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  • Mobeen Hussain

Berkeley Beyond Ireland: Legacies and Commemoration

At Trinity, there have been numerous discussions about the activities and influence of Bishop George Berkeley, including his role as a slaveowner and his ideological legacy as a propagator of the ‘civilising’ role of Native American missionary work. The ways in which Berkeley is commemorated within College has been one element of the research that we have been undertaking as a part of the Colonial Legacies project. The Berkeley Library is the most publicly visible commemorative site of the Bishop in College, and its de-naming has been the subject of an ongoing Student Union-endorsed campaign. Other memorials include the Berkeley Memorial window in the College Chapel and Berkeley’s Gold Medals. His influence has also been marked at other institutions. At Christ Church Oxford, a monument in the College’s cathedral remembers Berkeley. The bishop and his family had left Cloyne for Oxford in August 1752 and he spent the last 6 months of his life there. His son George was an undergraduate at Christ Church and Berkeley was involved in his educational pursuits there.

Berkeley also has a broader transatlantic legacy across academic institutions in the United States. When the Library that now bears Berkeley’s name was being built, Trinity College’s funding appeals drew on Berkeley’s American connections to attract donors overseas. Indeed, Berkeley’s legacy in the United States is intrinsically tied to the financial and intellectual support he gave to many ‘New World’ institutions.

Berkeley in the ‘New World’

Berkeley’s Bermuda scheme in Newport, Rhode Island was in keeping with learning on the merits of missionary influence that Berkeley had received in Ireland. As Tom Jones notes, both Kilkenny and Trinity Colleges, where Berkeley was educated, were centres of Protestant learning in which conversions of the native Catholic Irish were propagated and facilitated.[1] The ideological basis for Berkeley’s plan to establish his own College in North America was borne out of concerns that many colonial institutions were being founded near centres of “crass commercialism,” as the merchant class began financing colonial institutions like schools and churches.[2] Though the scheme ultimately failed, several American universities benefited intellectually, materially, and financially from Berkeley’s visits and donations. Whilst in the ‘New World,’ he was an advisor to and supporter of several American schools including Harvard, Yale, William and Mary, and King’s (present-day Columbia).[3] Samuel Johnson, later president of King’s College, was an avid correspondent of Berkeley and visitor to Newport.[4]

Academic Beneficiaries in America

After his Bermuda plan failed due to lacking of funding, Berkeley divided his American assets between numerous academic institutions in 1732. He gifted Harvard a selection of literary, philosophical, and theological texts valued at £400.[5]

Etching of George Berkeley
“George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne” etching. Courtesy of the Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

Yale was the biggest beneficiary. Henry Fuller suggests that Yale benefited most generously from Berkeley’s donations because of Johnson’s connections with his alma mater.[6] The bishop gave Whitehall, his plantation totalling 96 acres (and valued at £3000) to Yale. The rents from this slave plantation, as specified in the deed for Whitehall, were to be purposed for scholarships or “Scholars of the House” at Yale.[7] Berkeley had written to Yale’s president Reverend Thomas Clap that “the daily increase of learning and religion in your seminary of Yale College give me very sensible pleasure, and an ample recompense for my poor endeavours to further those good ends”.[8] These “good ends” ensured the perpetuation of missionary activity and the establishment of plantation-based colleges. One of the earliest recipients of the Berkeley scholarship in 1733 was Eleazar Wheelock, later Indian missionary and founder of Dartmouth College.[9] The Congregational minister established Dartmouth “for the education and instruction of youth of the Indian tribes in this land... English Youth, and any others”. Wheelock owned up to 19 enslaved people who worked at the College including Jane Wentworth. Other Berkeley scholarship recipients became judges, congressmen, and lieutenant governors.[10] Ensuring continual funding, Yale’s board also rented Whitehall to slaveholding tenants.[11] Yale also received a large library and portraits from Berkeley. His influence as an early financer was commemorated in the 1930s when Yale named a residential college after the Bishop. The residential college remembers Berkeley as the “Dean of Derry and later Bishop of Cloyne, who endowed Yale with a gift of land and books in the 18th century”.

The Reverend Eleazar Wheelock (1711-1779), 1st President of Dartmouth College (1769-1779)

Berkeley’s philosophical legacy has also been commemorated in academic circles through such means as essay prizes. Notably, Professor Colin and Ailsa Turbayne established an International Berkeley Essay Prize competition at the University of Rochester in New York with copies of winning essays being sent to the Library at Whitehall as part of an initiative to facilitate ongoing research on Berkeley’s philosophical contributions. Lastly, Berkeley’s erstwhile plantation at Whitehall is now the Whitehall Museum House, which has been maintained by The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of Rhode Island since 1899. The Museum House remembers Berkeley as having intended to “found a college which would bring the sons of colonists and Native Americans together” and notes that his “property” was given to Yale without any acknowledgement of what this “property” consisted of.

Whitehall Museum House, Middletown, Rhode Island.

Legacy Work in the United States

Numerous American scholars and students have long been vocal about confronting the historic and ongoing legacies of enslavement and racism within the academy. Long before the impetus of the Black Lives Matters protests in 2020, students have been involved in researching their halls of learning. In 2001, Antony Dugdale, J. J. Fueser, J. Celso de Castro Alves, graduate students at Yale, published a report on Yale, Slavery and Abolition which explicated Berkeley’s missionary project and slave ownership. This project, not connected to or endorsed by Yale, was propelled by wider discussions about slavery and civil war commemorations during the Confederacy period and beyond.[12] It was not until 2020, however, that Yale, like many other universities globally, set up The Yale and Slavery Working Group and began intensive research in 2021. The group’s work involves “a deep and thorough investigation of Yale’s historic involvement and associations with slavery and its aftermath”. Some of the current findings have focused on the College Chapel, Elihu Yale, John C. Calhoun, and Jonathan Edwards — individuals who were pro-slavery or slaveowners, gained wealth from slavery, or involved colonial activities elsewhere (including within the English East India Company). Bishop Berkeley has not yet been named as an early beneficiary of Yale. However, in January of this year, Yale Divinity School’s Dean Greg Sterling issued an acknowledgment of the School’s “historical complicity in slavery and racism”. Sterling specifically noted that early scholarships or “Berkeley premiums” were funded by “profits from George Berkeley’s farm in Rhode Island, which was worked by enslaved people”. The School has promised to allocate an $20 million endowment to fund 10 social justice scholarships each year for incoming students dedicated to social justice work. The Episcopal Seminary within the Yale Divinity School, however, still bears the bishop’s name to honour his “American experiment in higher education” and gifts including a “farm in Newport”.

Harvard, another beneficiary of Berkeley, also undertook a legacies of slavery project highlighting the financing of the law school amongst other spaces. The institution has made efforts to uncover and share its historic involvement in enslavement and early colonisation through museum exhibitions, a film, and published findings.[13] The Harvard and the legacies of slavery report notes the foundation of a mission school at Harvard “to educate (and convert) Native students alongside white classmates” which drew support from Puritans and Parliament in England (p.14). Berkeley’s connection at Harvard goes beyond the bishop’s visits and donations. The early mission school at Harvard, though not altogether successful, set a precedent for other institutional missionary projects like Berkeley’s Bermuda scheme.[14] A current exhibition at the Peabody museum, ‘Digging Veritas,’ looks at the “role of the Indian College in Harvard’s early years”. Such connections demonstrate how individuals like Berkeley contributed to broader transatlantic financial and ideological networks operating in eighteenth-century colonial society.

The Bishop’s name was also given to Berkeley College California. The College of California was a predecessor to Berkeley. In the mid-1860s, the College of California purchased land for a new campus and trustees decided to name the new town and campus Berkeley. This naming decision has been documented by the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project (f.1997).[15] At the College itself, a diversity initiative, 400 years of Berkeley, was announced in 2019 to “mark the 400th anniversary of the forced arrival of enslaved Africans in the English colonies”. The College has a Building Name Review Process whereby numerous student groups have led the way towards un-naming of Kroeber, Barrow, and LeConte Halls for their namessakes’ involvement in the erasure and exploitation of Native Americans and racist imperial ideologies respectively. The decision to un-name Barrow and LeConte Halls was, according to the chair of the Building Name Review Committee Professor Paul Fine, “not about demonizing David Barrows or the LeContes, but about removing offensive symbols we have on campus, so that the people who are here now, and in the future, know that this is their university”. The College’s name itself has not yet come under scrutiny for review.

An Enduring Legacy

The fact that Berkeley’s name lends itself to numerous academic scholarships and prizes as well as plaques, a seminary, a residential hall, and a college, attest to Berkeley’s legacy and influence at various academic institutions as a financial and ideological donor. This two-pronged influence, financial and ideological, gets to the heart of how broader networks of empire-making transformed colonial economies — both in Ireland and in America — in which physical and intellectual spaces and labour were dependent on one another. So to acknowledge these connections and Berkeley’s role as a slaveowner and propagator of racist civilising rhetoric is not to undermine his philosophical contributions to metaphysics and theology. Rather, considering his life and work together allows us to better understand as well as critique his ideologies and their afterlives, as we work to understand our present and future moral philosophies. It also allows us to make informed decisions about how we remember the past and choose to memorialise individuals without remaining beholden to financial endowments.

All images shared under a CC-BY licence.

[1] Tom Jones, George Berkeley: A Philosophical Life (2021), p.310. [2] Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities (2013), p.84 & p.93; Jones, George Berkeley, p.314. [3] Wilder, Ebony and Ivy, p.83; Henry M. Fuller, “BISHOP BERKELEY AS A BENEFACTOR OF YALE,” The Yale University Library Gazette, 28:1 (1953): 1–18, pp.7-8. [4] Jones, George Berkeley, p.356; Fuller, “BISHOP BERKELEY AS A BENEFACTOR,” p.8. [5] Wilder, Ebony and Ivy, p.95. [6] Fuller, “BISHOP BERKELEY AS A BENEFACTOR,” p.11. [7] Ibid., p.14. [8] Wilder, Ebony and Ivy, p.96. [9] Ibid., p.95; Fuller, “BISHOP BERKELEY AS A BENEFACTOR,” p.15. [10] Ibid., p.16. [11] Wilder, Ebony and Ivy, p.118 [12] The Yale, Slavery and Abolition report was published by The Amistad Committee which was founded in 1988 to foster awareness of the story of Amistad captives within the country’s wider history of slavery. [13]; [14] Jones, George Berkeley, pp.339-340. [15] The Project is sponsored by the City of Berkeley and its Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) and the Berkeley Historical Society (BHS).

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