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Rhodes Must Fall Oxford inspires Bristol students’ campaign against Wills Memorial Building

Elliott Brown

Students at the University of Bristol have demanded that the Wills Memorial Building, housing the School of Law and Department of Earth Sciences, be renamed due to its namesake’s profiting from the slave trade.

The campaign was inspired by the Oxford student-led initiative to pressure Oriel College into removing Cecil Rhodes’ statue from its position overlooking the high street.

The change.org petition launched by Asher Websdale, Elmi Hassan and Shakeel Taylor-Camara states: “While we begrudgingly understand that Bristol has a historical connection to the slave trade, we find it hard to accept that the university still glorifies an individual who profited so greatly from such an immoral practice. We also find it ironic that the building is often the setting for events hosting some of this century’s most progressive thinkers.”

Henry Overton Wills III (1828–1911) entered his family’s tobacco business (W.D. & H.O. Wills) at 18 years old. Activists have drawn attention both to how the company profited heavily from American slave-grown tobacco prior to the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, and how the company continued to employ slave labour under Wills’ tenure until the end of slavery in the USA in 1865.

“We find it hard to accept that the university still glorifies an individual who profited so greatly from such an immoral practice.”

Wills donated £100,000 to the newly-formed University of Bristol in 1909; he was then made its first Chancellor. After his death in 1911, George and Henry Wills, his sons, influenced Bristol to construct the building currently bearing his name.

A spokesperson responded to the student petition on behalf of the University by saying:“To us, it would seem disingenuous to seek to deny or cover up our relationship with the family. We would welcome the chance to discuss this further with the organisers of this petition.”

Arguments over how best to acknowledge the role of slavery in funding Oxford’s institutions played a large part in the campaign to remove Rhodes’ statue. While Oriel College initially recognised Rhodes Must Fall Oxford‘s demands by committing to a six month listening exercise in a 17th December 2015 statement (and was confirmed to have begun seeking the permission needed from the local council for removing the statue), a follow-up statement on 28th January 2016 reneged on the dialogue. The Telegraph alleged that threats from College donors to the effect of withdrawing £100 million’s worth of gifts and bequests led to the decision that the statue would stay.

A blog post by Websdale to the project Bristol is the New Black‘s website countered the University of Bristol view, reading: “We accept Bristol’s historical ties to the slave trade and the profits obtained through said means as being a part of history that should not be covered up nor forgotten. A change of name does not have to erase this. In fact, we hope that in years to come individuals seek to find out why the name of Wills Memorial Building was successfully changed by a student-led campaign and educate themselves on the horrors of slavery – not just in the case of Bristol, but worldwide.”

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