Legacies of Slavery and Empire Glossary

Nelson Cummins, Curator (Legacies of Slavery and Empire)

The glossary on display in 'Glasgow - City of Empire' at Kelvingrove Museum


6th December 2023

When preparing Glasgow Museums’ new Glasgow – City of Empire display in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, we worked with the Our Shared Cultural Heritage Changemakers on putting together a glossary of key terms related to slavery and empire and their legacies. This glossary is displayed as a part of the exhibition and was designed to support visitors engaging with the display, as we were aware that some of the topics and language explored are not always widely taught or discussed.

Language plays a key role in shaping our understanding, and particularly in this context language plays a key role in shaping power and identity. For example, being able to understand and clearly define a term such as chattel slavery is key to understanding how chattel slavery differed from other systems, such as indentured servitude, and how it has shaped and influenced modern-day issues such as anti-Black racism.

In creating this glossary, we drew on sources such as Oxford Languages, Museums Galleries Scotland, The Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and at times on our own knowledge. It is not a complete glossary but represents a useful tool when thinking about slavery and empire and its legacies.


Abolition: to end a system or institution. The abolition movement refers to actions taken globally to end transatlantic slavery.

British Raj: in 1857, following the failed rebellion known as the First War of Indian Independence the British government seized the assets of the East India Company, while the company continued to operate until 1874 its influence declined. The British Raj refers to the following time period, during which the British Crown and government had direct rule over the Indian subcontinent. This rule ended with the Partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1947.

Chattel slavery: a form of slavery in which the enslaved person is treated as property belonging to their owner. An enslaved person under this system has no rights, and they remain enslaved for life. Any children born to an enslaved person are also enslaved for life.

Colonies: refers to territories or regions that are controlled by another country, known as the ‘colonial power’. They are typically subject to direct rule or indirect control by the colonial power, which may involve military, economic, and political domination.

British colonies: British colonialism involved direct rule and indirect control over its colonies, often resulting in the suppression of local cultures, languages, and traditions, as well as the exploitation of natural resources and labour.

Colonisation: acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.

East India Company: a militarised multi-national corporation that acted as an agent of British Imperialism from its foundation in the 1600s to its dissolution in 1874. During this period the Company waged wars, plundered, and colonised modern-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. It supported the illegal trade in opium by British merchants with China and was involved in the transportation and use of enslaved African people.

Empire: where a central or main power rules over other territories outside of its own borders.

Exploitation: refers to the act of taking advantage of someone or something for personal gain or benefit, usually without regard for the wellbeing of the exploited party.

Indentured servitude: this comes in many forms. For example, after the abolition of slavery, plantation owners in the Caribbean coerced over 400,000 Indians to replace enslaved workers, with false promises on pay and conditions. They received little to no pay and were bound by contracts.

‘Indentured labour’ or ‘forced labour’ should not be confused with enslavement. Some indentured labourers (including white Scottish indentured labourers) worked on British overseas plantations alongside enslaved African labourers. Although they have been labelled as ‘white slaves’, their contracts were temporary, and they retained certain rights. They were not incorporated into the system of chattel slavery in which Black people were denied the status of human beings, and which was hereditary, perpetual, racialised, and denied Black people any legal personhood.

Loot: this word comes from the Hindi lut, meaning the spoils of war. Looting is a political act shaped by systems of power and oppression.

Missionaries: individuals sent by governments or religious organisations to foreign countries with the aim of converting people to their faith. These missions have, historically, often led to the erasure, or attempted erasure, of people’s culture and languages.

Plantation: a plot of land dedicated to growing a single crop solely for the purpose of selling it. These crops can include cotton, coffee, sugar, palm oil, and rubber, and are known as cash crops.

Police brutality: the use of excessive force, physical or verbal attacks, and psychological intimidation by a police officer. Research shows that this action is disproportionately aimed towards people in minority groups.

Racial hate crime: a crime committed against a person, or a group of people, based on their perceived race or ethnicity, and motivated by the perpetrator’s racism.

Racism: a belief that one group of people is inferior or superior to another because of their race.

Reparations: the act of amending a past wrong or injustice inflicted by a country or empire upon another individual group or state. Examples of these include providing payment or other assistance to those who have been wronged. In its truest sense, reparations involve the elimination of structures created by colonial atrocities, as well as the acceptance of the moral responsibility for the crimes committed – Shashi Tharoor.

Transatlantic Slavery trade: this refers to the practice of buying and selling human beings against their will. The transatlantic slave trade lasted over 400 years and was driven by European powers, needing a labour force to work on plantations and mines in their colonies across the Americas. This led to the enslavement and trafficking of Black African peoples.

Slavery: a system in which a person or company has ownership of another person who is forced to work and unable to leave.

Racial Slur: rooted in prejudice and often originating from historical periods of oppression, a ‘slur’ is a derogatory term that targets, dehumanises, and oppresses a specific individual or group of people. Racial slurs refer to members of racial or ethnic groups in a derogatory way.

Stereotype: a widely held, oversimplified, view of a specific group or thing, rooted in some form of prejudice, which often has limited or no basis within reality. This view can lead to offence and harm for the person or group it applies to.

Structural inequality: Inequalities in wealth, resources, and other outcomes that result from discrimination on an institutional level. This is the shaped by the existence of biases in key societal institutions such as education, health, law, and government. This leads some groups in society to experience marginalisation and discrimination.

Structural inequalities are often a legacy of historical imbalances in power and societal influence.

Trafficking: to trade in something illegal.

White supremacy: the belief that white people are a superior race and should dominate society, typically to the exclusion of other racial and ethnic groups.

Nelson Cummins,
Curator (Legacies of Slavery and Empire)