Peculiar Institutions

UK universities must act on African slavery as Aberdeen admits it benefited

By David Whitehouse

Posted on September 3, 2019 09:23

After examining its historical donor lists, Glasgow found that some of those who contributed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had links with the slave trade.

As a result, Glasgow will spend £20m over 20 years on the Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research.

There’s no sign of African countries getting any reparations from UK universities just yet.

The Africa Report carried out a straw poll of 11 universities in the UK: Aberdeen, Aberystwyth, Birmingham, Bristol, Durham, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, St. Andrews. Two simple questions were asked:

  • In light of Glasgow’s initiative, will you be reviewing your historical donor lists?
  • Are you considering making reparations to Africa?

Aberdeen acknowledged that it did benefit from slavery: “The University of Aberdeen acknowledges that it does retain some current financial benefit from wealth related to historic slavery,” a spokesman said. “We have investigated the financial endowments made to the university before 1900 in order to identify the extent to which its wealth may derive from historic slavery. Further research is required to provide a complete picture.”

Aberystwyth also gave a clear answer: research has found no indication that historical funding was derived from proceeds from the slave trade.

Edinburgh and Liverpool provided details of existing slavery education projects in which they are involved – but did not give a clear answer to either of the two questions asked.

Three of the universities contacted, Birmingham, Durham and Sheffield, did not respond by the deadline.

Dateline management

Leeds, which was founded in 1904, says it can trace substantial donations back to the 1930s, but is not aware of the university benefiting from any significant money gained directly from slavery. Leeds, a spokesman said, has a “relatively short history, which does not date back to the era of slavery.”

Likewise, Liverpool said it does not believe that major donations to the university since its foundation in 1881 were derived directly from the slave trade.  “The University of Liverpool was founded in 1881, nearly 50 years after Parliament passed legislation to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire, and 16 years after the passing of the 13th Amendment in the US.”

Such use of the historical dateline does not resolve matters. The financial gains from slavery, after all, outlasted the practice itself.

  • Glasgow found that donations to its 1866-1880 campaign to build the Gilmorehill campus included 23 people with financial links to the slave trade.

Bristol and Manchester provided more realistic answers than Liverpool and Leeds.

  • Manchester recognised that “donors to institutions in many cities, including some with pasts similar to our own predecessor institutions, may have obtained wealth from activities including slavery.”
  • Bristol, which was founded in 1909, says it was not a direct beneficiary of the slave trade, but “we fully understand and acknowledge that we financially benefited indirectly.”
  • Bristol is in the process of making a permanent appointment of an academic to lead archival research to determine the university’s historical links with slavery.

Bottom Line: While Glasgow has shown the way, more work is needed for UK universities to establish how far they benefited from the slave trade.

Thomas Whitehouse, a student at Bristol University, contributed to this report.

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