Within the last decade, a number of universities in the Global North have begun to come to terms with the complicity of the academe in the legitimisation, perpetuation and erasure from intellectual memory of the Transatlantic Slave trade and attendant practice of slavery. Particular interest is being paid to financial gains, direct and indirect, as well as in some cases the use of actual labour of persons enslaved.[NB: I avoid as much as possible, using the word, ‘slave’. People, human beings, were kidnapped, held in captivity and tortured; their dignity, lives and labour were stolen. Let us say it as it is]. In the following paragraphs, I will try and enumerate my current thoughts on universities in the Global North coming to terms with their entanglement with mass kidnap. These are my thoughts as they stand now. I also take into account my privileged and subjective position as an African legal scholar in a university in the Global North.
A brief note on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the practice of slavery
While we do not have a well defined start date, we know that the Portuguese had begun capturing, enslaving and trafficking African people around the 1440s. For context, in England, the Wars of the Roses had yet to begin. The height of the trade in African people happened between the 16th and 19th century. At least 12 million Africans were taken to the Americas and enslaved between 1532 and 1832 and at least a third of them in British ships. 12 million is a conservative estimate and KBC Onwubiko puts the number closer to 20 million people that were taken from African shores. (A lot of the discrepancies in numbers comes from there being no accounting for the number of Africans killed during capture and numbers that died while being forcibly transported across the seas.) The continuing crime of enslaving people lasted for such a long time (400+ years) because it was extremely profitable for those who benefited from it. In 1700, a person would be sold for about £3. Upkeep was kept to the minimum and output to the maximum. The atrocities visited upon the enslaved at all stages were innumerate. One example is the captain of the ship Zong who threw 133 of his African captives overboard so he could claim the insurance. The last known slave ship, which carried captives to Cuba, sailed in 1866. For context, this was the year that Alfred Nobel invented dynamite. Humanity went from fighting with bows and arrows to blowing ourselves up with dynamite, but kept on thinking selling human beings, treating them as less than human, subjecting them to unimaginable indignities, was nothing particularly reprehensible. During the same time, universities in the Global North were set up and expounded many opinions on subjects such as law, reason, human equality and the common good. A lot of these opinions revolved around, as Lewis Gordon puts it ‘questions of who constitutes the truly human and who does not.’
Universities’ legacies in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the practice of slavery
One of the things that was overwhelming remarkable about the Transatlantic trade in humans and the abuse of human dignity and human labour it enabled, is the intellectual legitimisation and organisation that underpinned this process for over 400 years. This large scale dehumanisation, murder, rape and exploitation, in all senses, was enabled and maintained by the intellectual development of a decidedly anti-Black ideology, mostly by academics, sometimes housed in universities (for example: Blumenbach, Kant, Hegel). It was also backed up by sophisticated legal organisation, arguments of the validation, and quite a lot of actual legislation written up by lawyers who at the same time were making arguments in support of human dignity, equality of men, rights to property etc. For example, the French Code noir (1685) which defined the conditions of slavery in the French colonial empire.
For such a horrible practice that lasted so long, that was so entrenched in and supported by law, economic and politics, was intrinsically and deeply embedded in all structures of society, and had such a heavy influence on the colonisation practices that followed therefrom… it is unbelievably amazing that we could begin to imagine its effects have been completely wiped out in less than half the time that it lasted for. However, some universities are now beginning to engage with some understanding of their role in the enslaving human beings and benefiting from it, and the legacies of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade that remain with us.
Brown University in the USA established a Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice (CSSJ), which has a series of programs to engage with questions about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, its legacies and ramifications for the present. One of the reasons, Brown’s approach is considered exemplary is because of the centre’s focus on research and their desire to engage with complex questions about how present realities link with the practice of slavery. Other universities in the US such as the University of Georgetown and the University of Virginia have engaged with their histories by organising talks and putting in place bursaries for descendants of enslaved people. On this side of the Atlantic, the University of Glasgow did some research into its role in slavery and in September 2018 proposed a plan of restorative justice. In 2019, thus far, Cambridge University and the University of Bristol have announced their intentions to ‘explore’ their links with slavery. Cambridge’s plans have received criticism for not extending to its colleges – meaning the inquiry is exceptionally limited – and also for having very few descendants of enslaved peoples involved in the process as such. The University of Bristol plans to appoint an academic historian to investigate its links with slavery. Plans are pretty vague at the moment.
I definitely applaud any attempt to ‘come to terms’ with a University’s role in slavery – there are more universities doing nothing than those attempting to do something. However, I am cautious that these ‘explorations’ may become a PR stunt or a marketing sop to ‘diversity’. We also run the risk of doing more harm than good, by using a structure to repair the damage that was done by said structure. There are many ways in which academics have tried to understand how academia acknowledges and somehow ‘deals with’ legacies of slavery and colonialism within their institutions, and there at least as many ways to get it wrong. I think it is vital to these processes to locate ourselves as researchers and teachers, and as a continuing part of the university’s legacy. My constant fear is that in the process of universities ‘coming to terms’, our proposals can turn out to be non-contextualised recommendations that do not take into account the embedded and extended nature of slavery and the slave trade. In that sense, the recommendations may reproduce harm and serve not to open, but to end the conversation about the legacies of slavery. For example, with an apology and no more, the response to criticisms of inadequacy could easily be: We have apologised now, what more do you want??? When is justice too much? How we quantify our efforts depends on who we place at the centre of them. When we place ourselves (we in the university) at the centre, we are tempted to only ask, ‘have we not done enough?’ But when we place those most impacted by the legacies we explore, at the centre of our concerns, there is only one question to drive us: ‘Is the job done?’
There is such a massive disconnect between the management of universities and the academic staff, that academia and management singing from the same hymn sheet may be completely impossible. Yet it is management who usually green lights these explorations. But what if as teachers and researchers in universities across the Global North, we take charge over what we still minimally control? What if we put our bodies on the line? What if we put effort into what we are experts at? i.e. teaching and research, specifically on slavery and the slave trade. What if we produced as academics, over the next couple of years, a body of highly scholarly work describing how colonial legacies and legacies of the slave trade are reproduced in different areas within our disciplines, within law, history, medicine, economics, literature, sociology, sports science, anthropology, artificial intelligence, environmental science, philosophy, international relations, politics, biology etc? What if we put all this research into our curricula? What if we showed to our students, in very concrete terms, exactly how the past bleeds into the present, how we walk side by side with histories ghosts, how we breathe coloniality every day, how our collective history is literally present in every single thing we do?… I believe this would have a more long-lasting effect when done with other measures such appropriate acknowledgement, scholarships, community-based research and plaques.
But while we do this, we also need to be aware of the position we occupy in the Global North. As judges of what amounts to excellent knowledge, as producers of supposed universality, as enablers of epistemicide.* So, while universities in the Global North should definitely be encouraged to assess what they GAIN and continue to gain from slavery and the slave trade, it would be much much better if we were to assess what African and African descended people have LOST and continue to lose to slavery and the slave trade and the ideologies set in motion by it. Ideologies that bleed into everything we do. Any research that focuses only on what a single university gained (or gains), in purely financial terms, completely looks away from the harm, and places the Global North at the centre of the world. It attempts to compartmentalise and atomise the gains, and minimise them as discretely identifiable monetary sums. It essentialises ‘bad people’ and ignores the system and structure that enabled the harm that was and is anti-Blackness. It risks reproducing anti-Blackness in newer and more acceptable forms. For over 400 years, slavery and slave trade was human reality, capturing people, raping, killing, torturing and using them as farm tools and livestock, just so that a few people could be richer than the rest of the world. This is who we are. This is our reality. Universities should study the world as it is, not the world as we think it is. This is us. This is our world. ↓↓↓↓↓
*An epistemicide is a systematic destruction of any indigenous knowledge base. It is the destruction of any knowledge which is different from the perpetrator’s knowledge system. It is predicated on the rejection of fusion or exchange of knowledge but is predisposed to complete disregard of the other’s knowledge. The destruction of the indigenous other’s knowledge base is the precursor for the physical annihilation of the other. [See for example, de Sousa Santos, Boaventura. Epistemologies of the South: Justice against epistemicide. Routledge, 2015.]
Beckles, Hilary. Britain’s black debt: reparations for Caribbean slavery and native genocide. Vol. 195. Kingston: University of West Indies Press, 2013.
Blumenbach, Johann Friedrich, Thomas Bendyshe, Karl Marx, Pierre Flourens, Rudolph Wagner, and John Hunter. The Anthropological Treatises of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach... Anthropological Society, 1865.
de Sousa Santos, Boaventura. Epistemologies of the South: Justice against epistemicide. Routledge, 2015.
Eze, Emmanuel Chukwudi, ed. Race and the enlightenment: A reader. Wiley-Blackwell, 1997.
Gordon, Lewis R. Disciplinary decadence: Living thought in trying times. Routledge, 2015.
Harris, Leslie M., James T. Campbell, and Alfred L. Brophy. Slavery and the university: histories and legacies. 2019.
Maldonado-Torres, Nelson. “On the Coloniality of Being: Contributions to the Development of a Concept.” Cultural studies 21, no. 2-3 (2007): 240-270.