HISTORY: British universities are examining how they benefited from slavery

For some this is uncomfortable. For others it is an opportunity

Britain – Feb 8th 2020 edition – The ECONOMIST

Every year, in early December, Jesus College, Cambridge, hosts the Rustat Feast. The tables in hall are lit with candles. There is wine, and music from the college choir. The assembled diners raise a glass to Tobias Rustat, whose generosity three centuries ago allowed generations of orphans to go to Cambridge and be ordained as Church of England clergymen. Then, last November, just before the latest feast, Rustat’s name was quietly dropped from the jollities.

Rustat was a courtier to King Charles ii. John Evelyn, a contemporary diarist, described him as “a very simple, ignorant, but honest and loyal creature”. Rustat was also a big investor in the Royal African Company (rac), which trafficked more African men, women and children to the Americas than any other British institution. According to one historian, in the half-century after it was founded in 1672 the racshipped close to 150,000 enslaved Africans, mostly to the Caribbean.         

To persuade mps to support the Slavery Abolition Act, which was passed in 1833, the government borrowed £20m from Nathan Mayer Rothschild, a banker, and his brother-in-law, Moses Montefiore, to compensate slave-owners for the loss of what was considered their property. The loan accounted for 40% of the Treasury’s annual income in 1834, the year the payments began—or about 5% of Britain’s gdp. It took until 2015 to pay it off. ucl’s database names more than 46,000 slave-owners who got compensation; it can be searched by name, village, county, occupation, religion or number of slaves owned.

Beneficiaries were spread all over the country, but the biggest concentration was in Scotland, whose young men had for decades gone to make their fortunes in the Caribbean. Some had become big landowners or businessmen engaged in shipping, finance and insurance, but many were ordinary middle-class citizens who owned, say, just one or two slaves whom they were happy to rent out for work-gangs on plantations across the Caribbean. Many British slave-owners, among them thousands of widows, were upstanding members of Victorian society; they also championed civic causes, particularly education.

After London, the biggest concentration was in Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Liverpool, which is one reason why universities in most of those cities have taken the lead in studying their connections with slavery. Bristol, the centre of the Wills tobacco fortune and the site of an elegant but controversial statue of Edward Colston, a wealthy slave trader, has just appointed Britain’s first professor of the history of enslavement, memory and the politics of memorialisation of the past—Olivette Otele, a Cameroonian historian who was trained at the Sorbonne.

Last year Cambridge announced a university-wide study. “History is inescapable,” said Stephen Toope, the vice-chancellor. Dons at three Cambridge colleges are listed in the slave-compensation scheme, but so far only Jesus College—Rustat’s father’s alma mater—has hired researchers to look into its links with slavery. The University of Nottingham is doing a similar study. Aberdeen will soon do the same, and Hull is expected to follow. St Andrews and Edinburgh universities are the rare silent exceptions.

But it was Glasgow, whose former rector, Robert Cunninghame Graham, had once been a slaver, that kicked things off, setting a high bar. After releasing a forensic study in 2018 which showed that 23 donors, whose family fortunes came from slavery or trade in slave-produced goods, had given £11,325 (equivalent to almost £20m today) to the university between 1866 and 1880 to build its new campus in the west of the city, the university turned to the thorny issue of what, if anything, should be done to atone for this bloody largesse. Opinions ranged from nothing at all (“Some historical injustices are just too distant,” wrote Nigel Biggar, director of Oxford University’s “Ethics and Empire” project last year) to a formal apology and paying of widespread reparations to slave descendants.

Glasgow decided on a programme of “reparatory justice” instead of reparations. It teamed up with the University of the West Indies (uwi) to create a new initiative, the Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research in Kingston, Jamaica. The programme focuses on three areas: research into health care, particularly diabetes, which is endemic to the Caribbean; into the degradation of the environment, especially along the coasts around the islands; and the creation of an online history museum that will be accessible to the whole region. At the suggestion of the uwi, Glasgow has promised to raise £20m—a symbolic figure—for the project over the next two decades. “People like to see their institution doing the right thing,” says the university’s chief operating officer, David Duncan. “This was the right thing to do.”

Glasgow’s approach may indeed be ethical, but it is also self-interested. The university hopes that it will be helpful when it applies for funding for its Caribbean initiative to global bodies, such as the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which assess applications on a competitive basis. And for an institution whose business is study, studying its past wrongdoings hardly counts as penance. ■

This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline “British universities are examining how they benefited from slavery”

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  • Clyde Duncan  On February 8, 2020 at 3:38 pm

    How Britain is Facing Up to Its Hidden Slavery History

    New play THE WHIP is one of several new stories bringing attention to the nation’s involvement in the historic slave trade. Holly Williams asks its writer why they are so important to tell now.

    By Holly Williams | BBC Culture

    IF WE HEAR AT ALL ABOUT BRITAIN’S INVOLVEMENT IN SLAVERY, THERE IS OFTEN A SLIGHT WHIFF OF SELF-CONGRATULATION – for abolishing it in 1833, 32 years ahead of the US, where the legacy of slavery is still more of an open wound.

    LESS WELL KNOWN, HOWEVER, IS THE ENORMOUS COST OF THIS DECISION FOR THE TAXPAYER – the British government spent £20 million, a staggering 40% of its budget in 1833, to buy freedom for slaves.

    THAT IS EQUIVALENT TO APPROXIMATELY £20-BILLION TODAY, MAKING IT ONE OF THE BIGGEST EVER GOVERNMENT BAILOUTS.

    THE COST WAS SO HIGH, THE VAST LOANS THE GOVERNMENT TOOK OUT TO FUND IT WERE ONLY JUST PAID OFF IN 2015.

    WHICH IS MIND-BOGGLING STUFF, BUT IF YOU’RE THINKING YOU CAN’T PUT A PRICE ON FREEDOM, BRACE YOURSELF FOR THE BAD NEWS –

    THE MONEY DIDN’T GO TO THE SLAVES, BUT TO THEIR OWNERS.

    THAT IS RIGHT:

    The British taxpayer, until five years ago, was paying off debts that the government racked up in order to compensate British slave owners for their loss of ‘property’.

    Records show that ancestors of former Prime Minister David Cameron and authors George Orwell and Graham Greene all profited at the time from these massive pay-outs, as did Prime Minister William Gladstone, who helped his father claim for £106,769. That’s a payment of around £83 million in today’s money, to just a single family.

    AND WHAT’S EVEN MORE SHOCKING IS THAT SUPPOSEDLY FREED SLAVES WERE IN FACT COMMITTED TO SIX TO 12 YEARS OF FURTHER SERVICE AS UNPAID ‘APPRENTICES’, MEANING SLAVE OWNERS WERE COMPENSATED TO THE TUNES OF MILLIONS – AND CONTINUED TO GET FREE LABOUR.

    IT WAS NOT UNTIL 1838 THAT THESE ADMITTEDLY WILDLY CONTENTIOUS APPRENTICESHIPS WERE ABOLISHED, AND SLAVES IN THE BRITISH EMPIRE WERE TRULY EMANCIPATED.

    When journalist-turned-playwright Juliet Gilkes Romero read about this bailout, she was so stunned, she knew she had to write a play about it – and help put the story in the public consciousness.

    “What blew me away was here I was, a working woman, a descendant of the transatlantic slave trade, and I helped pay off this massive loan,” says Romero, WHOSE PARENTS CAME TO THE UK FROM TRINIDAD AND BARBADOS IN THE 1960S. “That added urgency to what I wanted to write – I just thought I’ve got to get this out there.”

    HER PLAY, THE WHIP, WAS COMMISSIONED BY THE ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY, AND OPENS IN STRATFORD-UPON-AVON THIS WEEK.

    Romero fictionalises various real-life characters from the battle to get the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 through the House of Commons, the compromises and the deals that had to be made, as well as the role that women, working people, and runaway slaves played in the campaign.

    It includes a character inspired by proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and another based on Mary Prince, a former slave who became the first black woman in Britain to petition Parliament, and to write a memoir.

    “I’m trying to bring in many elements of our history – it’s not a single-issue play,” Romero tells BBC Culture. And even if she was horrified by the realisation that she’d been paying off this compensation, Romero also appreciates that hard decisions did have to be made in an incredibly volatile period of history.

    “It is complex – Parliament knew that the empire’s economy couldn’t continue to draw its wealth off the backs of slavery, and I admire that.

    But it was cold-eyed and pragmatic. And because slaves were property, owners had to be compensated,” she says, POINTING OUT THAT IF THEY HAD NOT BEEN, BLOOD MIGHT HAVE BEEN SHED OVER THE HUGE LOSS OF PROFIT FOR SLAVE OWNERS – AS HAPPENED IN THE US.

    “In the United States this [issue] kept going to Congress, and they couldn’t come to an agreement and as a result had a civil war and about 600,000 people lost their lives. So, while what Parliament managed was flawed, I also look at it in the context of what happened in America.”

    Romero was commissioned to write the work in 2015 – but the subject gained traction when, in 2018, HM Treasury tweeted:

    “Here’s today’s surprising #FridayFact. Millions of you have helped end the slave trade through your taxes… The amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn’t paid off until 2015. Which means that living British citizens helped pay to end the slave trade.”

    Unsurprisingly, once the reality of the situation – that the tax money was used to compensate owners, NOT SLAVES – was revealed, it caused quite an outcry, and brought the situation to much wider attention, making Romero’s play feel newly topical.

    THE WHIP offers a critical lens on a period of British history that typically has a more positive spin on it. “I think a narrative won through – ‘these slaves were freed by us!’” points out Romero.

    “WE’RE IN CONSTANT DIALOGUE WITH OUR PAST: WE HAVE TO BE.”

    THE WHIP is at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon till 21 March; Rockets and Blue Lights is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, 12 March to 14 April; Black Waters is at Sadler’s Wells, London, 26 and 27 March; Enough of Him is on tour of the UK from 16 October to 18 November.

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