Built on slavery, like everything else

University of Glasgow archives and special collections, PHU1/104/1
Gilmorehill House during the construction of the University of Glasgow’s Main Building in the 1860s. University of Glasgow archives and special collections, PHU1/104/1

This post has been updated (23 March 2018)—see below.

The University of Glasgow, where I work, has a beautiful campus. It’s on Gilmorehill, perched above a bend in the river Kelvin in the west end of the city—a commanding position that features heavily in the university’s advertising. But the university only moved here in the 1860s and 70s, over four hundred years after its foundation in 1451. The shift was part of the general westward migration of wealth, power and influence in Glasgow in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which still very visibly marks the city. Before that, the university’s buildings had been set around College Green next to the High Street, near the cathedral: ‘some of the most remarkable C17 architecture in Scotland’, the Pevsner architectural guide to Glasgow says, ‘their loss was a tragedy’ (p. 335). But the university needed to sell that large site, to a subsidiary of the North British Railway Company, to pay for the move.

Most of the land the university now occupies on Gilmorehill was purchased as a single estate. It had been constituted in 1800-1803 by one Robert Bogle, who also had a substantial house built for himself here. The university bought the site in 1863 and building work began in April 1867 with the levelling of the hilltop, but the house itself was retained during construction as offices for the architects and contractors. The photograph above shows the house in the late 1860s, with the west quadrangle of the present-day main building going up around it: only after the official completion of the move was the house demolished.

The university’s archives and special collections tweeted the picture a week or two ago. I saw the picture when someone else I follow on Twitter, the Glaswegian musician (and Edinburgh PhD researcher) Diljeet Bhachu, asked what had happened to the house—then swiftly followed that up with a second tweet saying ‘Actually, never mind. A quick google says it was built by a slave owner.’ This was news to me: I’d never thought to find out what was on the hilltop before the university moved up here. But a little research soon introduced me to Robert Bogle of Gilmorehill and many other members of his family. It also brought me straight into contact with Glasgow’s history of slave-ownership, and with real-world examples of the euphemisms that cover it up—reminding me of the words of Catherine Hall, Nicholas Draper, and Keith McClelland:

Slave-ownership is virtually invisible in British history. It has been elided by strategies of euphemism and evasion originally adopted by the slave-owners themselves and subsequently reproduced widely in British culture.

—Hall et al., Legacies of British Slave-Ownership:
Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain (Cambridge, 2014), p. 1

The first of these was on the university’s own website, where the ‘University of Glasgow Story’, a database of historical information about people in the institution’s past, has a page about the vanished building. This notes that it was ‘built by the West Indies merchant Robert Bogle Junior’.

‘West Indies merchant’: this is one of the very examples that Hall and her colleagues give on the first page of their book, when they show how modern-day resources like the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, or the University of Glasgow Story, “continue to reflect (consciously or otherwise) the strategies of the slave-owners of the early nineteenth century, who evaded the very term ‘slave-owner’.” The database that they themselves produced, Legacies of British Slave-Ownership, is less coy: as well as being a ‘merchant’, in 1813 Robert Bogle of Gilmorehill inherited from his brother a quarter of Dunkley’s Dry River Estate in Jamaica, which had been producing sugar and rum since at least the 1780s. Other members of the family owned the rest.

Robert Bogle died in 1821, before the British empire finally abolished slavery, but when it did, in the 1830s, two hundred and eighty-six people were enslaved on the estate. Members and in-laws of the extended Bogle family, including Robert Bogle’s son Archibald, shared £6230 5s 8d in compensation from the British government for the ‘property’ they had lost: in the simplest terms of purchasing power parity that would come to well over half a million pounds at 2016 prices, though by other methods of calculating worth it’s a much more significant sum.* (I used the site MeasuringWorth.com for this.)

There are many other Glasgow Bogles in the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership database, and a couple in the ODNB. It’s a bit hard to trace the connections between them, not least because across several generations and several branches of the family the names George, Robert, and Archibald recur frequently. The LBSO database thinks Robert Bogle of Gilmorehill (?1757–1821) was the son of Archibald Bogle and Janet Cathcart. If that’s the case then he must have had a cousin of the same name, a similar age, and a near identical occupation: the ODNB entry for the George Bogle (1700–1784), ‘merchant’, who was four times Rector of the University of Glasgow, notes that his inheritor was his son Robert Bogle. It’s possible that these late C18th/early C19th Robert Bogles are in fact one and the same, but it’s just as likely that they shared a name—after all, George Bogle 1700-84 was the son of another Robert, and the father of another George.

In any case, two things are clear. First, many of the Glasgow Bogles profited from enslavement, and from the ‘compensation’ paid to slave owners after 1833. Second, modern-day reference works including the University of Glasgow Story and the (immensely larger and more authoritative) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography do a very good job of hiding the fact. The former has Robert Bogle, builder of Gilmorehill House, as an innocent-sounding ‘West Indies merchant’. The latter’s entry on George Bogle (1700-84) is packed with the sorts of euphemism that Catherine Hall and her colleagues identify: ‘Bogle’s mercantile career from the later 1720s was focused on the colonial trades of sugar and tobacco’; ‘His son Robert Bogle inherited the family estates, and the dynasty continued in the mercantile world.’

This is a direct example of the way wealth derived from enslavement shaped the city of Glasgow as we live in it today. As an example of the way enslavement shaped the University of Glasgow, it’s only indirect: this is about how the estate the university bought was constituted, not about the sources of the university’s own wealth. It would be interesting to know how the university profited directly from enslavement, as it surely did. But if the institution’s self-history, the ‘University Story’, euphemizes and disguises the role of enslavement in making the city, I doubt it’s ready to take a hard look at its own past.


UPDATE: A colleague informs me that I spoke too soon: the university is already investigating its connections with slavery, following a decision made by its senior management group (SMG) in July 2016. The following information—a preliminary acknowledgement—has now been prepared for the University Story; below that is the SMG’s statement.

Glasgow was one of Britain’s leading centres of trade with the Chesapeake and West Indian colonies, meaning that large amounts of slave-produced commodities such as tobacco, sugar, cotton and rum came into the city. First the ‘Tobacco Lords’ and then the ‘West India merchants’ were wealthy and powerful elites in and around Glasgow. While not all owned enslaved people and plantations, some did, and in both cases much of their wealth derived from slave labour.

The Senior Management Group (SMG) of the University of Glasgow issued a statement in July 2016 acknowledging that although the University was active in the movement to abolish the slave trade and slavery, the University also received gifts and bequests from persons who may have benefited from the proceeds of slavery. On the authorisation of SMG a research team is evaluating the nature and extent of the University’s connections with people who profited from slavery. At the same time, a steering committee is preparing a report for SMG so that it can adopt a series of measures designed to begin the process of addressing and redressing this history. As a first step, in 2017 the University of Glasgow became the first British University to join the international consortium of Universities Studying Slavery.

And here’s that statement on slavery, approved by the Senior Management Group on 11 July 2016:

The University of Glasgow acknowledges that during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it received some gifts and bequests from persons who may have benefitted from the proceeds of slavery. Income from such gifts and bequests has been used in supporting academic activity undertaken by the students and staff of the University.

The University notes that, during the era of slavery, many of its staff adopted a clear anti-slavery position. For example, the Principal and Clerk of Senate, on behalf of the Senate of the University, petitioned the House of Commons in 1788, and again in 1792, against slave holding and slave trading; in 1791, the University honoured William Wilberforce with the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws in recognition of his anti-slavery work; Adam Smith, Francis Hutcheson and John Millar all wrote against slavery in their publications; and James McCune Smith, an emancipated slave, graduated in medicine from the University of Glasgow in 1837, and, in so doing, became the first African-American in the world to graduate in medicine. Smith came to study at the University of Glasgow for this degree as he was barred from doing so in the United States because of his colour.

The Senior Management Group (SMG) of the University of Glasgow has instructed that research be undertaken and a report prepared on the University’s connections with those persons who may have benefitted from the proceeds of slavery. When it receives this report, the SMG will consider the most appropriate way of acknowledging those connections.


That initial research project is being carried out in the current academic year: see this report from last September in The Scotsman for more information. I look forward to seeing the results of the research—and the actions the university takes in response.


*To be in the same sort of relationship to the average wage today as someone earning a wage of £6230 5s 8d in 1835, you would need to be earning over £5m a year. Slaves, of course, were not paid a wage.


Tackling inequalities, the comfortable way


‘Tackle’ is one of my least favourite verbs—maybe not when it’s applied on the rugby field, but certainly when it’s used with abstract nouns and intractable social problems. This struck me a while ago when I read a career summary that mentioned the author’s professional experience of ‘tackling child poverty’. As I started writing this blog post I came across another example: a poster from the Glasgow Council on Alcohol, ‘tackling the misuse of alcohol’.

But what really made me start thinking about the way this word is used was the announcement, a couple of months back, of a £64.4m grant by The Atlantic Philanthropies to the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The purpose of this enormous grant is to endow a fellowships programme, running over twenty years, ‘to support leaders tackling inequalities’. It’s been bothering me ever since.

‘Tackling’. It sounds manly, purposeful. It summons up sporting images: the attacker rushes forward with the ball, the defender stops them short with one effective tackle. It’s guff.

What does ‘tackle’ mean, in this kind of context? ‘Making a good living out of’, perhaps, like the civil servants who work for the UK government’s Child Poverty Unit. Or perhaps not, because it’s not clear from its own website whether this unit is still functioning. The CPU set about ‘tackling the causes of disadvantage and transforming families’ lives’ with a 2011 strategy, aiming ‘to tackle poverty’—that’s a lot of tackling—‘by strengthening families and providing support to the most vulnerable’. But the CPU’s homepage hasn’t been updated in three years: a new strategy, it says, ‘will be published in 2014’. And despite all this resolute tackling, child poverty in Britain has steadily worsened since 2011. So perhaps ‘tackle’ means ‘do nothing to hinder’. (The Glasgow Council on Alcohol says it’s been tackling the misuse of alcohol for fifty years: you don’t have to spend long walking around the city to see how effective it’s been.)
Glasgow Council on Alcohol

Now, as it happens, the worst child poverty rates in the UK are not in Glasgow, where I live, or in the most deprived local authority areas of England, like Blackpool: they’re in London. Of the 20 local authorities with the highest rates of child poverty, 14 are in London (pdf; figures for late 2014). London is a highly unequal city: if it’s housed at LSE, a project that aims to ‘tackle inequalities’ can find plenty on its doorstep.

But everything about this project, from the press release on, suggests that ‘tackle’ here is more likely to mean ‘reproduce’, if not ‘structurally reinforce’.

All publicity is good publicity, as long as it reproduces social hierarchy

Let’s start with the press release, and the very obvious inequalities that it manifests. It names, and quotes, the co-directors of the International Inequalities Institute, who will run the new fellowships programme: two middle-aged white men. It names, and quotes, the director of LSE: a middle-aged white man. It names, and quotes, the CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies, the foundation that’s endowed the programme: a middle-aged white man. Then it gives contact details for the corporate communications and PR staff at the LSE and Atlantic who are meant to field any enquiries that the press release might generate: two younger white women at the LSE and one younger Iranian-American man at Atlantic.* It doesn’t quote any of these three, though, as they’re not in positions of power. So the press release for a programme ‘tackling inequalities’ itself reproduces fundamental inequalities of gender, race, age, and class, without a thought for how that looks. Only the privileged can be so thoughtless.

In fact, the press release doesn’t even mention anyone who’s at the sharp end of inequality, the end where most people in the US and the UK, let alone the world, actually live. They’re not people: they’re a set of abstract problems, ‘inequalities’. People might have politics, a word that’s also missing from the press release.

Now, I’m a white man working at a big, old university; not quite middle-aged yet, but pushing 40. Obviously I like to think that I’m a decent sort of chap. But on all those spectrums of gender, race, age, and class, I’m on the side that’s doing nicely out of inequality. So I have to admit that if anyone who really wanted to ‘tackle inequality’ came looking for me, they’d be carrying a hook and a length of rope, not a £64.4m grant.

For he that hath, to him shall be given

Then there’s the fellowship programme’s host institution, the London School of Economics and Political Science. By British standards, if not by American ones, the LSE is a wealthy institution. The size of its endowment is a good measure of that (for reasons explained in this blog post).

Only two British universities have endowments of over a billion pounds: Cambridge and Oxford, as you’d expect. (They’re both well clear of a billion, in fact, respectively close to £6 billion and around £4.25 billion). Most universities in Britain have endowments that are a tiny fraction of that, from a few thousand pounds—basically operating off annual teaching, research, and commercial income—to £25 million. As of 2015, ten UK universities had endowments of £25–50 million, and nine of £50–100 million. Apart from Oxbridge, only eight universities had endowments of over £100 million: Edinburgh and Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, and four institutions in the University of London system: King’s, UCL, Imperial… and the LSE, whose ranking in this table (the impressively well-documented Wikipedia page listing UK universities by endowment**) will presumably rise sharply in 2016: this one grant will increase it by more than half.

640px-LSE_main_entranceAnd LSE is considerably richer than it appears from a simple mine’s-bigger-than-yours comparison of endowment size. First, it is much smaller than any of the other institutions in the top ten: far fewer students, far fewer staff.⁂ So LSE’s considerable endowment is spread rather thicker. Second, unlike the rest of these universities, which cover a broad range of subjects from medicine to medieval history, LSE is—as its name suggests—a specialist institution. It covers a relatively narrow set of subjects, mostly in the social sciences. Its endowment isn’t needed to fund the acquisition of supercomputers, advanced laboratory equipment, or expensive library books in the biomedical sciences.

In the extremely unequal landscape of UK higher education, then, LSE is very privileged. Within the school, other inequalities are also reproduced: gender distribution of academic staff, for example, is ‘similar to levels seen across the sector’ (pdf; see fig. 13)—ie, highly unequal, with under 40% being women. (How that distribution breaks down at different levels of seniority is not clear.) Located as it is in the middle of one of the world’s most expensive cities, LSE probably disproportionately attracts students from a background of high household income, though that figure isn’t so easy to find.†

Is this a problem? The forces that create these inequalities are way beyond the LSE’s control. But if I had £64.4m and I wanted to spend it on tackling inequalities, I wouldn’t start at the LSE—unless I was giving it to the cleaners.

For ‘tackle’, read ‘structurally reinforce’

The details of the grants programme are no more reassuring. “The 20-year fellowship initiative”, according to the press release, “will train the next generation of leaders seeking to influence and facilitate changes in global policy and practice to enable greater equality, opportunity and outcomes for all. It is expected that well over 600 Atlantic Fellows will be developed across geographic and disciplinary boundaries over the duration of the programme.”

There are two problems here. The first is the absolute refusal to acknowledge that ‘inequality’ is the outcome of political choices, economic exploitation, or social structures: is something that people with power do to other people. If you saw an angry man choking a child, you wouldn’t seek to facilitate changes in his behaviour to enable greater opportunities for that child to breathe. This degree of abstraction would be laughable if it weren’t so disgraceful.

The second problem is the focus on ‘leaders’. The press release continues:

“Aimed at academics, activists, policy-makers, journalists, lawyers, health professionals, cultural leaders, writers and creative artists, the Atlantic Fellows programme has been designed with the flexibility to offer different levels of engagement in order to create and continue to support an international community of diverse multidisciplinary and action-oriented leaders.”

Even in Britain, a wealthy country where participation in two world wars resulted in several decades of social democracy within living memory, every single one of these different fields is highly unequal, and disproportionately dominated by the privileged. Academia is the example I know best: it’s not the worst, but it’s pretty bad. The further up the hierarchy you go from first-year undergraduate to endowed professor to vice-chancellor, the fewer state-educated people you find; the fewer women you find; the fewer people of colour you find. The same in politics, journalism, law, medicine, the creative arts. So a fellows programme aimed at people in these sectors will, from the start and by design, disproportionately benefit privately-educated white men. This is a global programme, so the precise complexion of privilege will vary according to the hierarchies in place in the countries from which fellows are recruited. But it’s the privileged who’ll benefit most. There’s no evidence that the institute has even considered a strategy to offset this.

In other words, a programme intended to ‘tackle’ inequalities has been set up in such a way that it will simply reproduce them. Note the words of LSE Director, Craig Calhoun: “This remarkable grant will enable LSE’s new International Inequalities Institute to scale up faster, join students and researchers across departmental lines, and prepare generations of engaged practitioners to have an even more profound impact.” The prime beneficiary of the multi-million pound grant tackling inequalities, in other words, is the LSE’s new academic institute itself. The intended outcome is for that institute ‘to scale up faster’. And what, precisely, will that do to limit, moderate, reduce, or—God help us—end inequality?


* I guessed the ethnicity from his surname, and confirmed it by looking him up online. As an Iranian-American, he’s ‘Caucasian’ by the US census categories, though I wouldn’t want to second-guess his life experiences; he’s certainly the closest to a person of colour mentioned in this document.

** The 405 references for this page (as at 18 August 2016)  are almost all directly to universities’ own financial statements. University press offices would edit the information if it were incorrect.

⁂ The others all have between twenty and forty thousand students, except Imperial, which has under 17,000 students. But that’s still more than half as big again as LSE, with its 10,600 students. (These figures are from 2014/15.) These other comparably wealthy universities also have at least twice as many academic staff as LSE—most have three, four, five times as many.

† LSE offers bursaries of up to £4,000/year to UK and EU students from lower-income households, but its 2015 ‘Context Statistics’ document doesn’t give a breakdown of students by household income. If the Higher Education Statistics Agency collects such information, it doesn’t make it easily available on its website either.

Click images for source.
LSE Old Building picture credit: Umezo Kamata (CC BY-SA 3.0)