‘Erasing Berkeley’s name from Trinity’

We cannot rewrite history, but we can write a new history

Sir, – Nigel Biggar (“Erasing Berkeley’s name from Trinity is pointless”, Opinion & Analysis, January 21st) celebrates the role played in the abolition of New World slavery by Britain and the “Christian conviction that members of all races are equal in the sight of God”.

The abolition of the slave trade by Britain in 1807 and its rigorous enforcement are worthy of celebration, although the Danish got there first in 1803 and Vermont had abolished slavery (with limited effect) in 1777.

Any tendency to British self-congratulation – and it’s a strong tendency – should be moderated by pointing out that the British had no hesitation in profiting from the slave trade, which they did much to develop, for over a century and a half before they brought it to an end, or in continuing to profit afterwards from the massive £20 million compensation package awarded to slave owners (the loan contracted by the British government in 1835 was only paid off in 2015).

And if Christianity finally came to its senses at the end of the 18th century, this was a long time in the making. Christian morality did nothing to prevent or lessen the human, economic and ecological disaster that the Spanish inflicted on the New World, and its late discovery of conscience can be little consolation to the 12 million to 15 million Africans torn from their homeland by the slave trade, of whom it is estimated that between 1.5 million and 2 million died in the process.


It is nonsense to suggest that slavery has nothing to do with today’s racism, or that using Berkeley’s role in slavery could give no assistance in highlighting the devastation caused by racism in the past.

We cannot rewrite history, but we can write a new history. Whether that should include removing Berkeley’s name from Trinity’s main library would need more careful consideration than Prof Biggar’s account of 18th-century slavery has given it. – Yours, etc,


Regius Professor

of Greek Emeritus,

Department of Classics,

Trinity College Dublin,

Dublin 2.