George Berkeley and slavery


Sir, – Living a few miles from George Berkeley’s childhood home in Thomastown, Kilkenny, I have grown to admire him as a social reformer and man of true vision and humanity. The article “What to do about George Berkeley, Trinity figurehead and slave owner?” (Joe Humphreys, Unthinkable, June 18th), quoting the work of Trinity academic Claire Moriarty, does him a severe injustice.

Although he had slaves on his estate, on his leaving America after two years, they were all freed. He made deep connections with the local indigenous people, the Narragansett. At a time when the English king and most of parliament were investing in the slave trade, his project in America was to found a university for “the sons of the Plantations”, ie the black slaves, and the indigenous people.

The triumph of his life was his last 20 years as bishop of Cloyne, the Cork diocese which was laid waste by regular famines, disease and poverty. Unlike his fellow bishops who simply extracted revenues, he and his wife, Ann Forster, lived there and set up an exemplary social project of farms and workshops, at the same time tirelessly advocating for economic reform in parliament.

His economics treatise The Querist is hundreds of years ahead of its time. One quotation from it: “Only if the banking system as a whole is owned and controlled by the people for the people can its prostitution to speculative ends be prevented.”

He is a man to be celebrated, not denigrated. – Yours, etc,



Berkeley Society,