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‘A direct legacy of slavery:’ University to sever ties with controversial bequest

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

AUSA urged Senate to use places on board to ‘lead the debate toward reparations’


By Josh Pizzuto-Pomaco


photo courtesy of Aedan Brennan

The University Senate has voted to stop nominating trustees to serve on the board of the controversial Dick Bequest Trust.


The Trust, which was established in 1828 upon Dick’s death, was valued at nearly 1.7 million pounds in December 2019. The Trust was established to benefit schools in Aberdeenshire, Banff, and Moray; which it does by granting money to schools to buy equipment and provide teachers with opportunities to develop their skills.


However, research conducted by historians David Alston and Donald Morrison concluded that funds used to set up the Trust were gained via Scottish merchant James Dick’s participation in the Jamaican slave trade, in which he was active for nearly twenty years.


Alston and Morrison state in their report, ‘The benefits derived from the Dick Bequest are a direct legacy of slavery and the slave trade… the funds should, as soon as possible, be returned to Jamaica to be used for the benefit of schools in Jamaica.’


This view is shared by Verene Shepherd, Director of the Centre for Reparations Research in Kingston, Jamaica. In a letter to the Scottish government, Shepherd wrote, ‘While children in Scotland are still benefitting from the Dick Bequest Trust, children in Jamaica whose ancestors created that wealth, are not. That sum would go a far way in improving the educational opportunities of children in Jamaica, many of whose ancestors were enslaved by Scottish enslavers like James Dick, who enriched themselves and Scotland at the expense of Africans and their descendants.’


The Trust, a registered Scottish charity, is managed by a board of ten Governors who are appointed by the councils of Aberdeenshire and Moray, the University Senate, and the Society of Writers to HM Signet. Since the Trust’s inception, the University Senate has been responsible for appointing two Governors to the board as ‘educational trustees.’


An agenda for the Senate’s meeting on 21 September revealed that the Senate was presented with three options: one, to renominate the current Governors; two, to nominate new Governors; or three, to advise the Bequest that no more Governors would be nominated by the Senate.


In a statement, a University spokesperson said, ‘“The University’s academic body Senate… decided by a majority vote that it will no longer nominate individuals to be Dick Bequest Trustees. While this will end the University’s involvement in the Trust once the current appointees’ terms lapse, we will be offering to help the Trust address its historic slavery legacy.’


According to the Senate agenda, the terms for the current Governors, both of whom are University staff Emeritae, expire in June 2022 and June 2023. After this time, the University will have no further involvement with management of the Trust.


Speaking to The Gaudie, Alston commented, ‘I welcome the decision of the Senate to end its involvement with the Dick Bequest Trust. It is the right thing for the University and will bring pressure on the remaining Governors to take steps to return the money to Jamaica where, in my view, it belongs.’


However, not all responses to the Senate’s decision have been positive. AUSA VP for Communities Camilo Torres Barragán told The Gaudie that while AUSA welcomes the University’s desire to ‘[interrogate] itself about race, racism, and colonialism,’ they want to ensure that the University’s ‘actions go beyond the performative and translate into real positive transformations.’


As such, Torres Barragán said, ‘... we consider [it] a mistake for the university to miss an opportunity to lead the way towards acknowledging and challenging the repercussions of imperialism. In that sense, we disagree with the decision of not using the places at the Fund’s trustee board. Those places could’ve been filled with people ready to lead the debate towards reparations and a more progressive use of those funds.’

'... we consider [it] a mistake for the university to miss an opportunity to lead the way towards acknowledging and challenging the repercussions of imperialism.'

It remains unclear what the future of the Trust will be. Moray Council has declined to promote the Trust in recent years and told The Gaudie that it has lobbied for the fund to be shut down. However, it has continued to appoint its allotted councillor to serve on the Board of Governors, with a spokesperson telling The Gaudie that any changes to this decision would ‘require further committee agreement.’


Similarly, Aberdeenshire Council is also wrestling with their involvement with the Trust. Councillor Gillian Owen, chair of Education and Children’s Services, told The Gaudie that the Council had decided to continue to nominate councillors to serve on the Board after a summer of debate over the future of their involvement.


She said, ‘[the] majority view was to continue to participate in the Dick bequest, to “stay in the tent” so to speak to influence change but have the fallback position to withdraw if we are not seeing any move to use the fund differently. Members would like to see it used for anti-slavery/human rights education….’




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