Past Matters: the University of Bristol and transatlantic slavery

What responsibilities do we have today, as a result of the history and legacies of slavery and colonialism? This is a question of direct relevance to our University and one we’re currently exploring.

We estimate that around 85% of the wealth used to found our University depended on the labour of enslaved people (Stone 2018, forthcoming). Notably, enslaved labour can be linked to all three of the names represented in our University crest – Wills, Fry and Colston. We have a responsibility to acknowledge this and to be forthright and creative in responding to our history today.

One response would be to rename our buildings and change our crest. In March 2017, a group of Bristol students petitioned the University to rename the Wills Memorial Building. They argued that money donated by Henry Overton Wills III to found the University was originally made by importing and selling tobacco produced on plantations of the US South, where (until 1863) enslaved labour made up the majority of the workforce. In their view, a building named for Wills failed to respect the lives of those harmed by slavery.

Others believe that removing references to the past would obscure our history. An alternative response would be to keep these references, but take actions to ‘tell our history in the round’. For example, Bristol Cathedral placed a prayer honouring the lives of those harmed by transatlantic slavery beneath a stained-glass window of Bristol-born slave trader Edward Colston. This preserves history while acknowledging past injustices and expressing a commitment to opposing injustice today.

A third response would be to take actions that help address contemporary inequalities that have their origins in slavery and colonialism. For instance, All Souls College, Oxford responded to the legacies of Christopher Codrington (a college donor and plantation owner in Barbados) by establishing scholarships for students from the Caribbean.

There are many other examples of how communities today are addressing their histories and working for contemporary social justice. Our Past Matters project brings together students and staff to explore the history of our University and our buildings, and the history and legacy of slavery in Bristol and help shape our response. We’re also working with Universities Studying Slavery (an international collaboration based at University of Virginia) to consider global responses to the legacies of slavery. 

In consultation with a range of groups, Past Matters will help to make our historical links to slavery more explicit. Watch this space for updates.


Based in part on: Joanna Burch-Brown. 2017. ‘Is it wrong to topple statues and rename schools?’. Journal of Political Theory and Philosophy, vol 1., pp. 59-88.

Richard Stone. 2018. Working Paper #1 of the Past Matters group. University of Bristol.

Edit this page