsibilities as a health provider?
- How will NHS Lothian inspire other health boards and institutions to follow its example?
These are some of the issues that NHS Lothian will have to address as it embarks on its reparations journey. However, there are also opportunities for learning, healing, and transformation. By acknowledging its past wrongs and taking action to redress them, NHS Lothian can demonstrate its commitment to racial justice and human dignity. By doing so, it can also contribute to a more inclusive and equitable society.