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.

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