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Sat 17 August 2019
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Adi MacArtney on the debate in British institutions about how to account for their colonial past.

Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.
― Chinua Achebe

Human past is full of darkness: grotesque acts of butchery, enslavement, war atrocities, colonialism, theft of entire nations, murder on scales so vast the mind reels. Cultures and peoples become trampled in humanity’s crushing rush into a future that may not exist.

Putting a mirror to the brutal roots of our modern selves is a deeply uncomfortable act. The major distribution of power in our society correlates directly with past violence; from property ownership to market wealth.

Old and supposedly illustrious universities are no exception to this, their wealth and position is built on slavery, theft and colonial transgression. Even new universities often have their roots in previous institutions and wealth funds. Recently, numerous elderly universities have been attempting to make financial reparations for past links to the slave trade.

Old and supposedly illustrious universities are no exception to this, their wealth and position is built on slavery, theft and colonial transgression.

Although these academic institutions are bastions of science, many of the questions raised are profoundly philosophical. Can one ever claim to be a moral entity in the present when one’s past is immoral? Can one ever atone for one’s past, and if so, how? Can money given ever compensate for violence received? If it can, how much does one pay to remove the dishonour of profiting from human slaves?

What is the market value of redemption?


Universities Paying the Price

In September 2018 the University of Glasgow published a report that in the 18th and 19th Centuries it received donations stemming from the slave trade to a modern value up to £198m. In attempt to make amends for this income the university is creating a centre for the study of slavery .

The University of East London, which received a modern equivalent of approximately £200 million from the slave trade has conducted a similar report and advocates for the creation of a £100 million funding pot contributed to by all universities to support black and ethnic minority students’ study.

Cambridge University is the most recent example, both shuttering off its historic bell this month on the St Catharine’s College campus, as the bell was used on a slave plantation, and launching a two-year study into the university’s historical ties to the slave trade.

The social debate on academic reparations is charged with emotion, passion and morality, yet it is extremely difficult to translate into action.

This trend is not limited to the UK, Harvard university in the United States removed the word ‘master’ from its campus due to linguistic ties to slavery But not everyone is in support of such actions. As dissenting voices correctly pointed out, the etymology of ‘master’ is ‘magister’ meaning ‘chief, head, director, teacher’ and it has little linguistically to do with slavery

Some universities, such as Bristol, are resisting. In 2017 the University of Bristol, despite 85% of its initial wealth coming from slavery, rejected an attempt to change the name of its Wills Memorial Building, which has connections to slavery.


‘Super-Woke Whining’

Trevor Phillips, the former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, told a prominent UK paper “I have a feeling this is just another response to super-woke whining by students who are having a great time guilt-tripping the university before going off to work for Goldman Sachs. This is virtue-signalling on steroids.”

The social debate on academic reparations is charged with emotion, passion and morality, yet it is extremely difficult to translate into action.

How much money and investment for historical redress, or is a token amount from each university enough? If a historical writer such as Kipling wrote pieces which we now find offensive such as “The White Man’s Burden” do we negate everything he ever wrote, as Manchester University students have done?

If so, where does this process stop and who decides? Do we cease to read or teach the Iliad or other ancient classics which have slavery in them? Do we root out all forms of Romans from our culture? Ban the writings of Marcus Aurelius and Caesar? George Orwell’s family owned slaves, do we ban 1984 from schools?


Erasing History

In the age of ‘safe spaces’ (defined as a place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm), many students are calling for the right to study away from attitudes or behaviour they find offensive.

Much of the current Western social and physical structure is built on racism, sexism, rape, slavery, war profiteering, economic exploitation and colonialism. Many of our most prominent writers and artists held views that are deeply unpalatable today. Do we purge them from our libraries and demolish every building, statue and artwork built on the wealth of that era?

Money given by universities can never be enough to compensate for involvement in the slave trade; however, any attempt at apology without tangible finance is hollow.

Perhaps if we erase our history too much, we may enable the conditions for it to be repeated. I don’t ask these questions rhetorically, the evil of slavery has modern reverberations in economics, politics and culture. If steps, however fumbled or inadequate, are now being made to redress past wrongs within academia then such questions become pertinent. Do we draw any lines and say, “this level of reparation is good, but this level of cultural erasure is unreasonable”?


Furthering the Debate

It is very rare to state that Twitter produces eloquence and wisdom, but I recently asked some of these difficult questions and was impressed by the answers.

On whether money can ever atone for past atrocities someone said, “money is the only direct and tangible thing that allows victims of violence to choose which is the best healing path for them”.

On the issue of who gets to decide whether what is given is enough, one Twitter user said, “the only person who gets to decide that is the victim of the violence”. On whether financial reparations are useful, another Twitter user wrote “It depends if the deployment of the money discourages future violence and racism”.

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Well managed financial delivery can assist in improving the conditions and educational opportunities of those alive today who have been negatively affected by past slavery and colonialism. Giving them a direct voice in the management, direction and delivery of such funds appears lacking from current university efforts at reparation.

Money given by universities can never be enough to compensate for involvement in the slave trade; however, any attempt at apology without tangible finance is hollow. Money invested in reparation is inadequate… but it is a start.

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