Glasgow University launches programme in effort to atone for slavery ties

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The University of Glasgow have published a report on their historical ties to slavery and the slave trade in Africa and the Caribbean, following two years of research. The report, which was published in September of this year by Professor Simon Newman and Dr Stephen Mullen, acknowledges the gifts, monetary and otherwise, that were given to the University by individuals who had profited, in different ways, from slavery. Both authors are from the University’s history department.

Despite having no direct links to slavery, the 546 year old university has officially recognised how it has benefited from funds provided by at least 16 individuals who profited from slavery. They now wish to make amends through a programme of “reparative justice” which will focus on increasing diversity and awareness on campus. Through this programme, the University of Glasgow intends to simultaneously raise awareness of what has been described as a “troublesome” part of its history, while removing the traces of this history from its campus.

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The report acknowledges how it “is impossible to calculate the precise financial benefit that racial slavery generated for the University of Glasgow” but places estimates between £16.5 million and £200 million in present-day value.

The vastness of this gap is supposedly justified on the grounds that the report aimed to “establish whether or not the University of Glasgow reaped significant financial benefits from donors who owned enslaved people or who profited from the trade in enslaved people or the goods they produced”, rather than to calculate the degree with which they have benefited from such funds.

This reparative justice programme will not see monetary payments made to any communities who may have been affected by slavery between the 17th and 19th century, but rather intends to increase awareness of the University’s history “while moving forward in new directions to benefit the University community”.

This report lays out 9 objectives which the University’s Senior Management Group have committed to follow “with the goal of achieving reparative justice and enhancing awareness and understanding of the history of the University’s connections to both slavery and abolitionism”.

These objectives include an increase in “racial diversity of students and staff”, scholarships for BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) students from Afro-Caribbean descent and the naming of a major new University building or space to “commemorate a significant figure” such as James McCune Smith, an alumnus of the University who was once a slave. The report addresses how awards and buildings within the University have been named after the same individuals who had profited from slavery to which the University now wishes to dissociate from.

Further objectives include “the creation of a creative arts and sciences series with performances, events and lectures ranging from poetry to film-making to medical and scientific research relating to both historical and present-day slavery” and “the creation of an interdisciplinary centre for the study of historical slavery and its legacies” in the University.

The University intends to complete these objectives within the decade. Sir Geoff Palmer, a retired professor from Heriot-Watt University and Scotland’s first black professor, welcomed the report and called on similar institutions to make similar amends. The actions of the University of Glasgow have not faced any major criticisms surrounding their handling of this issue.

The University of Glasgow has a somewhat unusual historical relationship with slavery. Despite having benefited from at least £16.5 million in funds from those involved in slavery, it was an institution that publicly opposed the practice during the 18th century. The University employed three professors who were active in the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade (founded in 1787) and sent anti-slavery petitions to the British parliament during that time. The report addresses how this part of the University’s history is a source of pride but exists in stark contradiction to the fact that the University was benefitting from the practice they sought to end during this period.

There are no known connections between UCD and slavery. However, ties do exist between the slave trade and other Catholic educational institutions. One such example is Georgetown University, in Washington DC, which in 1838 saw the sale of 272 slaves by the Jesuits who ran the University so that they could repay a debt. The sum of the debt is approximately $390,000 in present-day value.

In 2017, Georgetown replaced the names of two halls, which had previously been named after two Jesuits who had been involved in the sale, in memory of Isaac Hawkins, a former slave who was the first individual listed on the Articles of Agreement for the sale, and Anne Marie Becraft, who established a school for girls of colour in Georgetown in the 1920s.  

It remains to be seen how other universities, both in the UK and the rest of the world, will act, and the question remains whether this programme of “reparative justice” is a one off, or if it will lay the groundwork for other institutions to follow suit?

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