British Universities and Transatlantic Slavery: the University of Glasgow Case

13 07 2021

Stephen Mullen of the University of Glasgow has published an important new peer-reviewed paper on that university’s historical ties to the slave trade.

Here is the abstract:

On 16 September 2018, the University of Glasgow released the report ‘Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow’. This acknowledged that slave-owners, merchants and planters with connections to New World slavery – and their descendants – donated capital between 1697 and 1937 that influenced the development of the institution. In producing this report, the institution became the first British university to declare historical income derived from transatlantic slavery. In response, a nine-point programme reported as reparative justice was launched, the first British university to launch a project on such a scale. This article traces both the methodological approach undertaken in the study and the historical evidence related to the University of Glasgow. This provides insights into the process of collecting and analysing the evidence on which the report and strategy was based. Current understandings about British universities and transatlantic slavery are shaped by the institutional relationship with owners of enslaved people. This article underlines the importance of merchant capital – in this case, mainly via West India commerce – to the development of one institution.

I really liked how this paper was very transparent about authorial motivation, data, and analytical methods. I read the paper with great interest because I’m currently doing research on how older profit-seeking companies that profited from trans-Atlantic slavery, such as the Society of Lloyd’s,  are now responding to accusations that their current wealth was built on a foundation of slavery.  Stephen Mullen’s excellent paper raises almost as a many questions as answers, so let me suggest that researchers now switch their focus from what slave-owners did for the University of Glasgow to what, if anything, the University of Glasgow did for the institution of slavery in return.

We know that universities in the antebellum American south produced sophisticated intellectual defences of slavery that had the aura of academic credibility because they were written by professors. That these professors engaged in this type of legitimation work is not terribly surprising, as in many societies, one of the functions of universities is try to justify the existing social order and to reproduced inequality. Now in the period in question, Glasgow’s Adam Smith wrote against slavery (some of his empirical claims about the motives of slave-owners were just plain wrong, but his ideas clearly exerted a considerable influenced over abolitionists). I’m wondering, however, about other Glasgow academics who wrote about slavery and who worked at this university at the time it was bringing in donations from slave-owners. What role, if any, did the people on the University of Glasgow payroll play in justifying slavery at time when that institution’s legitimacy was being questions?  Historical research on that issue can, in my view, shed light on the more general and present-day issue of the role of universities is legitimating unjust institutions. I would note here the Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was written and published after he left academic employment, although Smith did critique slavery in an undergraduate lecture he delivered in 1763.

Mullen’s finding that the University of Glasgow accepted donations from slavery isn’t terribly surprising. After all, we all know that universities have, for centuries, taken money from pretty much anyone who has money to give and wishes to buy some social status and perhaps launder their reputation: Oxford colleges took money from feudal lords and bloodthirsty monarchs and in return helped to legitimate existing social hierarchies, most notoriously during the English Civil War, Oxford gave both practical and moral support to the Royalist side. Universities today take money from Middle Eastern arms merchants, Russian oligarchs with ties to Putin,  and Chinese firms with close ties to the PLA. They will take money from anyone provided law and public opinion will tolerate it. (The financial ties between Oxford and the Chinese government have recently been criticized by both left-wing and conservative newspapers in the UK,  which makes me thing that Oxford may need to return  to the money it recently got from Tencent). The willingness of penny-grubbing academics take money from bad dudes isn’t terribly surprising to anyone who knows academics. The focus of historical researchers, I think, should be more on understanding how universities help to legitimate oppression and inequality in the present.    



2 responses

13 07 2021
Per H. Hansen

Great post! Thanks, Andrew.

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Den 13. jul. 2021 kl. 07.50 skrev The Past Speaks :

andrewdsmith posted: ” Stephen Mullen of the University of Glasgow has published an important new peer-reviewed paper on that university’s historical ties to the slave trade. Here is the abstract: On 16 September 2018, the University of Glasgow released the report ‘Slave”

13 07 2021

The underlying paper is good.

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