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The shameful truth of how slavery paid for fine library
SLAVERY has made an indelible mark on the film world – 12 Years A Slave won the Bafta Best Picture Award last week and is tipped to win the Oscar next week. But has slavery left its mark on Oxford?
The most prestigious example of how slavery shaped Oxford is the Codrington Library at All Souls College, one of the most beautiful buildings in the university.
Named after Christopher Codrington, this building is a monument to the power of slavery. Codrington was born in 1668 in Barbados, the centre of Britain’s slave islands where sugar plantations amassed enormous wealth based on the labour of African slaves.
His father was Captain-General of the Leeward Islands and owned one of the most wealthy plantations in Barbados. In 1685 he expanded his empire by leasing the nearby island of Barbuda from the British Crown at the rent of one fat sheep per year “if demanded” until 1870.
Young Christopher was educated at Christ Church and became a Fellow of All Souls before taking his father’s title of Captain-General and running the plantations.
When he died in 1710, his will, found in one of his boots, left £10,000 to All Souls – £6,000 of that to build a library and £4,000 to purchase books.
He also instructed that all his plantations in the West Indies were to be kept “intire” with “at least three hundred negroes to work the land” at a time when iron collaring and public whipping continued unabated.
Christopher Codrington also left an 800-acre estate to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to found a missionary college. So in 1710 the Anglican Church became slave owners and its slaves were branded on the chest with the word “Society” to remind people that these were slaves of the Lord.
In 1834 after the abolition of slavery when the Church and the plantation owners were forced to release them, the British Parliament paid £20m – about £16.5bn today – as appropriate compensation for the loss of “property”, meaning slaves.
The slaves, of course, received nothing out of this experience. Oxford received the Codrington Library.
Members of the Codrington family live in Oxfordshire. I met Michelle Codrington from Jericho to find out what she thought of the library and the slave trade.
“The Codrington family is a broad family,” she said. “There are lighter Codringtons and darker Codringtons.”
Slaves of British planters usually took the name of their masters and Michelle’s forebears worked on the Codrington plantations and were based in Barbados, the island where slaves were taken to be broken, tamed. She told me: “This meant breaking their spirit, their sense of self. It was emotional, physical and mental torture.
“Despite the history I’m proud of the name Codrington. I’m not proud of slavery, but I ‘own’ it You can’t deny slavery and pretend it’s not there, but my slave ancestors have gone through a lot for me to be sitting here today in Oxford doing the things I want to do.
“I owe it to them to acknowledge what they did to survive. I carry their story in my DNA, and I’m proud of that.”
We discussed reparations for slavery, because the Prime Minister of St Vincent has recently started a legal class action “to redress one of the great horrors of the 18th and 19th centuries: the transatlantic slave trade”.
The movement has gained momentum and Calypso singer Glenroy Caesar has composed a song called Reparations that is the unofficial anthem.
He said: “Reparation doesn’t totally and necessarily mean financial compensation. It’s about recognising a wrong, about recognising that slavery was an injustice against humanity. And about us retrieving our history.”
Michelle says reparations can’t make up for slavery. “It’s very easy for people to slip into a ‘slave mentality’ where angry people are unable to divorce the past from the present and the future. We need to understand the strands of our past narrative and plan for the future and create a space so we can have that conversation without emotion.”
Michelle has never entered the Codrington Library. She says if she were to visit she would be upset by how it was funded.
“Yes, the Codrington family could afford to be altruistic when the money was made on the backs of others, of slaves. “This is absurd…this Codrington Library, a monument to one remembered for his links to slavery. It’s too close to home.”
When Michelle was a small girl, the phone at home rang and someone asked her father “as a Codrington” to donate to the Codrington Library fund to help preserve this monument.
Her father replied: “We’ve already given you more than enough.”