UoA acknowledges slave-money origins of campus landmark
Explanatory plaque to be added to Powis Gateway
By Jake Roslin
Courtesy of Alan Findlay
The University is adding a permanent information plate to Powis Gateway, located on the College Bounds, to address the connections between the iconic towers and slavery. This is part of a wider UoA project to explore and contextualise historical colonial exploitation relating to the institution and the local area.
The Turkish minaret-style portal originally formed the entrance to Powis House, home of the Leslie family, owners of a Jamaican sugar plantation. It was constructed in 1833/4 for John Leslie, also Professor of Greek at King’s College, around the time the family received Government compensation of £6,265 (equivalent to over £600,000 today) for the loss of their slave income upon emancipation in the West Indies. No compensation was paid to the freed captives.
Further controversy attends figures depicted in a stone armorial panel on the inside face of the Gateway, which today provides access to several campus buildings, including Crombie and King’s Halls and the Starbucks café. The weather-degraded relief is from 1697, long predating the Gateway or the abolition of slavery, and was incorporated into the towers by the Leslies, having originally formed part of the small adjacent lodge.
Dr Richard Anderson, the University’s Lecturer in the History of Slavery and the head of the project, said: ‘It has long been thought that the depiction was of three slaves but more recent suggestions point to a heraldic pun on the Powis Leslie family's ancestral name: Moir/moor, or possibly even represented a boast about beheading moors in the crusades’.
A University spokesperson added that while the crest ‘is not a clear reference to any familial connections with slavery or the slave trade, it is nevertheless a problematic depiction of Africans contained within a gateway built with funds derived from slavery in the Caribbean.’
Camilo Torres Barragán, AUSA Vice President for Communities, told The Gaudie the towers
‘are a material symbol of a past that still has repercussions today and our aim is to address those repercussions’.
‘We support this type of acknowledgement and intervention in the public space,’ he added. ‘They are important parts of a bigger process to build an anti-racist university and to decolonise the curriculum.’
A Council black and gold ‘place plaque’ will be added to the wall by the left pillar by the end of summer. While the exact wording is yet to be finalised, The Gaudie have obtained this current draft:
‘Powis Gateway was built in the early 1830s by the Leslie family, using profits from slavery. The Leslies, the lairds of nearby Powis House, owned an estate in Jamaica on which they forced enslaved African people to work. After the 1833 Act for the Abolition of Slavery, the Leslies received government compensation that also helped fund the gateway. The formerly enslaved people received nothing for their years of unpaid labour and suffering.’
The University has sought to engage the local community in the project. An Aberdeen Art Gallery ‘micro-commission’ combining new ceramic and glass art and spoken word was hung at the Gateway, and a virtual exhibition, A North East Story: Scotland, Africa, and Slavery in the Caribbean, is now online, curated by University Museums and Special Collections.
The University spokesperson continued:
‘We recognise that with such a long history, University benefactors, alumni, and faculty of both institutions invested in and benefited from participation in slavery across the British Empire,’ they said. ‘The institution is seeking to shine a light on this.’
The decision for a permanent plaque followed a UoA webinar in March which identified Powis Gateway as ‘the most tangible link between the University of Aberdeen and slavery-derived wealth.’ A new set of campus landmark information boards will also address the Gateway’s controversial back story.
Aberdeen’s links to Atlantic slavery are less prolific than some western British cities. However, many local families profited from slave labour, though others campaigned against the practice.
‘We welcome the University’s interest in interrogating itself about race, racism and colonialism,’ continued Barragán. ‘Our objective is to make sure that Uni’s actions go beyond the performative and translate into real positive transformations.’ AUSA are also in discussions to provide walking tours in conjunction with the University as part of the project.
The University hope once the plaque is in place ‘all who pass through’ Powis Gateway will ‘better understand their legacy.’
The former art commission at the Gateway is detailed at https://www.aberdeencity.gov.uk/AAGM/museum-home/blogs/aberdeen-art-gallery-micro-commission-quasheba-powis-gate-project-violence-identity and the University’s virtual exhibition is at https://exhibitions.abdn.ac.uk/university-collections/exhibits/show/a-north-east-story/scotland-africa-slavery-in-car