University of Aberdeen still 'commemorating' slave trade donors, report finds

The King's College Chapel, University of Aberdeen
-Credit: (Image: Getty)


A University of Aberdeen report on its historic connections to transatlantic slavery has found the institution is still commemorating slave trade donors.

The report's publication follows a two-year study led by Dr Richard Anderson, Lecturer in the History of Slavery, examining links between the lives of enslaved people and Marischal and King’s Colleges, which later became the University of Aberdeen.

It considers the legacies of slavery ranging from the connections of alumni, faculty staff and students to the donations, both physical and financial, gifted to the university.

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Although the university never owned any enslaved people, Dr Anderson’s report has found that during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries both King’s College and Marischal College benefited from donors’ wealth derived from the labour of enslaved people in the Caribbean and colonial North America.

Transatlantic slavery was one of the most important drivers in the north-east economy during the 18th and 19th century.

Marischal College was by far the more connected of Aberdeen’s two universities when measured in terms of wealth derived from colonial slavery, the number of students who migrated to colonies of enslavement, and the number of students from the British Caribbean.

However, both Colleges had graduates who were active participants in the expansion of slavery and empire in the British Atlantic.

The report also notes that the university commemorates benefactors connected to slavery through named bursaries for students as well as paintings and heraldry located on university property.

Research has identified that the university still has restricted endowments with a current capital value of £373,238 which can be traced to the legacy of slavery.

Professor James N’Dow has now been appointed to lead a university-wide listening exercise, which will engage with a range of stakeholders over the next year, to look at how the institution can translate the academic research into actions which addresses this legacy.

The university will also explore options with the Scottish Charity Regulator OSCR to release or relax fund restrictions that might support strategies arising from the listening exercise.

Dr Anderson also used different measures of inflation to demonstrate the scale of the historical bequests. Were all of these to be donated in the present day, they would be worth between £17,358,000 and £166,116,000, depending on the methodology applied.

He highlights the important role the bequests played in allowing the university to expand, leading to the thriving university community in the north-east of Scotland.

In addition, the report identified ways in which faculty members of King’s and Marischal fought against human bondage from the early stages of the British abolitionist movement and has outlined how the life stories of the university’s first Black graduates are intimately tied to this history.

These include Christopher James Davies, born in Barbados just a few years after the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, who used his medical degree to tend to the poor during the Franco-Prussian War, selling his university prize of a pocket watch to fund soup for the starving.

Professor George Boyne, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, said: "When we think of transatlantic slavery we often think of ports like Liverpool, Bristol or Glasgow so the connections of north-east Scotland to this trade in human suffering have long been overlooked.

"This report is part of ongoing work to shine a light on those connections and to confront uncomfortable truths from the past.

"While the University of Aberdeen may not have been directly involved in the slave trade, it is clear that many of our graduates and benefactors were and that the legacies they left mean those connections still exist today.

"This report is a step towards greater understanding and reflection on this important topic. We are committed to addressing this legacy, so now look forward to listening to suggestions about what actions we should take and then engaging with them on the way forward."

Vanessa Mabonso Nzolo, Student President 2022-2024, added: "As part of the student and staff cohort in our community who have worked towards an anti-racist university over the years, we are looking forward to the impact of the report and the following listening exercise.

"Connecting the colonial racial legacy, that is embedded into our curriculum and social interactions, to our experiences in today’s north-east Scotland brings an opportunity to reflect on the importance of proactive anti-racism and what a decolonized education system looks like to us.

"We look forward to taking part, encouraging all students to bring forth their thoughts – especially our community members who personally continue to feel the weight of colonial relations as they navigate the iniversity as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff and students."

The full report and additional content can be viewed at abdn.ac.uk/slavery.