THE UNIVERSITY OF LIVERPOOL’S DECISION ON GLADSTONE HALLS
On June 10, Dr David Jeffery (British Politics lecturer at Liverpool University) outlined his take regarding the renaming of Gladstone Halls. He deemed it a ‘stupid decision’ to give in to the demands of ‘historically-illiterate students’. I know that Dr Jeffery is an expert in his field, but as a History student, I’d like to challenge his view that we are ‘historically illiterate’. Of course, we are fully aware of Gladstone’s achievements: that’s what gets taught. However, one of the things that I have learned as a History student is that history is rarely adequately encompassed in a single narrative. Glorifying him only ignores the full picture of William Gladstone’s history – and, as History students, we like to understand not only the complexities of the past, but also the complexities of how it is written about and represented: whose stories get heard and whose stories get obliterated from public memory. It is vital to have an informed conversation about the past that is open to nuance about how and why the past gets represented in specific ways at specific historical moments.
Dr Jeffery is keen to ‘stand up for the right thing’ and highlight the positive aspects of Gladstone’s life, family and career. However, in doing so he seems to be adopting the attitude of imperial amnesia which ironically, the university is fighting to expose and defeat. Are we (by this I mean white, privileged people) appeasing our own conscience? Are we glorifying the past in an attempt to make ourselves feel better about our own history? Isn’t it the “right thing” to question the past and give voice to those who previously have been silenced?
I do agree that during Gladstone’s times as Prime Minister he promoted radical reforms. However, there seems to be a difficulty in representing Gladstone as a more complex figure, with much to admire but also much that is offensive to many citizens. Yes, Gladstone campaigned for the abolition of slavery, but in doing so he primarily advocated for the compensation and apprenticeship scheme which ultimately benefitted his family. The Gladstones received much ‘more than £90,000, about £9.5m in today’s terms, as compensation for the slaves they were forced to free’. Therefore, we must ask ourselves, as critical thinkers, are we prioritising the side of history that makes us feel good about our past or are we seeing and accepting the whole picture?
The local historian Malik Al Nasir, whose ancestors were enslaved by the Gladstone family, understandably has a different perspective from Dr Jeffery’s “reverence for W.E Gladstone”. Al Nasir has provided me with his archival research demonstrating how William Gladstone worked to fulfil father’s political and financial aims.
It is clear that although Gladstone advocated for the abolition of slavery, in doing so was fulfilling his father’s financial agenda of compensation. Al Nasir explains that ‘W. E Gladstone advocated in Parliament explicitly for more compensation for his father’s plantations in Demerara and also petitioned for a further £100,000 after the apprenticeship system was due to end in 1840. All of this he and his siblings inherited in 1851 after John Gladstone’s death, shown in his father’s will.’
See for yourself on the Legacies of British Slave Ownership webpage that reveals the true extent of the compensation John Gladstone received. In fact he was the largest single beneficiary of the slavery compensation scheme.
It is important to note that we are not holding W.E Gladstone accountable for his father’s actions. However, we are concerned with his compliance in securing significant financial benefits from the abolition and exploiting the apprenticeship system to squeeze the last penny out of the people his father enslaved. They were both responsible, the father exploited the slave trade; the son exploited the way in which abolition was brought about.
Certainly to me, it seems that although Gladstone was indeed – at times – a key liberal reformer, it is impossible to think of him only as such. In doing so, this denies his role in arguably the most racist piece of legislation Britain has ever passed. The Abolition of Slavery Act (1833) deemed the slaves not as human beings, but as ‘property’ which required compensation to the owners.
Here we see the complex nature of history and by remembering one side of it or suggesting that ‘people’ at the time did not feel our contemporary anger, we continue to silence the enslaved who were also ‘people’, whose anger was very much present in the past and was equally silenced then.
Malik Al Nasir has said that ‘It is time for us to support calls for The University of Liverpool to fully fund a comprehensive study into its own contested past, as far as slavery is concerned. Considering Liverpool’s pivotal role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, it is absurd that they have not yet announced an inquiry, as has been concluded by University of Glasgow and is being undertaken currently at University of Cambridge, University of Bristol and others in the UK. These are a sort of ‘truth and reconciliation’ process that is essential to bringing about a balanced view of history and a modicum of restorative justice for the victims of this most grotesque crime against humanity.’
I also am calling for action by The University of Liverpool and institutions alike. Action that goes beyond words or simple virtue signalling. Our University’s history is intertwined with slavery and its abolition so, we need to recognise this in full so that we may grow and become an inclusive institution that actively fights against racism and whitewashed education. My suggestion is that the university, and readers, should donate to the Laurence Westgaph’s fund to raise money for a memorial to commemorate enslaved people who lived, died and were buried in the city.