Even as those who oppose reparations argue it is unfeasible or too costly, one British university is proving that it is both possible and necessary to make amends for the enslavement and genocide of African people. While the steps made so far may not seem so substantial, this institution could provide a model for others to follow.
The University of Glasgow made £200 million ($255 million) from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, according to a comprehensive report, and because of that will make reparations through a “reparative justice program” and establishing ties with the University of the West Indies. Reparative justice — which is known by various terms such as “restorative justice,” “communitarian justice,” “making amends,” “positive justice,” “relational justice” and “community justice” — responds to criminal behavior by balancing the needs of the community, the victims and offenders, according to the United Nations.
As opposed to retributive justice — which focuses on criminal punishment for the offender of an individual act, such as retaliation or “an eye for an eye” — reparative justice is about a people’s collective responsibility for committing wrongs, for stealing that which they had no legitimate right to own during times of enslavement or genocide. The reparations do not necessarily take the form of a cash payment to victims to alleviate suffering. According to Restorative Justice International, a global criminal justice reform association advocating for an expansion of victims-driven restorative justice, such a system places victims first, while holding the offenders accountable by having them learn how to make things right from the victims’ perspective.
“Restorative justice repairs the harm caused by crime. When victims, offenders and community members meet to decide how to do that, the results can be transformational,” notes the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation.
In the report “Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow,” which was released in September 2018, the university “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 of Glasgow says it never owned or traded in enslaved people. The educational institution graduated the first African-American in medicine, and much of its staff had a clear pro-abolitionist position. Nevertheless, the university resolved to decide how to address and understand this history, and, looking ahead, use its resources to increasing understanding of the legacy of slavery, eliminating racism, and promoting racial equality in education and the greater society.
Although the University of Glasgow points to its abolitionist past with pride, it had forgotten that it benefited financially from the profits of enslavement, and trade in goods produced by enslaved people, according to the report. Between 1727 and 1838, at least 133 of its students (3 percent) came from the Caribbean, typically the sons of planters and merchants who enslaved others. Some of these students were likely the children of Scottish men and enslaved or free Black women. “Many Scottish graduates went on to live and work in the slave societies of the Caribbean and North American colonies. As Glaswegian and Scottish merchants, planters, bankers, shipbuilders and others grew wealthy through the slave economy, some of the money they made (or left to their descendants) was passed on to the University of Glasgow, often by grateful alumni” the report noted. While the thousands of enslaved people who created this wealth are unknown, the university acknowledges, it is important to remember the lives and experiences of these people, some of whom are identified in the report.
For example, Ardoch and Beniba worked on the Lucky Hill sugar plantation in Jamaica, regarded by some historians as the harshest system of enslavement ever. These people faced violence, malnutrition, disease and oppressive 96-hour weeks, on average. This resulted in low life expectancy and high mortality for enslaved African people in Jamaica. According to the report, “at least one million enslaved Africans were disembarked on British-ruled Jamaica, yet even with natural increase only 385,000 people of African origin were still alive when the slave trade ended in 1807. With annual mortality rates ranging between 3%-7% far more enslaved people died each year than were imported from Africa or were born on the island.” One quarter of enslaved children on a typical plantation died before adulthood, and most of those who survived died before reaching age 40. “Those who survived into their thirties were by then unwell, maimed or exhausted, and the few who survived beyond their mid-forties were often considered elderly and decrepit,” the report said.
The report from Glasgow comes as other universities assess their role in the enslavement of Black people and the debt they owe, and CARICOM nations demand justice from the European colonial powers in the form of reparations. This past November, corporations have paid reparations for their wartime human rights atrocities. South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of Japan to pay reparations to South Koreans who were forced laborers during World War II. Meanwhile, the Netherlands state-owned rail company Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) announced, under threat of being sued, that it will compensate survivors and relatives of those it delivered to the Nazi death camps. During Hitler’s regime, NS was paid £2.2 million ($2.8 million) in today’s money to transport 102,000 Jews to European concentration camps.
Taking cues from other universities that admitted they benefited from African enslavement, such Brown, Yale and Georgetown, the University of Glasgow estimated how much it profited from slavery based on many of their benefactors had ties to slavery. For example, out of 200 endowments, scholarships and prizes, 43 had a possible link to slave trade profits, and 16 had a clear connection. In some cases, the university was able to determine that some benefactors derived most or all their wealth from slavery. Although the university found that determining the exact amount of historic gifts and their present-day value is extremely difficult, it is clear the university “enjoyed a significant financial benefit from slave-holding and the profits made from slave-ownership and the trade in slave-produced goods.”
Moving forward, the University of Glasgow has undertaken a number of reparative actions, including increasing racial diversity of students and staff, and scholarships to Afro-Caribbean students; establishing ties with the University of the West Indies; an interdisciplinary center for the study of historical and modern slavery; a professorship for historical slavery and reparative justice; a new commemorative building to increase understanding of the university’s history, and other initiatives.
Attempting to repair the damage done to millions of African people and their descendants is no small task. Estimates of the debt the U.S. alone owes to Black people for the legacy of enslavement ranges in the multiple trillions of dollars. Nevertheless, repairing the damage requires a first step of admitting the crimes committed by society and its institutions and making amends for the theft, rape and pillaging. At least the University of Glasgow has taken that step.