Sunday, 18 March 2018

Slavery Reparation Opportunity Discovered in the National Gallery

Johann Liss (c1622) Judith in the Tent of Holofernes , Oil on Canvas 128.5 x 99 cm
While doing my research on the National Gallery's Judith in the Tent of Holofernes, in preparation for an Image of the Black in London Galleries tour of the National Gallery, I was intrigued to find there is not one but two black presence connections to this work.

The first and the most obvious  black presence are the terrified,haunting eyes of its black maid staring directly at you, she holds the basket in which her mistress is placing the severed head of the eponymous general in the picture.

Johann Liss Judith in the Tent of Holofernes [Detail]
The second presence is not so apparent.

The painting was a gift to the National Gallery by the royal vet John Archibald Watt Dollar in 1933. He was educated at Dollar Academy (they only have the name in common) Scotland's leading private school and The Times 2018 Scottish Independent Secondary School of the Year. He went on to have an illustrious veterinary career.  Amongst several prestigious positions he held was as President of the Royal College of Surgeons, from his portrait he looks every inch a distinguished Edwardian gentlemen. It is his school - Dollar Academy - which provides the second black presence.

Dollar Academy was founded in 1818 by a gift from John MacNabb (1732 - 1802) who is described  on  the school's website as being a 'trader....[b]orn to a poor family,  [who] went to sea as a young boy and eventually made his fortune as a ship owner.   In his will he specified that the interest on half his estate (some £60 000 -worth several millions today) was to provide "a Charity or School for the parish of Dollar and shire of Clackmannan wheir [sic] I was born".' While The Gazetteer for Scotland describes Mc Nabb as a '[s]hip-owner and philanthropist.'  What both sites fail to mention is MacNabb's connections with slavery - the source of his benefaction. This omission  is rectified by his entry on  FlagsUpScotJam's website  which says : [MacNabb] is known to have sent out 4 ships called Friendship, Maria, Pitt and Struggler which acquired a total of 348 slaves [1]

Dollar Academy
Details of the trips made by the MacNabb's slave ships are to be found -  here - The Slave Ship Voyages Database and, he is also mentioned in University College London's Slavery Compensation Database so, the sources of MacNabb's wealth are well known and documented.

The Academy's prospectus talks about the ship in its logo as 'a symbol of the journey that many thousands have embarked upon'. It goes on to say  'Dollar sees as immensely precious the cargo of lives that it has borne over the years, and has helped to launch into the world of adulthood and its demands.'[2]
Dollar Academy Logo
The metaphor of MacNabb's Dollar Academy as a ship with its  'precious…cargo of lives'  is deeply ironical when its founder made his fortune transporting enslaved Africans by sea as part of the heinous triangular trade in which the cargo of enslaved where packed as shown in the infamous plan of the Brookes, slave ship showing how 454 enslaved Africans were accommodated on board one slave ship.

Detail from the Brookes Slave Ship Plan
Kenneth Lu's model, model, now in National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution) shows a typical slave ship in the early 1700s on the Middle Passage from Africa to America. To preserve their profits, captains and sailors tried to limit the deaths of the enslaved Africans from disease, suicide, and revolts. In the grisly arithmetic of the transatlantic slave trade, captains usually chose between two options: pack in as many people as possible and hope that most survive, or put fewer aboard, improve the conditions between decks, and hope to lose fewer to disease.

Kenneth Lu's Model of Slave Ship
I ask my tour groups (I've now done the tour four times) should Dollar Academy update its web site, the consensus response is yes, the source of MacNabb's funds should be noted. Most want action not words, maybe a scholarship aimed at BAME pupils. There are travel scholarships for Dollar Academy pupils there appears to be no scholarships for entrants from outside for example Eton's Kings scholarship. Also perhaps Georgetown University in USA presents a model, the institution was saved through the sale of 272 slave in 1832,  today the University offers an admissions edge to descendants of slaves as part of a comprehensive atonement for the University's historical ties to slavery. Maybe Dollar Academy could do similar for pupils of Afro-Caribbean descent?

This of course, is part of a much bigger wider, bigger debate on slavery reparation. The slave owners received compensation for the loss of property when slavery was abolished by Britain in 1833, the Slavery Compensation Database shows how that compensation was distributed amongst the owners of enslaved Africans and how that wealth is manifest to this day. The enslaved received nothing. That is why some form of reparation is only just and fair.

The challenges of reparation are evident from David Cameron's comment   that Jamaica 'should move on from painful legacy of slavery' in doing so ignoring calls for reparation. While Kehinde Andrew describes reparations challenges quoting Malcolm X 'if you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, that’s not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress comes from healing the wound that the blow made'. Kehinde argues Britain 'won’t even admit the knife is there'  

To conclude, acts like Georgetown University's  are a step on the way to healing the knife wound of slavery,  I would argue Dollar Academy can play its part in the healing process by recognition of the origins of its benefaction and offering places to those children of African descent with the intellectual capacity but not the economic resources,  in order that the Academy's 'precious…cargo of lives' actually reflects Dollar's origins and confronts the sobering irony found in its prospectus.



[1]  FlagsUpScotJam  
John McNabb was originally a poor boy from the parish of Dollar. He made his fortune at sea and became a rich London merchant. He is known to have sent out 4 ships called Friendship, Maria, Pitt and Struggler which acquired a total of 348 slaves in Senegambia and the Gold Coast and three of these ships went to Jamaica. Dollar Academy was founded through a bequest from his Will. The interests on his legacy, of some £40,000 on his death in 1802, was to be used for the provision of "a charity or school for the poor of the parish of Dollar wheir [sic] I was born".

[2] Dollar Academy Prospectus 
The ship is our school logo - a reminder of Captain John McNabb's own vessels that enabled him, at the end of the eighteenth century, to build up a fortune with which to found the school, which welcomed its first pupils in 1818. It is also a symbol of the journey that many thousands have embarked upon in the years that Dollar has been welcoming young people through its Bronze doors

The Latin motto says of the school: Juventutis veho fortunas - "I bear the fortunes of youth". Dollar sees as immensely precious the cargo of lives that it has borne over the years, and has helped to launch into the world of adulthood and its demands. That it has been instrumental in forming character and in developing talent is attested to by generations of former pupils, who not only return on a regular basis themselves, but send their children to be educated, and their children's children. Thus, links of deep affection are created, and maintained by the strong network of Former Pupils across not only the UK but the world itself.



1 comment:

Michael said...

Timely article on reparation in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/29/slavery-abolition-compensation-when-will-britain-face-up-to-its-crimes-against-humanity