The Profits of Slavery and the Wealth of Universities: A Transatlantic Conversation

The Profits of Slavery and the Wealth of Universities: A Transatlantic Conversation

Report by Jasmine Sandhar.

Chaired by Dr Michell Chresfield, this event on 3 March 2021 featured a presentation by Dr Afua Cooper on the Report on Lord Dalhousie’s History on Slavery and Race, followed by conversation with Danni Ebanks-Ingram and Dr Asha Rogers.

Reckoning with a racist past is not easy. It is a process with an indeterminable amount of steps and this can be seen from the aftermath of the recent Black Lives Matter movement, where there have been a number of events held by various institutions to try and recognise a history of injustice. Specifically at the University of Birmingham, the administration organised a Decolonising The Curriculum conference, the Guild of Students launched the Black Voices campaign and students themselves participated in the peaceful street protests around Birmingham’s city centre. Therefore, the online discussion panel titled The Profits of Slavery and the Wealth of Universities: A Transatlantic Conversation was but one episode in a series of many that have been and are to come. 

Produced by Dr John Munro in collaboration with the British Association for American Studies, the US Embassy and the University of Birmingham International Engagement Fund, this talk was designed to address the important questions of how we can study, acknowledge and redress the legacy of slavery in the context of its contribution to the wealth accumulation of prestigious universities around the world. All in all, this was a truly illuminating discussion for two reasons. Firstly, this is a topic that is rarely discussed. For the most part, awareness has been raised about the fact that the institutions were often headed by boards of governors who believed in white supremacy; however, little research has been undertaken to examine the direct monetary connections between the two and so many valuable insights were given into one of the founding factors of institutional racism: the capitalist exploitation of black labour. Secondly, four distinguished panellists were added into the mix, which opened up a thoughtful dialogue exploring how the past has wider connections to contemporary issues. 

The first third of the event was centered around the research of Dr Afua Cooper, a professor at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, interested in African-Canadian studies, who is also the founder and current chair of the Black Candian Studies Association. In her thorough presentation, Dr Cooper spoke on the 2016 report she helped co-author, which revealed Lord Dalhousie’s relationship to race and slavery. There were a multitude of entanglements drawn from this study, but arguably the most significant one is that of the Castine Fund.

After fighting in the Napoleonic Wars, most notably by the side of the Duke of Wellington in the Battle of Waterloo (1815), Lord Dalhousie was gifted his appointment as Lieutenant Governor of the Province of Nova Scotia and so a year after the conflict’s conclusion in 1816, Dalhousie travelled over to the new land he owned as an official of the Crown. Dalhousie’s arrival mirrored the arrival of over 4,000 African-American refugees after the conclusion of the War of 1812, who had been promised a list of freedoms for their contributions to the war effort, such as physical resources and human rights. Coincidentally, around the same time these arrivals were occurring, the British troops occupying Maine had been using the port of Castine as a customs entry point, where trade taxes were being charged on imports entering the town. This resulted in a significant revenue and after the war ended, the British withdrew from Maine and took a fortune of about £12,000 with them. This large sum of money was granted to Lord Dalhousie to use as he pleased and so he asked his advisors what should be done with it. Some believed a new prison should be built, others asked for spending on town roadworks, but one individual, Lord Bathurst, suggested that the money could be used to assist the refugees pouring into the province. Unsurprisingly, as a racist who saw black people as naturally inferior due to what he believed was their ‘idleness’ and ‘lack of industry’, Lord Dalhousie staunchly dismissed the proposal. Instead, the majority of the funds were used to establish Dalhousie College, which was ironically known for being nonsectarian, meaning it was ‘open to all, regardless of class or creed.’ Of course, it was not open to the black refugees or indeed any person of colour.

However, this miscarriage of justice was like merely cutting off a stem. The root of the issue lay in the fact that 30% of the taxes that made up the Castine Fund came from slave-made goods imported from the West Indies. Between 1662 and 1807, 3.1 million Africans were shipped over, as part of the Transatlantic slave trade, to the British colonies in the West Indies, in order to be exploited as slave labour on plantations. Sugar, rum, coffee, cocoa, molasses and other tropical goods produced by slaves were exchanged for products that were essential to the survival of the West Indies’ slavery infrastructure, such as fish, grains and timber. In addition to this, as is evident from the activities of the Nova Scotian merchant Joshua Mauger, sometimes Caribbean slave captives were kidnapped and transported to other points in North America, such as the Maritimes, where they were sold off. This capitalistic interchange is what underpinned Nova Scotia’s most important trade relationship and was the driving force behind the province’s integration into the global economy. 

To end her fascinating presentation, Dr Cooper explained the present-day reverberations these historical truths have, encompassing both the general socio-economic issues that currently disproportionately affect black people in North America, such as higher unemployment and poverty rates, to the more specific cases of enduring racism at Dalhousie University, including incidents of anti-black graffiti and the survival of the president’s residence, which serves as a physical reminder of the past, having been erected and owned by Levi Hart, a Halifax merchant involved in the West India carrying trade. 

It was these contemporary consequences extending over the past, present and foreseeable future that stimulated Dr Cooper’s discussion with the remaining three panellists. Dr Asha Rogers, a lecturer in contemporary postcolonial literature at the University of Birmingham, began by pointing out the similarities between Dalhousie University’s history and our own. The city of Birmingham was directly involved in the slave trade with commodities flowing through tunnels of taxation that eventually financed the industrial revolution. Furthermore, the University of Birmingham was founded by Joseph Chamberlain on the basis of ensuring a ‘free, secular and compulsory education for all’, a statement which rather uncannily echoes Lord Dalhousie’s in both wording and reality, with no black students enrolled. In addition to being the first chancellor of the university, Chamberlain was Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1895-1903, pushing for the development of the British Empire and notoriously igniting the catastrophic Boer War that secured the colonisation of South Africa. The parallels between Dr Cooper’s research and the uncovering of our own university’s history are almost indistinguishable, as is epitomised by the the reality that numerous academic institutions have been eponymously named after both historical figures - we need look no further than Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and The Joseph Chamberlain Sixth Form in Birmingham’s city centre. These ongoing legacies were dissected even further by Danni Ebanks-Ingram, a multidisciplinary artist and activist based in Birmingham, who delved into what decolonisation really means. Danni stressed the importance of growing out of antiquated mindsets and ways of thinking about black bodies, so that these spaces can be reimagined and reconnected on our journey to unity. 

After these enlightening thoughts, the event moderator Dr Michell Chresfield, a lecturer in 20th century United States history at the University of Birmingham, then opened up the floor to audience questions. The majority of inquiries were asking about what we as a collective can do to address the past and find ways to move forward that are actually impactful. Dr Cooper attempted to provide as many answers as humanly possible, emphasising the value in ‘following the money’ and the need for monetary reparations; however, countless questions still remain. Would these discussions, and others like it, have happened without the resurgence of BLM? Is the discussion of these issues enough or should there be material financial recompensation? How can we actively dismantle institutional racism?

These questions are rhetorical. Partly because the answers vary from person to person within the black community, but also because we, as a society, haven’t got to the point where we can answer them yet. Decolonization is a work in progress and this discussion is but one of the myriad stepping stones left for us to cross before we can reach the safety of the other side. A land in which, hopefully, talks like this will continue but framed within a different context, where the events are produced by an all-black committee, the panels are composed solely of black academics, the reviews are written up by black students and instead of audience members asking what can be done, they will be reflecting on what has been done. I look forward to the other side.