On why the Wills Memorial Building should keep its name.

It’s been a while since I’ve written on here but I’ve struggled slightly for inspiration, however a recent student petition to rename the University of Bristol’s Wills Memorial Building posed a juicy bone of contention for which to sink my teeth into.

No doubt an unpopular opinion in the current political and social climate (especially with the current racism witch-hunting that occurs at the university today) and one which I’m bound to encounter much opposition to, I like many others do not think the Wills Memorial Building should be renamed. Having scoured news articles and the occasional blog, I’ve collated a couple of reasons why not.

But first a brief background for those not from Bristol. First commissioned in 1912 as a tribute to the tobacco magnate Henry Overton Wills II who had funded the establishment of the University of Bristol. The building was completed in 1925 and opened by the reigning monarch King George V. A design modelled on the Gothic style to imitate historical university buildings such as those seen at Oxford and Cambridge, the building exists as the centrepiece of the University of Bristol. Housing law and geographical sciences faculties, the Wills Memorial Building is an impressive sight to behold sitting atop Park Street and is a popular icon for tourists visiting the city. Hosting events from conferences to art displays to graduation ceremonies, the building is a focal point for the University and Bristol as a city.

Tobacco magnate Henry Overton Wills II

The most common argument I’ve seen splashed across comment sections and message boards is that renaming the building merely sweeps the issue under the rug. This holds much credence with me, commentators point to Liverpool as setting the example for what should be done. Instead of pulling down and renaming no doubt large parts of the city that were built off the back of the slave trade, Liverpool set up a slavery museum and make express acknowledgements to the dark side of it’s history rather than merely erase it. I believe if anything Bristol should follow suit, speaking to many people who live and have lived in the city it is clear no one is completely naïve as to the city’s history. However perhaps more should be done to acknowledge this, I agree with suggestions for more statues and plaques remembering and commemorating victims of the slave trade and see these as a more appropriate compromise. To rename the Wills Memorial Building would merely be erasing history and in the absence of some express form of awareness e.g. statues or plaques would serve little to educate future generations as to the city’s slave trading history.

slave trade bristol
One of Bristol’s scarce slave trade memorial plaques

The argument from those wishing to rename the building is that Bristol should not be celebrating or commemorating someone who profited from slave trading. I must admit I am not an expert on this area of history and need to look into it more myself but having read several opinions and articles the historical consensus appears to be that Henry Overton Wills whom the building is named after, did in fact have a relatively tenuous link to the slave trade (or at least was not as directly involved as would warrant such condemnation). From what I have read, Wills was not a trader himself but bought tobacco from American plantations which had made heavy use of slaves before the War of Independence. After the war had caused a serious dent in the economy of American tobacco salesmen, Wills pounced on the opportunity and bought his tobacco at a reduced cost. Whilst not completely innocent, it would appear Wills was not the slave-trading demon the petition writers would have us believe, unlike the other vilified old Bristolian Edward Colston.

Whilst only a quick post rattled off the cuff to kill time on a boring Sunday evening, the issue has made me ponder further questions about the nature of our society. We couldn’t possibly quantify how much of our current infrastructure: roads, galleries, monuments etc. were constructed off the back of the slave trade, but were this petition to succeed and the building be renamed would we and should we see a nationwide purge of such institutions? The Tate Gallery in London, the British Museum, the Royal Institution in Liverpool  to name but a few examples, were all conceived at the cost of slavery. Looking at the global picture, wonders of the world such as the Colosseum in Rome, even Africa’s pyramids were built on the back of some form of slavery, most shocking still the White House in America, the supposed beacon of freedom for the modern world was built by slaves! It appears slavery has permeated through society as long as time itself, with greater research it could probably be argued no society is innocent of making use of some form of slavery at some point in its history. This leads one to question how far back we consider this issue, what is demonised and renamed and what is regarded as heritage and historical? While this by no means exonerates the practice, we cannot just take an Anglo-centric burden of guilt for the slave trade, societies across the world should look at their own history, as I have said, many proud monuments of ages past are shown to be tainted by one people’s subjugation of another.

slavery in egypt
Thousands of years before slaves were brought from the shores of Africa, the Ancient Egyptians had slaves of their own build the pyramids

Where this leaves our modern world I do not know, but we cannot tear down and rename everything. These dark parts of our history are here to stay, what counts is how we raise awareness of them, move on from them, and ensure they do not happen again.


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