Turn the page on library named after ‘imperialist’ academic, demand Cambridge students

Cambridge University is under pressure to rename a library that carries the name of a liberal nineteenth century historian who defended imperialism.  

The 800-year-old university has been urged by students to rename the Seeley Historical Library on the basis that John Robert Seeley, a Cambridge Regius professor of history, was “known for his justification of the British Empire”.

The university’s student union and over 150 students and alumni have signed an open letter to Cambridge’s history faculty complaining that the library name “reflects the university’s historic and ongoing justification and support of colonialism”.

Seeley, who was born in 1834, read history and theology at Cambridge and went on to become an eminent historian and political essayist. He was best known for his book The Expansion of England, in which he claimed that it was in India’s best interests to be under British rule.

Seeley also made important contributions to education reform, and was a staunch advocate of opening up university education to women.

But the students’ open letter says: “For too long, figures like Seeley have had their legacies neutralised by their vague liberal beliefs like supporting the admission of elite women into universities.

“The library’s naming and association is representative of Cambridge’s lack of desire to confront its legacies of colonialism.

“Permitting Seeley to remain an unchallenged, neutral figure in history serves to naturalise how logics of imperialism and colonialism remain central to the university.”

They argue that the Seeley Historical Library, which was established in 1807, should be renamed the History Faculty Library.

They also point out that the university’s history society was recently renamed from the Seeley History Society to Christ’s College History Society.

“Changing the name would be a symbolic act to show Cambridge University’s commitment to decolonisation,” the students say in their letter.

Black Lives Matter protests sparked reforms in some universities

Several universities have changed the names of their buildings in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.

Last summer, University College London renamed lecture theatres and a building named after the prominent eugenicists Francis Galton and Karl Pearson.

Imperial College London commissioned an independent group of historians to recommend ways in which it could confront “uncomfortable and awkward aspects of our past”.

Last month, the group advised the university to remove a bust of slavery abolitionist Thomas Henry Huxley because he “might now be called racist”.

Huxley was a vocal slave abolitionist, but the Imperial report said his paper, Emancipation – Black and White, “espouses a racial hierarchy of intelligence” which helped feed ideas around eugenics, which “falls far short of Imperial’s modern values”.

A Cambridge university spokesman said “There are currently no plans to change the name of the Seeley Library.”

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