Uni­ver­si­ties urged to look into their profit from slave trade

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Jack.grove@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

All UK higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions should ex­am­ine how much they have prof­ited from slav­ery, af­ter it emerged that the Univer­sity of Glas­gow may have ben­e­fited by up to £200 mil­lion, a black stud­ies scholar has said.

Last week, the Scot­tish univer­sity won ac­claim for its de­ci­sion to be­gin a pro­gramme of “repar­a­tive jus­tice” fol­low­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of a study into its links with his­tor­i­cal slav­ery.

The re­port found that while the univer­sity it­self adopted a “clear anti-slav­ery po­si­tion” dur­ing the 18th and 19th cen­turies, it also re­ceived sev­eral gifts from those con­nected to the trade.

The value of the gifts is es­ti­mated at be­tween £16.8 mil­lion and £198 mil­lion in to­day’s prices, de­pend­ing on whether do­na­tions from traders in to­bacco, cot­ton and sugar in­di­rectly linked to the slave trade are counted. Glas­gow is to open a slav­ery stud­ies cen­tre and re­name build­ings in its ef­forts to make amends.

Its ac­tion has raised the is­sue of whether other Bri­tish uni­ver­si­ties should as­sess how much they have ben­e­fited in­di­rectly from slav­ery, as many US uni­ver­si­ties have done in re­cent years.

How­ever this should not just con­cern the hand­ful of UK uni­ver­si­ties that were founded be­fore slav­ery was out­lawed in 1807, said Nathaniel Adam To­bias Cole­man, se­nior teach­ing as­so­ciate in so­ci­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Bris­tol and a mem­ber of its Cen­tre for Black Hu­man­i­ties.

“All English uni­ver­si­ties are built out of colo­nial ex­ploita­tion, which is broader than, but foun­da­tion­ally in­cludes, colo­nial en­slave­ment,” said Dr Cole­man, who crosses out his sur­name to high­light that it was given to his fam­ily by slave own­ers.

For in­stance, the Univer­sity of Birmingham re­ceived its royal char-

ter in 1900, but was “built out of a col­lege founded by the world’s largest maker of pens, whose suc­cess mass-pro­duc­ing the nibs and bar­rels of pens was not un­re­lated to the global monopoly Birmingham work­shops had on the man­u­fac­ture of locks, stocks and bar­rels of guns,” said Dr Cole­man, also an honorary re­search fel­low in his­tory at Birmingham.

More­over, the univer­sity’s found­ing fa­ther Joseph Cham­ber­lain – the Lib­eral politi­cian com­mem­o­rated by its fa­mous Old Joe clock tower – was a key fig­ure of Bri­tish im­pe­rial rule in Africa as min­is­ter for the colonies, said Dr Cole­man.

The de­ci­sion by Glas­gow and Bris­tol to sign up to the in­ter­na­tional Uni­ver­si­ties Study­ing Slav­ery Group was, how­ever, a “wel­come step”, said Dr Cole­man.

Schol­ars at Bris­tol are also ex­plor­ing the his­tory of its main bene­fac­tor, the Wills fam­ily, whose for­tune de­rived from the to­bacco trade but also sup­ported abo­li­tion.

Kal­want Bhopal, pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tion and so­cial jus­tice at Birmingham, de­scribed Glas­gow’s move as “en­cour­ag­ing”, adding that “too many uni­ver­si­ties seem un­will­ing to ac­knowl­edge they have prof­ited from slave labour in the past and that this re­mains a trou­bling state of af­fairs for many peo­ple”.

“It is too easy for such in­sti­tu­tions to dis­miss their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties both to ad­dress the in­equal­i­ties of the past and also the present,” Pro­fes­sor Bhopal added.

How­ever Robert Ding­wall, pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at Not­ting­ham Trent Univer­sity, said that uni­ver­si­ties should be wary of ac­ced­ing to such re­quests given that the “ben­e­fits of the slave trade are much more dif­fuse than the sim­ple nar­ra­tive of repa­ra­tions im­plies”, with tribal lead­ers in Africa of­ten shar­ing the ben­e­fits with Western traders.

“A fo­cus on the Euro­pean or Amer­i­can ben­e­fi­cia­ries sim­ply re­flects the fact that they have deeper pock­ets to­day rather than a search for his­tor­i­cal jus­tice and ac­count­ing,” said Pro­fes­sor Ding­wall.

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