https://www.economist.com/britain/2020/02/08/british-universities-are-examining-how-they-benefited-from-slavery

A month or two ago I was listening to the Economist’s pretentiously named Intelligence podcast. Normally, this is something I play in the background while cooking or cleaning, but this episode was different. Early on it mentioned the University of St Andrews. With my attention grabbed I switched off both vacuum cleaner and boiling kettle, sat in an armchair and started from the beginning. But, to my dismay, St Andrews was not receiving praise, but criticism. That’s because while in the last few years there has been a movement growing in Britain to get universities and other institutions to recognize their involvement in the transatlantic slave trade—St Andrews has stayed silent. Meanwhile, virtually all of our competing universities (except for the perhaps equally orthodox University of Edinburgh) have not only made comments, but have launched investigations into involvements with the slave trade. But before I discuss the debate and its transnational aspects, let me back up and briefly summarize the history.

A close up of a map

Description automatically generated

Graphic Map of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Crispusattucksmuseum.org

Slavery was outlawed in Britain following the Somerset Case of 1772. But, slave trade within the empire continued until 1807 as did the ownership of slaves by British citizens until 1833. In 1833, however, the Slavery Abolition Act supposedly did away with Britain’s involvement with slavery. But, unlike in America where enslaved persons were legally emancipated from slave owners outright during the American Civil War, British slave owners were paid for their ‘property’. In doing so, the British government paid out over £20 million (£16.5 billion when adjusted to 2013 wages) to free some 46,000 slaves who toiled in the Americas and elsewhere.


Thus, Britons wiped their hands from slavery, but where did the money go? The wealthy families who had put all of their assets into enslaving people now found themselves with a considerable amount of liquid money—a type of stimulus perhaps not too different from those given to corrupt banks. While many of these families used their newfound fortunes to invest in trade, companies, or estates, others decided to pool their money to build and improve universities and colleges across the country. Evidence suggests that nearly all of Britain’s notable universities benefited from the slave trade, and many, including Britsol, Oxford, Cambridge, Nottingham, East London, and Aberdeen and Hull soon to follow, but “St Andrews and Edinburgh,” says the Economist, “are the rare silent exceptions”. This year, Glasgow Uni announced that they would invest £20 million to researching the slave trade in Britain and building a comprehensive catalogue of slave owners turned donors and others have pledged to do the same. Perhaps it’s not a surprise that St Andrews has made no comment on the matter while as it maintains a reputation for racial exclusion—boasting only 5.7% of its staff and 8.7% of students as black and minority ethnic (BME), while the percentage of those of Afro-Caribbean descent remains unknown.

Where this story becomes of transnational importance is not just in the cruel ballad of slavery and dirty money, but also in today’s transnational debate over if  and how reparations should be paid. You see, this debate isn’t new. In fact, it has been ongoing on American college campuses since 2000 when the first black president of Brown University (and even any Ivy League university), Ruth Simmons, assembled an interdisciplinary team of academics to investigate Brown’s involvement with the slave trade in what became known as the 2003 Slavery and Justice Report. Simmons discovered that even though university records showed little to no mention of slavery, that other primary sources contemporary to the university’s founding in 1764 paint a different picture. According to her team’s research, nearly every facet of trade in 18th and early 19th century Providence, RI was connected in some way to slavery and that many of the university’s donors were directly involved in the slave trade itself.

This work published at Brown University was the first of its kind and inspired an even more comprehensive report at Georgetown University a few years later in which researchers discovered that the grant which allowed for the construction of the Washington campus came primarily from the sale of 229 Jesuit owned slaves. This report identified the enslaved people who were in many ways responsible for Georgetown’s early success and has prompted the university to offer its own compensation and reparations to their descendants today. Other universities like The College of William & Mary, where I studied last year and whose campus is notorious for its involvement with slavery, has opted to match its many monuments to white donors with a more honest structure to honour those whose labour went unpaid.

Concept selected for future memorial

Memorial to African Americans Enslaved by William & Mary concept, 2019

Should British universities take inspiration from their American counterparts in their responses to this debate? Or should they form their own response? After all, their involvements with the peculiar institution are fundamentally different. In America, slaves quite literally laid the foundations of many campuses like William & Mary, whereas in Britain it was the enslaved peoples value as labour and a government bailout which allowed for them to indirectly build up British higher education. How does this debate compare to reparations debates elsewhere and over other controversies in places like South Africa, Australia, or Canada?

Anyways, if you have read this far then you should know that it’s exactly this question I’ll be following in Recording the Past next year. I’m going to be focusing more on the historiographical aspects of the debate than the historical involvements in slavery, but I hope I can at least encourage St Andrews to shed some light on the topic.

St Andrews at the Periphery of the Reparations Debate

Leave a Reply