Also published on http://www.consented.com
“The Library exists for students and researchers. Its name and statues reflect facts of history which, like the history of slavery itself, cannot be changed”.
This was the reply that Rhodes Must Fall Oxford received from British Economist, ex chair of the Independent Commission on Banking and Fellow of all souls college Sir John Vickers. It was in response to the demand that the college remove the statue of Christopher Codrington from the Library he funded, rename the Library, and set up a fellowship or scholarship within the university for students from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds to help amend for the literal enslavement upon which parts of the college stand.
Sir John Vickers also claims the college “actively seeks to remove or minimise disadvantages suffered by people due to their protected characteristics […] and in that spirit would very much welcome applications from candidates from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds.”
This seems disingenuous, as it limits applications for its prize fellowships to students who have already “matriculated at the University of Oxford”, a university which is well known for taking more students from Eton each year than black students and which, in 2010, admitted only one Afro-Caribbean student in it’s entire undergraduate intake.
Michelle Codrington, a descendent of one of Codrington’s slaves, certainly does not see the statue as a historical resource when she told RMFO in a statement that she must “confess that [she has] grown up in the shadow of Oxford University and yet as a descendant of slaves owned by the Codrington family [she] has never visited the library for many reasons. However, [her] ancestors toil and sweat was used to build a dynasty that has continued to be linked to education and learning.”
The college itself makes reference to the nasty nature of Codringtons wealth only once, in passing, and without condemnation, on the college website.
The only reference to Codrington to be found relays that the college received “a substantial legacy of £10,000 received by the College in 1710 from Christopher Codrington, sometime Fellow and governor general of the Leeward Islands. His family wealth principally derived from sugar plantations — worked by slaves — in Antigua and Barbados.”
Measuringworth.com tells us that, in today’s money, the real price of that “commodity” is £1,168,000.00, the labour value of that “commodity” is £20,460,000.00 and the income value of that “commodity” is £32,550,000.00.
A substantial amount of money whichever way you approach it. The statue itself, like that of Cecil Rhodes, is accompanied with a plaque which states (in latin) “Christopher Codrington, who built this library and enriched the books out of his will, A monument of gratitude for his spirit”, with no mention of slavery.
Within this time frame, and in this area of the world, slave owners were not particularly kind to their “property”, and torture was a common form of punishment.
Antigua saw a slave named Hercules conspire against his owner, one Mr Crump, in 1729. He was hanged, drawn and quartered, with three others burnt alive. In 1736, a slave called “Prince Klaas” attempted to orchestrate a slave revolt, Klaas, along with four of his accomplices were executed by the breaking wheel. Six slaves were starved to death whilst hanging from chains, with another 58 burned at the stake. Resistance was not taken lightly.
It is in this environment that Codrington amassed his great wealth, and it is this very history which the name and the statue in Codrington Library do nothing to reflect.
Enslaved women were regularly raped and impregnated, meaning many British colonial families had two ethnic strands. It became common practice for one strand to remain in the Caribbean, while the other returned to Britain.
Codrington stands, glorified, at the centre of the library he built atop a column which stands as high as most men. He is portrayed as muscular, regal and European. By his feet lie books, representing the “generous” donation he bequeathed to the library, in his hand, what appears to be some type of scroll or sceptre, rather than a whip or set of thumbscrews.
The statue is, by all accounts, an embarrassing glorification of a slave owner. That it remains in the college in 2016 is in itself a disgrace, that Orders of theBritish Empire are defending it with reference to its historical accuracy is to add insult to injury.
Were Jewish students to be subjected to a towering statue of Josef Mengele, dressed in his finest Roman silks and gazing stoically into the distance as they study in their College Library, I’m sure the response would be different.
Of course, the situations are not quite the same as, as far as I’m aware, All Souls College has never had a black prize fellow. It has just benefited from the denigration, enslavement and death of black bodies. No wonder that when RMFO marched past All Souls college this year, they chanted “All white souls, No Black bodies”.
I do not use the term “death” lightly. We are often taught of slavery from the relatively benign perspective of North America, or of Britain’s “leading role” in its abolishment (ignoring the years of pressure and resistance from slaves themselves and focusing solely on the efforts of St John’s Cambridge graduate William Wilberforce) yet few people know of the Haitian slave revolt, or of how Brazil’s history as one of the longest and most brutal players in the transatlantic slave trade played a fundamental role in its status as both the second largest black population in the globe and one of the most unequal along racial lines.
At times during the transatlantic slave trade countries such as Barbados were shipping in almost the equivalent of the entire population each year. Life expectancy of slaves in the British Caribbean was short, replacements were purchased on an annual basis. This, of course, refers to those who survived the voyage itself.
One recent estimate suggests that 12% of all Africans transported on British ships between 1701 and 1807 died in the “middle passage” to the West Indies and North America; others put the figure as high as 25%.
When Michelle Codrington was a child, her father received a call from All Souls asking if “as a Codrington” he wanted to donate to the Library to uphold the Codrington legacy. He did, of course, decline, but this anecdote is demonstrative of the type of history the college’s name and statute seeks to uphold, a history of benefaction and “generous” donations, rather than one of exploitation, slavery and death.
This article is littered with facts that reflect the history of slavery in all its brutality, exploitation, degradation and hatred, the legacy of which can be seen today across the Americas and in the global racial hierarchy.
Sir John Vickers, however, seems mistaken about the history of slavery, believing it to be some sort of Greco-Roman bibliophile’s paradise despite the fact that slaves were often punished for trying to read, if the statue of Codrington is to be seen as authoritative. I can assure him that, in this matter, he is mistaken.
The college had the chance to succeed where Oriel failed and show humility, regret and sensitivity to this flagrant dismissal of the histories and experiences of black students. It failed.
All souls is revered for producing famed and prolific moralists and philosophers such as Isaiah Berlin, Bernard Williams and Derek Parfit. When dealing with its own sordid past (and present), however, All Souls College, Oriel and the wider university (when I raised the issue of the Codrington Library to Vice Chancellor Louise Richardson she defended it by means of moral relativism, claiming that “when slavery was happening in the American south, only about five people thought it was wrong”) seem to be – for want of a better word – soulless.