As a celebrated grain scientist, prominent human rights activist and proud Scotsman, Sir Geoff Palmer's fascinating life has given him the opportunity to highlight the importance of an equal and diverse society.
Born in Jamaica in 1940, Sir Geoff Palmer studied in Scotland from 1964-1968, moved back to Scotland in 1977 and went on to become one of the country’s most well-recognised contemporary scientists.
His mother moved from Jamaica to London in 1951 and spent four years working and saving to earn enough to pay for passage for her two sons. Sir Geoff recalls his mother’s shock, soon after his arrival in the country in 1955, when a Home Official arrived at their front door to insist that he had to attend school, he was one month short of the school leaving age. With that, he got his first taste of a UK education.
The process of enrolling in a school was not easy as a young black child in 1950s London. The racism he experienced during this process felt particularly strange to him as the UK was always discussed as ‘the mother country’ in Jamaica and was seen as home. Despite these hurdles, he was eventually accepted at a secondary school where he proved himself to be an excellent cricketer and was subsequently invited to attend a nearby grammar school.
After finishing school in 1958, he secured a position as a technician at Queen Elizabeth College, London. He improved his O and A Level qualifications with the support of his Head of Department, Professor Chapman. His grades and the help of Professor Chapman enabled him to gain a place at Leicester University in 1961. After finishing his undergraduate degree, he peeled potatoes at a restaurant for several months until, Professor Anna Macleod, of Heriot Watt College, encouraged him to move to Edinburgh, where he undertook a PhD from 1964 to 1968, at the University of Edinburgh. He specialised in the science and technology of barley, and brewing, and has worked with and supported many successful scientists over his vast career - his students can be found all over the world and even include one of the founders of Scotland’s global craft beer company, BrewDog.
The academic mentors, at schools and universities, that he had while he was studying had a profound impact on his activism and personal philosophies. These mentors showed him kindness and open-mindedness and helped shape his path to where he is today. These values are at the heart of his involvement in equality work - kindness and helpfulness go a long way to enacting change and making our world a better place.
A voice for equality
In a recent DNA test, he discovered that his heritage is 80% Nigerian, 17% other African (Cameroon/Kenya) and 3% Viking from Shetland, proving that not only is he a Scot through and through, but that his philosophy, that we are all uniquely the same is true - and although we look different on the outside, we are one humanity.
His political activism has led him to work with Edinburgh City Council to review statues, street names and other significant city landmarks to see how they can be used to educate not only students but the general public as well. The legacy of Scottish slave traders can be seen in the bequest of buildings now used as museums, council buildings, schools, houses – some still associated with past owners. Many of these are visitor attractions and are now looked after by the National Trust for Scotland, which is working to publish the histories of their properties and how slave-ownership and colonialism contributed to Scotland’s history.
Sir Geoff uses his prominence in Scotland as both a respected scientist and ardent activist to talk about the history of slavery and its benefits in the 17th and 18th centuries for prominent Scots in the trade. Many of the names seen around Scotland, (especially in Edinburgh and Glasgow) and elsewhere in the Highlands and Lowlands, are figures who made a huge contribution to the wealth and prosperity of Scottish communities off the back of chattel slavery in the West Indies.
Slavery was lucrative for Scotland and the UK. By 1800 there were 800,000 UK owned, African-born slaves, of which over 300,000 were in Jamaica, generating a disproportionately high level of the profits. However, Sir Geoff’s view is that the history of the slave trade isn’t well-known or understood in the UK and teaching about this history will help people to understand personal and societal biases on the grounds of colour or race. This will enable us to tell a richer story of our history and celebrate our diverse society as “One Scotland”.
At present there are limited resources and few relevant books on the topic. There are history books but not designed to link Scotland’s history with education on slavery in schools; in fact, the topic is still hotly debated. This historical topic is very unfamiliar in Scotland and has never been a major part of the school curriculum. There are positive steps being taken though, such as the proposal for the development of a National Museum of Human Rights in Greenock, a location that was once Scotland’s premier sugar port. The Slavery and Colonialism projects being conducted by Edinburgh City Council and Museums Scotland, which are chaired by Sir Geoff, may hopefully help to develop education in schools.
Sir Geoff has spoken about the importance of making equality a value that is reflected across all aspects of an organisation. He has identified that we shouldn’t just create an equality policy and make it the role of one person in an organisation to uphold – equality needs to be a statement of any organisation’s values and outcomes as a whole, backed up by awareness and the meeting of needs. The input and advice from minority ethnic colleagues and communities are important parts of this commitment. Sir Geoff has stated that, a diverse society needs diverse management to be fair and efficient.