The slave labour of Africans made Robert Cunningham Graham a wealthy man. After 20 years in Jamaica, he returned home to Scotland in 1772. Before leaving, Graham and his wife sold some of the enslaved people they owned, but they brought two enslaved people back to Scotland as servants. One, a young man named Martin, did not adjust to life in Scotland, and was sent back to Jamaica to be sold for more than £100, which Graham spent on wine.
A little over a decade later Graham was elected Rector of his alma mater, the University of Glasgow. After serving for a year Graham stepped down. He left a parting gift to the University of £100, endowing a prize for the best student work on political liberty. He was succeeded in 1787 by moral philosopher and political economist Adam Smith. Smith was one of a succession of Glasgow academics who spoke out against the transatlantic slave trade and slavery itself. The University Senate also petitioned Parliament against the slave trade, and some years later the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson described abolitionist sentiment within the University as ‘a great honour’.
Benefiting from slavery while supporting abolitionism may have been contradictory but they are both integral to the history of the University. It is an institution that grew in a city tied to the trade in tobacco, sugar and cotton, all of which were initially produced by enslaved Africans. In July 2016, the University launched an in-depth investigation into how it benefitted from the profits of historical racial slavery. This was a brave decision, but one rooted in the core values of an educational institution dedicated to the pursuit of truth and social justice.
The report shows that this slavery ‘dividend’ took two forms. People who had made or inherited money some of which had been generated by or through slavery either made gifts to support students and research or contributed to the building of new campus in the west end of Glasgow between 1866 and 1880.
The report makes clear the extreme difficulties of such research. Surviving records are fragmentary, and what proportion of any given gift may have been slavery-related is often impossible to determine. Similarly, the different scales used to determine the present-day value of historical gifts vary widely and are notoriously imprecise. However, despite this uncertainty the report clearly establishes that the University of Glasgow did receive significant amounts of slavery-related money.
Just how much, and what it is ‘worth’ today, may never be known, but of prime importance is the University’s public acknowledgement of the existence of this slavery ‘dividend’. What matters most is how this new knowledge is used, and the action it inspires. As part of its response the University has committed itself to ‘Moving forward: a programme of reparative justice’ to be rolled out over the coming years.
By commissioning this report and developing this reparative justice programme, the University of Glasgow is seeking to acknowledge its past in the most positive and productive ways possible, echoing the approaches of American universities from Yale and Harvard to Georgetown and Virginia.
Professor Simon P. Newman
(This appeared in The Sunday Times 16 September 2018. The report can be accessed at https://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/humanities/slavery/report2018/#d.en.606332).