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Opinion We at Irish universities owe it to our students to address our imperial legacies

Trinity professor Ciaran O’Neill says it’s time for Irish universities to address their own dark imperial past as students now seek real change.

THE #RHODESMUSTFALL CAMPAIGN began in the University of Cape Town in 2015, worked its way through several South African Universities, before rolling to a standstill in Oxford in 2016.

It is easy to see why the statue of British imperialist Rhodes fell in Cape Town, and easier still to see why he didn’t in Britain. In a 2014 poll, 59% of Britons thought that the British Empire was something to be proud of, and 49% thought that those countries colonised by Britain had gained more from it than they had lost.

Many of us here in Ireland are far from proud to be associated with that same empire and yet our links to it are complex and multi-layered, and nowhere more so than in our universities.

The statue question

The summer of 2020 has seen a renewed focus on the legacies of empire in British Universities. In June 2020 Oriel College in Oxford – a sister college of Trinity College Dublin – voted to remove its statue of Cecil Rhodes only for the University Vice-Chancellor (and Waterford-native) Professor Louise Richardson, to declare that ‘hiding your history is not the route to enlightenment.

The result of the standoff is that the University has commissioned a report on the issue that will be completed in early in 2021. Until then, at least, Rhodes will stand. 

The oldest universities are naturally most exposed on this issue. Glasgow and Cambridge have both commissioned exemplary reports and Glasgow has even committed to paying reparations following the outstanding activism of report author and historian Dr Stephen Mullan.

The statue of Colston is already in the water in Bristol, and it seems that Rhodes is on his way to a similar fate.

But what have Irish universities done? What should they do? In Ireland, the closest we have come to a Rhodes-style controversy was a relatively polite conversation about the removal of a pair of mass-produced statues outside the Shelbourne Hotel. It seems somehow meagre, and beside the point. 

Where does Trinity stand?

Here at Trinity College Dublin, we have started a productive conversation among staff and students about how to best confront our own historic ties to imperialism. That conversation has begun, perhaps obviously, with the figureheads that might attract the attention of anti-imperial protest.

In the case of Trinity, that person is likeliest to be Bishop of Cloyne, George Berkeley – a stellar philosopher and one of the most prominent scholars ever produced by the University.

We named our signature brutalist 1960s library after Berkeley, who also gives his name to the citadel of liberal west coast thought in San Francisco, the University of California, Berkeley.

But he was also a slave-owner, who bought and later sold four lives. He renamed these enslaved people Philip, Anthony, Agnes, and Edward, and later sold them, donating the profits to Yale.

Just as troubling, Berkeley adopted a philosophical position arguing that baptism was compatible with continued slavery, helping to deny many victims a potential route out of enslavement and perhaps convincing others of the validity of his position.

Trinity College Dublin prefers, generally, to speak about more robustly anti-imperial campaigners, politicians, and statesmen, and happily, there are many such figures. This is the history we want to hear, and to advance it the College often turns to perhaps the most prominent Trinity figure of the late eighteenth century, Edmund Burke.

Burke’s consistent position was anti-slavery, and he was an important public voice against the unfettered and corrupt expansion of empire at the margins, though he was somewhat selective about which evils he exposed.

Trinity voices were also prominent in the anti-Apartheid movement in the second half of the twentieth century, co-founded by the exiled Kader Asmal, from the Department of Law. 

It is easy for us to try and balance each Berkeley with a Burke, and to point to abolitionists and anti-apartheid activists. But that is a sort of sophistry. Trinity has produced many more ideas and graduates in the service of empire than it has people who have publicly criticised it. 

Deconstructing the past

A 12 June article in the Irish Times pointed to grants made by the Irish parliament to Trinity in the 17th century, noting that this money was imperial in origin in that it was based on revenues from the tobacco trade. This seems to me a somewhat secondary or even tertiary example to have chosen.

Trinity has numerous more direct associations with empire. It was, of course, a beneficiary of the colonisation of Ireland, amassing endowments, parliamentary grants and more than 180,000 acres of land confiscated from Irish people.

The curriculum of the College was progressively geared towards the needs of empire from the eighteenth century onwards, with professors of Sanskrit and other exotic languages helping to teach and acculturate future colonial graduates of all Irish backgrounds. 

The College collections and archives tell the same story. By the late 19th century, Trinity was recognisably an imperial university like Glasgow or Oxford. Its zoological, botanical, and anatomical holdings were amassed by roving Victorian academics whose collecting habits at the margins of empire (and morality) have bequeathed to future generations of Trinity students a large repository of animal and human remains.

Research projects in phrenology, anthropometrics, and other proto-eugenic practices were carried out enthusiastically at Trinity.

Our library contains Syriac, Sumeriac, Ethiopic, and Persian materials. Trinity’s legacies are therefore an outcome of a time when Irish people were deeply invested in the imperial project,  in much the same way that the ethnographic collections were built in the National Museum of Ireland or the holdings of the Royal Irish Academy. 

It is not difficult to discern a coyness about empire in Irish institutions like Trinity, or the former Queens Colleges at Cork and Galway, or indeed University College Dublin, each of which has produced generations of imperial graduates from all religious backgrounds. Irish universities have some work to do in confronting their imperial legacies and are some way behind global movements for doing so.

This is an important task, not just for the sake of transparency but because we must respond to the questions we are hearing from our students, who are increasingly animated by controversies such as #RhodesMustFall and the energy generated by Black Lives Matter.

The demographics of our student intake has altered significantly in the past decade and our classrooms now include many more students of dual, multi or biracial heritage. These students have probing questions about the links between Irish institutions and empire, and we have a responsibility to answer these questions. 

The Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute will host a Global Irish Network webinar on the topic of Irish Universities and Imperial Legacies this evening at 7 pm. Register here.

Ciaran O’Neill is Ussher Assistant Professor in Nineteenth-Century History at Trinity College Dublin and Deputy Director of Trinity Long Room Hub. He is editor, with Finola O’Kane-Crimmins, of the forthcoming book Ireland, Slavery and the Caribbean; Interdisciplinary Perspectives (MUP, 2021). 

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