Many who enter the hallowed halls of libraries, universities, and colleges will find that rooms, parts of and entire buildings are named after people, very usually men. These people and their families have bequeathed large sums to make such an infrastructure possible for the benefit of knowledge. And for that, we all are very grateful.
I, for one, enjoy working in the (upper and lower) Gladstone Link of the Bodleian Library, a rather unglamorous subterranean space dotted with warning signs to readers that the ceiling is hazardously low. There are so many books on history, critical theory, film, and literature in the Gladstone Link that they must be squeezed vertically on mobile shelves (see image above). The Gladstone Link is named after the 19th-century British prime minister William Gladstone who, so it happens, was also credited for the invention of the ingenious space-saving mobile shelves.
While doing research on female indentured labour and their legacy in Malaya, I found that Sir John Gladstone, father of William, was a prominent slave owner in the Caribbean and an advocate of indentured labour. In fact, John Gladstone introduced indentured labour into the Caribbean after slavery was abolished in the British empire in 1833. He was a chair of the West Indian Association and an MP, making him both a politician and a planter who owned more than 2000 slaves in the Caribbean.
Now, the link between slavery and the Gladstones is downplayed in British history and biographical writings (see Quinault, 2009), mostly likely due to shame and embarrassment. More embarrassing it seems because slave-owning families continue to benefit from huge reparations after abolition. John Gladstone was paid the modern equivalent of £5 million after abolition, but continued to profit afterwards in the sugar industry on the backs of indentured labour in the Caribbean.
The juxtaposition between the tranquil and edifying space of the Gladstone Link today and the Gladstone Link With Slavery is horrifying and nauseating. In a distant past far from the polite society in middle and upper-class Britain, the ‘Gladstone coolies’, named after their master, were flogged with cat-o-nine tails for misconduct on the plantation and rubbed salty pork pickle into their wounds (Erickson, 1934). Although they were not slaves, indentured labourers were still less than human.
While William Gladstone had a rich political life, defecting from Conservative during his early years as MP to a Liberal prime minister, and administering over electoral reforms that gave working class men the vote, his position on slavery was less salubrious. His position on the matter as a young Tory MP was the same as his father the slave owner. Reasons behind their rejection of absolute emancipation were both pragmatic and righteous; to protect the family’s financial interests that had also helped propelled them into politics and that black people (and later the Indian) lacked a morality to govern themselves.
The Gladstone Link is indeed an ironic name for its link with slavery and the wealth that helped build not just institutions of learning but Britain itself. Other places named after people linked to slavery (Tate, Rhodes) are ‘rehabilitated’ today through the different kind of wealth they leave behind; in education, culture, and the arts for the general public and the world.
Should contemporary users of such spaces boycott them to resist colonial complicity? Massive Attack for instance have refused to perform at Colston Hall in Bristol where slaves were once sold to traders. In the case of libraries that weren’t used in the direct exploitation of people but nonetheless had benefited from it, the answer is less clear due to how inextricably linked wealth and access to knowledge are to the bondage of history.
Erickson, Edgar (1934) ‘The introduction of East Indian coolies into the British West Indies’, The Journal of Modern History, 6, 2, pp. 127-146.
Quinault, Ronald (2009) ‘Gladstone and slavery’, The Historical Journal, 52, 2, pp. 363-383.