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George Berkeley  by John Smibert oil on canvas, 1730 40 in. x 29 1/2 in. (1016 mm x 749 mm) Given by Reverend William Josiah Irons, 1882 Primary Collection NPG 653

Berkeley, Slavery, and Colonialism

Context and Research

TCL

Why is Berkeley's legacy contested?

The naming of Trinity’s main library after Bishop George Berkeley in 1978 has come under increasing scrutiny over the past two years. Berkeley’s history as a slaveowner who bought and sold human beings has been ‘rediscovered,’ having hidden in plain sight for generations. This renewed interest in this and other problematic historical legacies was amplified by student activism during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, and has been continued in a sustained way since then by our student body in Trinity. Within college this led to the establishment of the Trinity’s Colonial Legacies (TCL) Project in February 2021. Led by Dr Ciaran O’Neill and Dr Patrick Walsh (Dept. of History) who are working with postdoctoral fellow, Dr Mobeen Hussain (appointed Oct. 2021) the project seeks to examine and reflect upon Trinity’s colonial legacies through scholarly research and engagement with public audiences. Considerations around slavery, statues, curriculum development, museum and library collections, and how Trinity presents its history to the public, are core elements of the ongoing project.

TCL is an evolving research project, but we are cognisant of the significant interest in Bishop Berkeley’s connections to the Library and TCD more generally both within college and amongst the wider public. Student activism on this issue has continued since 2020 and there is currently an online petition calling for the renaming of the Library.[1]  This petition has been (22-02-2022) endorsed by the TCD Student Union, while student and staff representatives raised the issue at the first meeting of our project’s independent international advisory board on 11 February 2022.[2]    

 

[1] https://www.change.org/p/provost-linda-doyle-rename-the-berkeley-library-at-trinity-college-dublin

[2] https://universitytimes.ie/2022/02/tcdsu-votes-to-lobby-for-renaming-the-berkeley-library/ For The TCL board meeting and supporting documents see https://histories-humanities.tcd.ie/assets/pdf/research/tcl/DraftAuditandSummary.pdf

George Berkeley  by John Smibert oil on canvas, 1730 40 in. x 29 1/2 in. (1016 mm x 749 mm) Given by Reverend William Josiah Irons, 1882 Primary Collection NPG 653

TCL

What did Berkeley do, and why is he honoured at Trinity anyway?

Philip, Anthony and Agnes Berkeley were the property of George Berkeley, formerly a fellow at Trinity College Dublin and Dean of Derry in the Church of Ireland on his Rhode Island estate in the late 1720s. Berkeley was resident in Rhode Island from 1728, where he had acquired a plantation while setting plans in motion for a colonial university in Bermuda intended to educate missionaries to proselytise amongst the Native American population.[3] Berkeley’s Bermuda scheme failed, and he decided to dispose of his American property, He donated his plantation including his enslaved workers to Yale College, while he donated his extensive American library to Harvard College.  At Yale Berkeley’s slavery derived donation became the college’s first endowment and was used to fund prizes into the 20th century, and a residential college, Berkeley College. Recently these connections to the slave economy have come under scrutiny as the Yale community has reckoned with its historic connections to slavery and there have been calls to rename the buildings named after the philosopher.[4]    

While these Yale connections are important George Berkeley (1685-1753) is most prominently associated with TCD where he first entered as an undergraduate in March 1700, graduating with a BA in 1704 before being elected a fellow in 1707. [5] As librarian from 1709 he played an active role in bringing the project for a new library (now the Old Library) to fruition while he also held a number of other college offices. During his time in TCD he published some of his most important philosophical works including An essay towards a new theory of vision (Dublin, 1709), A treatise concerning the principles of human knowledge (1710) and The three dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (London, 1713). From the mid-1720s onwards he began to develop the idea of a university in the American colonies – the so-called Bermuda Scheme.

Notes

[3] The most detailed account of Berkeley’s slaveownership can be found in Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities (London, 2013), pp. 94-95. See also Tom Jones, George Berkeley: A Philosophical Life (Princeton, 2021), pp. 233-34. 
[4]  On Yale’s investigation into its connections to slavery see https://yaleandslavery.yale.edu/

[5] Biographical information taken from his entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography (2009), https://www.dib.ie/biography/berkeley-george-a0611 which ignores his ownership of enslaved people. 

What was the Bermuda Scheme?

Berkeley’s American project involved the establishment of a college – St Pauls – in Bermuda where the sons of plantation owners as well as Native Americans could be educated to MA level allowing them to preach the gospel in the colonies or as he put it, to provide a steady ‘supply of zealous Missionaries, well fitted for propagating Christianity among the Savages’. [4] He also proposed that if necessary Native American could be kidnapped and then educated at his college. This project from its outset was a connected with Trinity and the four founding fellows (including Berkeley) were also TCD fellows.[6]  Having spent much of the 1720s lobbying the government in London and securing philanthropic and government support Berkeley departed for America in 1728. Upon arrival in America, while awaiting further financial support for his college, Berkeley purchased a plantation and enslaved labour at Middletown, Rhode Island. At Middletown Berkeley baptised and gave his name to these slaves who worked his plantation until his return to Ireland in 1731, his dream of St Pauls remaining unfulfilled.

            The baptism of his slaves is important and speaks to Berkeley’s importance not just as an owner of enslaved people – an aspect of his biography frequently glossed over by later Berkeley scholars – but also as a theorist of slavery and racial discrimination. This aspect of his thought was most clearly expressed in the 1725 pamphlet promoting the Bermuda scheme, Proposal for the Better Supplying of Churches in our Foreign Plantations and for Converting the Savage Americans to Christianity. In this text he advocated for the baptism of slaves not for only the betterment of their souls but because it would make them more obedient: ‘that it would be to their advantage to have slaves who should obey in all things masters according to the flesh, not with eye- service as men pleasers, but, in singleness of heart as fearing god. The gospel liberty consists with temporal servitude, and that their slaves would only become better slaves by being Christian’. [6] Berkeley’s views on baptising slaves had a long-term impact in providing an ideological support for slavery and are now recognised by leading Berkeley scholars as arguably at least as significant as his documented ownership of human beings when they consider his legacy. [7]

         His other American writings notably his 1725/26 poem America. Or The Muse’s Refuge’ have also been re-assessed by scholars. This poem belongs to the classical translatio belief in the constant westward migration of empire and learning and it has been described as perhaps ‘the clearest enunciation of the translatio tradition in the eighteenth century. It later acquired new significance when the founding trustees of the University of California quoted his settler colonialist lines ‘westward the course of empire takes it way’ approvingly when naming their Berkeley campus in 1866.[8]        

            Finally, it is worth noting that upon his return to Ireland, Berkeley continued to draw on his American experiences in his writings on Irish political economy. In his celebrated text on Irish economic development, The Querist he included a number of references to the benefits of slavery and servitude to what we would call economic growth. Two examples will suffice to illustrate this point:  ‘Query 214: Whether other nations have not found great benefit from the use of slaves in repairing high-roads, making rivers navigable, draining bogs, erecting public buildings, bridges and manufactures?’ and ‘Whether all sturdy beggars  should not be seized and made slaves to the public for a period of ten years?’[9] Here we see colonial practices witnessed abroad being considered approvingly for implementation at home in Ireland. Elsewhere in his Words to the Wise (1749) he describes the Irish poor as ‘a lazy destitute race’ and furthermore ‘that these people are more destitute than savages and more abject than Negros. The Negros in our plantations have a saying if Negro was not Negro, Irishman would be Negro’.[10]  Here we see Berkeley advocating a racialised understanding of the Irish population while bemoaning the bad policy decisions that led to their circumstances. Berkeley from our reading of the evidence and from the current scholarship seems less ‘like a saint’ as Trinity Fellow and Berkeley biographer A.A. Luce described him in 1949 with reference to his American projects, and more like an individual complicit and embedded in the ideology and practice of British and Irish colonialism and enslavement.[11] 

Notes
[6] George Berkeley, A Proposal for the Better Supplying of Churches in our Foreign Plantations and for Converting the Savage Americans to Christianity (London, 1725), p. 4. For the most penetrating analysis of this episode see Scott Breuniger, ‘Planting an Asylum for Religion: Berkeley’s Bermuda Scheme and the Transmission of Virtue in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World’ in Journal of Religious History, 34 (2010), pp. 414-29.  
[7] See A Proposal for the Better Supplying of Churches, p. 21. The TCD fellows were William Thompson, Jonathan Rogers and James King, of whom little is known.  

[8]   A Proposal for the Better Supplying of Churches, p. 5.

[9] For modern analyses which show how significant Berkeley’s views were and how they deviated from mainstream thinking see M.J. Rozbicki, ‘To Save Them from Themselves: Proposals to Enslave the British Poor,1698-1755’, in Slavery & Abolition, 22 (2001), pp. 34-35; Jones, George Berkeley, pp. 234-37. See also Scott Breuinger speaking to the Trinity Early Modern History seminar on Monday 11 Oct. 2021 on Rethinking George Berkeley’s Legacy’ Podcast available at https://soundcloud.com/tlrhub/tlrh-early-modern-history-rethinking-george-berkeleys-legacy?in=tlrhub/sets/tinity-centre-for-early-modern 
[10] For contemporary concerns about the appropriateness of Berkeley’s name been celebrated at UC Berkeley see https://www.berkeleyside.org/2022/01/07/opinion-berkeley-is-named-after-a-slaveholder-its-time-to-rename-the-city
[11] George Berkeley, The Querist (Dublin, 1735-37). See also Jones, George Berkeley, p. 237-38, Rozbicki, ‘To save them from themselves’, pp. 36-37. 

 

Where is Berkeley memorialized in TCD?

Berkeley Memorial Window

Trinity College Chapel, Main Campus

The Berkeley Memorial window is one of three major pieces of stained glass sited in the chancel of the College Chapel and dates to 1866. It is not well-known – even within college – and the only scholarly article written about it is a 1972 piece by EJ Furlong in Hermathena, from which the bulk of the following description is taken.[1] The idea of a window dedicated to Bishop Berkeley emerged alongside suggestions for windows in honour of Archbishop Ussher and Richard Graves, Dean of Armagh and was approved by board in 1867. It was funded by the gift of £300 from Richard R. Warren, then MP for Trinity, and a further gift of £72 from the incoming Provost Humphrey Lloyd – both given in 1867. Designs were considered for the window in February 1868, and the London firm of Clayton and Bell were successful: being paid £219, 12s for the window, substantially less than the funds secured for the purpose.

[1] Furlong, E. J. “The Berkeley Window in Trinity College: With an Account of Berkeleian Studies in the College 1830—1900.” Hermathena, no. 114 (1972): 70–87.

Berkeley Medals 

College-wide

Bishop Berkeley’s Gold Medals- On 8 May 1752, ‘the Provost and Senior Fellows agreed to give annually, for ever, two Gold Medals for the encouragement of Bachelor of Arts in the Study of the Greek language: having received a Benefaction of one hundred and twenty guineas, besides a die, from the Right Rev. Dr. George Berkeley, Lord Bishop of Cloyne for that purpose.’ These medals are still awarded today.[1] Oscar Wilde was one of its most famous recipients, gaining his in 1874 for his performance in Greek.

Berkeley has a broader legacy within academic circles at Trinity including via the Luces. Professor A.A. Luce was a prominent Berkeley scholar and donated £500 to College in 1941 to found a Prize in Mental and Moral Science in memory of his wife, to be called the Lilian Mary Luce Memorial Prize.[1] This award is still awarded on the result of a written examination in philosophy held annually in Trinity term. A stipulation of the award is that the course of study ‘consists in the main of portions of Berkeley’s philosophical works’ and that other ‘works on the Berkeleian philosophy may be included’. The current value of this award is €38 annually.

[1] MUN VOL/5/3, p.91. See also William Bedell Stanford, "Classical Studies in Trinity College, Dublin, since the Foundation." Hermathena 57 (1941): 3-24.

[2] College Calendar 1944-1945, p.457.

Berkeley Window, College Chapel. Photograph by Ciaran O'Neill
Berkeley Window, College Chapel. Photograph by Ciaran O'Neill

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proof of Berkeley Medal (1734) © The Trustees of the British Museum
proof of Berkeley Medal (1734) © The Trustees of the British Museum

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Berkeley Window, College Chapel. Photograph by Ciaran O'Neill
Berkeley Window, College Chapel. Photograph by Ciaran O'Neill

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Proof of Berkeley Medal (1734)© The Trustees of the British Museum

Berkeley Library

TCD Main Campus

In 1967 Trinity’s New Library opened. The library, one of the College’s architectural modernist masterpieces, was arguably a key physical manifestation of Trinity’s expansion in student numbers and concomitant opening up to Irish society following a period of quiet detachment after Irish independence.[1] While initially just called the New Library it was renamed the Berkeley Library in 1978 when the adjacent Arts and Social Sciences building was opened.[2]  The naming of the library was  part of a general scheme to attach the names of distinguished graduates to the newly completed lecture theatres in the Arts Building as well as the then new Lecky Library. Interestingly Berkeley’s name was initially destined for a lecture theatre and the library was to remain as the New Library.[3]   In 1957 and subsequent years, the College distributed pamphlets to appeal for funds for the Library. The second appeal did mention Berkeley’s contributions as a former Trinity librarian.[4] Although the pamphlet does not mention the possibility of naming the library after Berkeley, his prominent inclusion in the appeal as an attractor for donors (particularly American ones) does gesture to his popularity within College at the time and even to internal conversations about possible candidates for naming.[5] There is no other evidence that any debate occurred over the naming of the library. As a result, Berkeley became familiar to successive generations of students less as a philosopher and more as a thing or place- the Berkeley. The connections to slavery embedded in the library’s name which had to some degree become disassociated with its namesake therefore likely came as a jolt to some members of the college community.

The Library celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017, and Berkeley's slave-ownership was largely elided or ignored by the participants, except for a talk given by Dr Kenneth Pearce on 29 March 2017. This detail excited no comment at the time.


[1] On this see Tomás Irish, Trinity in War and Revolution 1912-1923 (Dublin, 2015), ch. 6. 

[2] Irish Times, 11, Dec. 1978. For the original opening of the New Library see Irish Times, 13 July, 1967; Dublin University Calendar 1978-89, p.148         

[3] Board Minutes, Register of Trinity College, Trinity College Dublin Archives, MUN/V/5/45: 5 October 1977, minute 8/3; For this use of ‘eponyms’ to celebrate the names of distinguished graduates see Gordon Herries Davies, ‘Hosce meos filios’, in C.H. Holland (ed.) Trinity College Dublin & the Idea of a University (1991), pp. 323-24. 

[4] Trinity College Dublin library extension appeal, https://digitalcollections.tcd.ie/concern/works/4j03d241c?locale=en.

[5] The appeal references Berkeley’s work to improve education in the Americas but does not mention his connections to slavery.

Berkeley Lectureship in Greek

Defunct

Historically, there was also a Berkeley Lecturership in Greek who gave three or more prelections every term. The post became vacant in 1849 when the occupant, Rev. Frederick H. Ringwood, left to take up a Chair in Greek at Queens University Belfast, and from there became Master of Dungannon School in 1850. Ringwood was a former undergraduate at TCD and had been appointed in 1846 for a term for five years.[1] The exact provenance and continued endowment of this lectureship is uncertain and requires further investigation, but Berkeley had been a lecturer in Greek during his own fellowship at the college in the early eighteenth century, thus providing a logic for the creation of the position. In 1953 a Berkeley Professorship of Metaphysics was created for Professor A.A. Luce with life tenure for himself only.[2]

 

[1] College Calendar 1849, p.32.; Armagh Guardian, 22 July 1850; Saint James's Chronicle, 18 July 1846

[2] See Luce’s entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography www.D.I.B.ie

The New Library, 1967. Image courtesy of TCD
The New Library, 1967. Image courtesy of TCD

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The New Library, 1967. Image courtesy of TCD
The New Library, 1967. Image courtesy of TCD

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The New Library, 1967. Image courtesy of TCD
The New Library, 1967. Image courtesy of TCD

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