Neha Shaji discusses the University of Exeter’s covert imperial history.
You drive towards the globally renowned University of Exeter and a brazen man on an impatient horse glares down at you. A traffic cone on his head, a memorial at his feet for a boy who passed away in a tragic accident. Engraved on his plinth are the words “he saved Natal”, and the names of several countries across seas, spanning the globe. The sun wouldn’t have set on his cone-clad head. His horse paws the pedestal as you drive forward, thinking, he must have been loved.
Within the University grounds now, past the man and his horse, you’re in a different world. There are international students unloading trunks from taxis and there are posters and signs up about diversity and inclusion and, surely not, decolonization. So you don’t know, and you wouldn’t know about the ground you stand on and how the money for these beautiful buildings around you was harvested from magic money trees far away and centuries ago.
You don’t know that Richard Thornton West, who bought the property of Duryard Lodge in 1867 was an East India company merchant whose family “rivalled the Barings and the Rothschilds in wealth”. The East India company was responsible for global looting, widespread pillaging, and the crippling opium trade, financial and economic gains brought back to the United Kingdom to build these big, beautiful Italian-style mansions. West had made his gains primarily in Batavia, corresponding to present-day Jakarta, with the East India Company ruled alternatingly by the Dutch and the British. West must have landed on blood-tinged soil even then: in 1740, ten thousand Chinese people were massacred amidst riots and deportations. With the money from his endeavors with the East India Company, he built what is now called Reed Hall, which was owned by the family until the beginning of the 20th century.
Buller remains seated on his horse to this day, the pose now frightening, his plinth proudly depicting the worldwide imperialist bingo he seemed to have played in his day.
You would notice the continuous references to Northcote: the clock tower, the theatre, the building. The University has a webpage entitled “the Philanthropists who shaped Exeter”, where they refer to Exeter achieving its University charter as realising the dream of Sir Stafford Northcote. Sir Stafford Northcote was the Secretary of State for India in 1867, his son a Governor-General of Australia and a Governor of Bombay. Sir Stafford was, like many others of his time, an ardent collector of prestigious artefacts. These artefacts were procured after the British Expedition to Abyssinia, a punitive expedition carried out by the British Empire against Ethiopia, resulting in architectural and civil destruction, and several pieces of stolen art and artefact. Northcote’s collection is displayed alongside other looted treasures in the British Museum.
Lopes Hall, a quaintly furnished catered halls of residence, and Roborough Studios, with practice rooms for performing arts and drama societies was named for Henry Lopes, Baron Roborough and his substantial donation. You may see that he too is named as a ‘philanthropist who shaped Exeter’ by the University. The Lopes family tree can be financially traced back to Jamaica, where in the 1700s, they owned sugar plantations. With this money irrevocably tied to the bloodstained history of sugar inherited through the family, Baron Roborough was able to donate what amounted to £266,000 to the University and continued to aid the College financially.
The city of Exeter is not without harrowing links either. Exeter was given a charter to trade with Africa in 1585, a time when trading more often than not meant trading in human lives. Topsham, Dartmouth, and Falmouth have all invested in slaving voyages. In addition to the above, Exeter merchants had preferred to invest primarily in journeys from London and Bristol, according to a port city heritage site. Manillas, a curved metal armlet known as ‘slave trade money’ were manufactured in foundries within Exeter, as were slave shackles to be exported to Africa. Henry Philpotts, the Anglican Bishop of Exeter from 1830 to 1869 was also compensated for the loss of 655 slaves on a plantation in Barbados, to the amount equivalent to £1,000,000 in modern day value.
And Redvers Buller, the loved, respected man on the impatient horse. He was greatly respected by those around the Exeter area– he has memorials in the Cathedral and in Crediton, where he was buried. He also served in the Second Opium War, and took part in the Ashanti campaign. The Ashanti campaign was a series of occupying conflicts in present day Ghana, culminating at the royal palace of Kumasi that had “rows of books in many languages”. The palace was demolished with explosives and left a heap of ruins.
He was not only involved in one Boer War, but both: the Boer wars were a brutalizing series of events that resulted in concentration camps and the destruction of crops, slaughtering of livestock, and burning down of homes. Today, historians argue about whether or not he was good at doing all of that in the Boer wars: maybe he was not incompetent at imperialism. Exeter seems to think he was excellent at it, hence a prominent monument. Buller played a major role in the Zulu conflicts as well, and in the Battle of Kambala, where British forces “butchered the ‘brutes’ all over the place” whilst Buller himself was described as “a tiger drunk with blood”. Buller had led a ruthless pursuit commanding mounted cavalry troops against fleeing Zulus, who had retreated from the occupying forces. Buller remains seated on his horse to this day, the pose now frightening, his plinth proudly depicting the worldwide imperialist bingo he seemed to have played in his day.
But he had “many friends in the West Country, where he was greatly loved and honoured.” The statue claims he “saved Natal”. It does not say what he saved it from.
Erecting statues and honouring philanthropists does not inherently lead to education.
This is by no means a full history of anything: the research is out there, yet connecting it to these buildings and monuments involved trawling through separate accounts and books. But that is proof. Within the disconnection of these monuments and building names and donations and philanthropy from the bloodied and obscured sources of these positive financial gains lies the evidence that erecting statues and honouring philanthropists does not inherently lead to education.
It does, however, once you realise the imperialist connections within even a relatively newer university, open up further questions. Why is a University committed to decolonise and diversify referring to plantation money and East India Company loot as generous benefactors? Why does a statue of a man who was “a tiger drunk with blood” of occupied people deserve such a pride of place? And most importantly – why are students and citizens not directly, explicitly informed of this? Museums, researchers, and even University students have done their best to counter it. But if a University can have a plaque proclaiming that the Queen opened the Forum, how much would it cost for a similar physical acknowledgement within these buildings named to honour ‘benefactors’?
Reparation and decolonisation are not processes that occur in a vacuum. If I am to appropriate the sentiment of anti-decolonisation campaigners, a commitment to education is a commitment to education, regardless of how a place may look by today’s standards. Here, that has not happened. And evidently, honorary memorials do not make an education. There are courses and modules within the University that touch upon Exeter’s obscured links to sugar and imperialism; yet what the average historically conscious student seems to know is that Reed Hall was once a wartime hospital.
It is not hard to acknowledge, accept, and understand a need for atonement. What is more difficult is realizing this could have been done so long ago and has not been. The University is not the only place within the city that needs to accept its links to global atrocity, not least while Redvers Buller towers imposingly on a horse in a pose mimicking his cavalry charges within the African continent. But the University is as good a place as any to start.
Gimon CA. Sejarah Indonesia: An Online Timeline of Indonesian History. gimonca.com 2001.
Raugh, Harold E. (2004). The Victorians at War, 1815–1914: an Encyclopedia of British Military History.
Lock, R. (1995). Blood on the Painted Mountain: Zulu Victory and Defeat, Hlobane and Kambula, 1879.