Some universities ‘still too evasive’ on slavery ties

Institutions face tough choices and often fierce criticism in trying to make reparation for their tainted origins

June 17, 2021
University of Glasgow cloisters
Source: iStock
Glasgow claims to have been the first British university to take a long, hard look at how much it benefited from slavery-related funding

Many universities in the US and UK are beginning to examine their historical links with slavery. At an online roundtable discussion organised by the HistGeogUni global research network, pioneering institutions explored the challenges of transforming research into action.

Françoise Hamlin, associate professor in history and Africana studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, described how her institution had begun the process of self-examination in 2003, at a time when “other Ivy League institutions squelched student activism on the issue”. Its 2006 Slavery and Justice report formed part of student orientation and led to initiatives to “create a needs-blind institution” as well as a new Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and a memorial sculpture by Martin Puryear.

Assembling the historical evidence, reflected Dr Hamlin, “provides a basis for debate. The sticking point comes with reparations.”

Stephen Mullen, research associate in history at the University of Glasgow, told a similar story. The 2018 report he co-authored, Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow, made it “the first British university to declare historical income derived from trans-Atlantic slavery on such a scale” and “effectively balanced out the institution’s glorious abolitionist narratives”.

It also led to “a major plan of reparative justice”, including scholarships for students of Afro-Caribbean descent and “a memorandum of understanding with the University of the West Indies, designed to nurture relationships and establish a Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research”. While this “set a new agenda for British universities and perhaps wider society”, Dr Mullen acknowledged it had also attracted critics. Some had put the case for “direct financial restitution” to “the descendants of those enslaved people whose exploitation built the university”. The Stop the Maangamizi! campaign, which lobbies for the British government to establish a commission for truth and reparatory justice for crimes committed against Africans, published an open letter deploring the decision to “just focus on Caribbean state sponsored educational or other institutions and existing [Caribbean community] country citizenries as the main stakeholders and beneficiaries of proposed reparative measures”.

When the University of Bristol was founded in 1909, reported Richard Stone, a lecturer in history there, no less than 80 per cent of the funds were provided by the Wills family, whose wealth was partly derived from “trading in tobacco [produced on slave plantations] from the American South”. A further 9 per came from the Fry family, which had made money “buying slave-produced goods”, despite their reputation as “long-term and committed abolitionists”. The two families are still represented by a sun and a horse on Bristol’s 2003 logo.

Reflecting on these three cases, Sabine Cadeau, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Cambridge’s Centre of African Studies, noted that all touched on “the histories of port cities and elite formation within them”. When discussion of links with slavery had come up at Cambridge, “some people had suggested that, as Cambridge is not itself perched on a saltwater wharf, it was not as likely as Liverpool or Bristol to be loaded with slave money”, though this ignored the centrality of slavery to “capital accumulation” in 19th-century Britain.

Many universities, Dr Cadeau went on, also evaded their complicity in slavery by “championing their abolitionist history one-sidedly”. She therefore welcomed “a growing trend” for “critical reappraisals of a clean and redeeming abolitionist history”.

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