School urged to change name to ‘Malala High’ due to founder’s slave-trade links

Pupils have expressed a desire to honour the education campaigner over a tobacco dealer

Daniel Wittenberg
Friday 18 September 2020 10:24
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She survived the attempted murder, staged merely to stop her attending her local school in northwest Pakistan where girls are banned from education
She survived the attempted murder, staged merely to stop her attending her local school in northwest Pakistan where girls are banned from education

Hundreds of people have signed a petition calling for one of Scotland’s most prestigious state schools to be renamed after Malala Yousafzai.

James Gillespie’s High School, in Edinburgh, has been targeted in a campaign urging it to stop using the name of its founding benefactor, a tobacco merchant whom it condemns as a “direct contributor” to the slave trade.

The petition, drawn up by current pupils, cites the 23-year-old Nobel Prize laureate Yousafzai, whose name adorns the school’s main building, as an example of a role model who “better represents” its principles.

It calls for the name to be changed in order to reflect “the diversity that exists within our school”, stating: “This is not an attempt to cover up our history, rather a way of saying that we don’t believe that this man is someone who should be celebrated anymore.”

Yousafzai is a renowned human rights activist, who began campaigning for girls’ education in Pakistan and was first brought to Britain for treatment in 2012 after being shot by the Taliban.

Malala Yousafzai championed girls’ education in Pakistan

Mr Gillespie made a fortune from Virginia tobacco, a product of the slave trade, and became one of 18th-century Edinburgh’s richest men. He left a quarter of his wealth for the creation of a school for underprivileged children.

The school’s website says: “We acknowledge the connections to the North Virginia slave-owning tobacco plantations … We are updating our curriculum to take more account of this history and of the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Edinburgh’s streets and buildings, like in many other cities, are littered with references to the slave trade, having gained a large part of its wealth from so-called ‘Tobacco Lords’.

A City of Edinburgh Council spokesperson said: “All our schools are committed to addressing racism and inequality in all its forms.”

He added: “It’s important that we all critically examine the historical evidence around us, ensuring that black history and its role in our city are a core part of a decolonised and inclusive curriculum. By doing this we will understand the wrongs of the past and dismantle their harmful and persistent legacy in present day racism and structural inequalities.”

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