Bristol Uni law faculty could be next in global student campaign to erase links with slavery

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By Alex Aldridge on

Movement to change Harvard Law School logo expected to highlight Bristol Law School slave labour ties


Harvard Law School students are pushing for the Ivy League institution to sever ties with its slave-holding history, leading rumours to swell that Bristol University could be next.

Bristol’s law school is located in the Wills Memorial Building (pictured above), which takes its name from tobacco industry giants the Wills family — whose fortunes are said to derive from slave-grown American tobacco. The family, who others say cannot be conclusively linked to the slave trade, financed the construction of the building.

Bristol University and Harvard have similar roots. The leading American Law School shares its crest with the coat-of-arms of Isaac Royall Jr, who was part of what was apparently the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts.

Disgruntled Harvard students are pushing for the law school to change the crest’s design, which features three wheat sheaves on a shield background.


Alexander Clayborne, one of the students involved in the Facebook-led campaign, says that the symbols “set the tone for the rest of the school”, adding that “the fact that we hold up the Harvard crest as something to be proud of when it represents something so ugly is a profound disappointment and should be a source of shame for the whole school”.

Movements of this kind are sweeping the globe, with a similar campaign taking shape at the University of Oxford. ‘Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford’ — which is pushing for a statue of “the founding father of Apartheid” Cecil Rhodes to be removed from Oriel College — has gained the support of over 3,500 on Facebook.

The Oxford campaign, which was co-founded by Keble College Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL) student Ntokozo Qwabe, takes inspiration from a successful operation launched at the University of Cape Town, which saw a statue of Rhodes removed by a crane while students cheered “amandla” (power), splashed red paint on the statue and wrapped the figure in paper.

Though no official line has been taken at Bristol University, rumours are circulating that the Wills Memorial Building — which is home to the Russell Group institution’s law school and provides the location of graduation ceremonies — will be next to feel the wrath of the student body. Indeed, there have already been murmurs.

Writing in Epigram, the university’s newspaper, student journo Jon Manning has spoken out against Bristol University’s coy attitude towards its heavy slavery links, namechecking the law school’s building.

Bristol University was essentially financed on the back of slave labour,” writes Manning. “While this is understandably an uncomfortable truth, one would expect an academic institution of the prestige that Bristol enjoys to in some way acknowledge this. However, no mention can be found of this fact on the university webpages devoted to the history of the university or the Wills Memorial Building.

He urges both the city and the university to “be more open and honest about their history”, though stops short of suggesting a name-change.

It is worth noting that although the Bristol Record Office, whose archives hold documents relating to Wills, says there is a chance that the family’s firm was involved indirectly in slave-related trade, Imperial Tobacco, which bought the firm in 1901, says it has no evidence of such a link.

Legal Cheek contacted the university for a comment about its historic links to slavery. They told us:

The University of Bristol has never denied its connection with the slave trade, however remote, and actively seeks ways to enhance public understanding through research and education.

Despite ties to the slave trade and tobacco industry, it is documented that the Wills family were also involved in a number of charitable activities. For example, the family donated money to the 1793 edition of a book written by former slave Olaudah Equiano, which is still used as an important historical resource today.

The university-led drive for greater standards of political correctness appears to be gathering momentum across the globe, and extends well beyond slavery and racism.

There is an increasing trend towards students wishing to protect the academic and educative value and credibility of their universities, and ban ideologies that challenge this.

In 2014, Dapper Laughs was forced to cancel a show at Cardiff University after a petition signed by 700 students objected to the controversial comedian’s sexist jokes and objectification of women. A petition has also been launched by the students’ union’s women’s officer, Rachael Melhuish, to ban Germaine Greer from speaking at an event this month after she “demonstrated misogynistic views towards trans women”.

More than 30 students’ unions banned Robin Thicke’s number one song ‘Blurred Lines’ over fears that the song’s lyrics trivialise sexual consent. UCL banned former student Macer Gifford from speaking about his experiences fighting Isis, and Bournemouth University banned the sale of lad mags in its student shop.

While there is considered support for these movements, there is also concern that students are becoming “ban-happy”, and that rights to free speech are being unnecessarily compromised. Others believe that students are going too far in their efforts to rewrite history.

Speaking about the Harvard campaign, visiting law school professor Daniel Coquillette told the Harvard Crimson:

As a historian…you just deal with the fact that this guy founded the school and tell the truth about it… To change things is to act like [they] didn’t happen, and that’s a mistake.