By Freya Shaw, Creative Director
The University of Bristol is launching a listening investigation with students as to whether the seven buildings whose names are linked in different ways to the trans-Atlantic slave trade should be renamed.
Bristol University is also planning some in-person events in December so it can access as many perspectives from students and staff as possible. Details of these events will be published soon.
The online consultation, which runs until 19th December, welcomes feedback from both staff and university students who feel that the University logo and building names should be changed to better reflect a modern-day institution in a diverse and forward-thinking city, as well as those who believe that the complexity of the University's past could best be recognised through greater in-depth understanding and explanations.
'In publishing this report, we are opening an important exercise in listening to the views of our communities, acknowledging that its findings will be painful and difficult for many within the university, our city and beyond.'
The seven University buildings which have links though families or organisations are:
- Wills Memorial Building
- Fry Building
- Merchant Ventures Building
- HH Wills Physics Laboratories
- Goldney Hall
- Wills Hall
- Dame Monica Wills Chapel
In addition to the building names, the University has already made a commitment to reviewing its crest and logo which features the symbols of Colston, Wills and Fry. An earlier article by Epigram highlighted these historic links to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Professor Evelyn Welch, Vice-Chancellor and President, said: 'It is important to understand the University of Bristol’s foundation and the relationship of our early supporters with global commodities such as sugar and tobacco which relied on the Transatlantic Slave Trade. In publishing this report, we are opening an important exercise in listening to the views of our communities, acknowledging that its findings will be painful and difficult for many within the university, our city and beyond.
It throws light on the complexity of our past where members of our founding families could be prominent abolitionists and, at the same time, benefit financially from slavery and forced labour. Whatever the outcome of the consultation, our job is to reflect on how racial inequalities impact on our communities today and put in place the effective actions that are needed to do to be a truly inclusive 21st century institution.'
In January 2020, the University appointed Olivette Otele was appointed the first Professor of the History of Slavery. During her appointment, she undertook a two-year research project on the University of Bristol, and the wider city’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.
Her findings include details from financial papers, and accounts dating back to the 1860s, confirming the University’s founding was financially supported by individuals whose family or organisations had profited from the slavery.
The report states that ‘In order to understand the past, we need to place the University of Bristol within the broader context of Britain’s colonial history and analyse how the past has shaped current discussions about identity, social and racial inequalities.'
The Wills family donors were tobacco producers whose produce was grown by enslaved Africans and their descendants, exploiting and benefitting from the plantations. Between 1909 and 1957 the University of Bristol received gifts of land and property worth £1.37 million from the family.
The Fry family were chocolate manufacturers, who similarly to the Wills family, did not directly own slaves, yet their ingredients were cultivated by enslaved people mainly in the Caribbean. Even after abolition, the Fry’s sourced Cocoa Beans from Sao Tome, where slavery existed until 1875. Altogether, Fry chocolate used goods produced by slaves for roughly 150 years.
Together, both the Fry and Wills family were responsible for 89 per cent of the University of Bristol’s inaugural funding of £200,000 (£25 million of today's money).
Colston’s role was more infamous, given the toppling of his statue in 2020. He was a prominent member of the Merchant Ventures and the Royal Africa Company, which developed the Transatlantic trade, so was directly responsible for the enslavement of Africans. Although there were no donations in the early years of the University, there were two donations - the first in 1956 of £75,000 (worth £2 million today) and the second in 1968 of £25,0000 (worth £484,000 today) - both from the Colston Educational Trust.
The strongest link between the University and Colston was the foundation of the University College Colston Society in 1899. The name comes from a tradition of founding philanthropic societies in Bristol to honour the memory of Colston and carry out charitable works, such as the funding for the University.
The Merchant Venturers building was named due to the Faculty of Engineering’s long-standing connection with the Society of Merchant Ventures. This affiliation was recognised with a £100,000 donation to the faculty by the society in 1955. The society continued to support the faculty until 1949.
'Our history does not mean we cannot be bold in the beliefs and values we take into the future and uniting to talk about important and sensitive topics such as this is what truly drives change.'
The Goldney family, commemorated with Goldney Hall, had connections with the Merchant Venturers also. Thomas Goldney II funded several voyages in the transatlantic slave trade; and the family interests more broadly were reliant on transatlantic expeditions and enslavement of Africans.
Saranya Thambirajah, Equality, Liberation and Access Officer at Bristol Students’ Union, said: 'I welcome this consultation from the university and look forward to engaging with relevant student groups, staff and the wider community on this issue to bring about constructive dialogue and find a way forward that makes us all proud to be part of this city. Our history does not mean we cannot be bold in the beliefs and values we take into the future and uniting to talk about important and sensitive topics such as this is what truly drives change.'
This sentiment was further explored by Dr Jane Khawaja, Co-Chair of the University’s Anti-Racism Steering Group, who said: 'Acknowledging and understanding our history is vital to providing a foundation to begin conversations about how we address contemporary issues across our campuses, and the type of sustained changes we need to make to address ongoing racial inequalities in our University and city.'
Furthermore, Professor Judith Squires, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost, and Co-Chair of the University’s Anti-Racism Steering Group, added: 'We established our Anti-Racism Steering Group (ARSG) in July 2020 to develop strategies to address all manifestations of racism within our University. We will use this report, in addition to other research being undertaken in areas such as the Perivoli Africa Research Centre (PARC) and through projects such as Citizens Researching Together, to inform the ongoing work of the ARSG.
This consultation will help us to understand what people across our communities and the wider city think about the names of these buildings. We welcome all feedback. Whatever the outcome of the consultation, we are firmly committed to eradicating racism and exclusion today.'
Will you be sharing your views?