The Saint's editor, Angus Neale, interviews members of Spence, a student research project investigating and presenting ties between St Andrews and slavery. The group explain their motivations and intentions for this year and the future.
C.1768, the slave David Spens (or Spence) was brought from Grenada to Fife by his owner, Dr David Dalrymple. Spens was baptised in a church in Wemyss, a small village near Kirkcaldy, taking the name of the local church minister. He left to work on a farm nearby but was arrested by Dalrymple for attempting to leave his service. Dalrymple intended to return Spens to the West Indies. Spens, with the support of Fife locals such as salters and colliers, sued Dalrymple for wrongful arrest, claiming that by being baptised he was no longer a “heathen” and thus no longer a slave. Dalrymple accused Spens of “pia fraud” or pious fraud. The case was abandoned after Dalrymple died. Spens was consequently a free man.
St Andrews and its pastoral surrounds may seem removed from the arena of empire. When Johnson passed through, he saw a town in decline but propitious to learning, “exposing the minds and manners of young men neither to the levity and dissoluteness of a capital city, nor to the gross luxury of a town of commerce.” Despite this description, Fife has been shaped by profits of empire and slavery, with links present in historical record and the lived history of the buildings we walk past on our way to lectures and tutorials.
The Spence Project, a student-led and university-supported venture, aims to uncover and make accessible the “stories, literature, and connections between enslaved people and St Andrews.” This was how Manhattan Murphy-Brown, a member of the project, expressed their mission. Over video call, the same manner in which they have been coordinating their work, I spoke to Manhattan Murphy-Brown, Charmaine Au-Yeung, Luke Simboli, and Dylan Springer, a small group of Spence members, who explained their motivations and intentions.
Spence endeavours to make the connections between St Andrews and slavery accessible to all. According to Mr Murphy-Brown, Spence is about “making information readily available and easy to confront and glean from.” The members discuss how making connections to our tangible surroundings is a powerful reminder of history which provokes reflection. Ms Au-Yeung notes how “St Andrews isn’t detached from the global community” with the project being an opportunity to link global contexts to the local environment. It is a known fact that much of Britain’s wealth originated from the exploitation of people but, as Mr Springer notes, to “be able to point at specific buildings and name specific individuals and know the actual details”, “hits home emotionally in a different way.” Mr Murphy-Brown noted how their initial research had already suggested that places he walked past to lectures could have been partially funded by slave owners; this has had an impact on his contemporary experience of living and studying in the town. This personal impetus has been enhanced by the topicality of the project. Their plan was initially submitted to the principal as part of the action plan report from the BAME student network.
Whilst the increased activism after the death of George Floyd in May has been a catalyst for the project, Mr Murphy-Brown highlighted how conversations regarding the role of slavery in academic issues were already taking place. For him, increased awareness has provided the “opportunity for BAME students to be heard and to be listened to, and for tangible and visible action to be done.” It is this that “has allowed the project to reach where it is today.” Importantly, Mr Simboli notes that the project is not intended to be “expository” rather something that “might come in tandem with positive information, such as the history of abolitionism locally.”
Spence is a proactive effort by students which has been supported by the University. Mr Murphy feels that “discussing BAME issues, BAME history and postcolonial history, shows dedication and commitment to BAME students.” Whilst the effects and environment around the project cannot be understated, it is a primarily historical pursuit. It is for this reason they are working closely with the University. Mr Springer and Mr Murphy Brown highlighted how vital a relationship with the University would be in checking over the research.
Imperative was also placed on presenting the work in a meaningful and accessible manner. Ms Au-Yeung expanded on this topic and explained how they hoped to work with the University on effective pedagogy. “There has been a lot of discussion at the moment on how to present stuff meaningfully and how to present things in an innovative way,” she said, “how do we make education interesting and thought-provoking.” For this reason, they are also open about the medium of presenting their work, their ideas including collaborating with BAME and other local artists. Mr Murphy-Brown and Mr Simboli stressed the importance of curation, “you can have all the information in the world but if no one is going to see it or it isn’t presented in a way in which people are able to access it, the project is not doing a good service.” Thus, “working with the University to find out what is feasible and effective” is essential.
Whilst ambitious, the group is seeking support where needed. The University will work with them through a steering committee and will assist them in checking their research and establishing the group’s place within the community. The members have found the University supportive thus far. Within the University, Dr Bernhard Struck, Dr Milinda Bannerjee, and Dr Akhila Yechury, have already agreed to provide advice and assistance. Their scope for collaboration is wide and they have already been in conversation with the “Lemon Project” at The College of William & Mary. They are cautious about directly emulating their approach since, as Mr Simboli notes, “it’s a different history”; however, they hope to learn about their use and presentation of information. Mr Simboli also discussed Universities Studying Slavery, a consortium of 63 universities, who are collaborating in their study of contemporary issues of race at university and the legacy of slavery.
The group stressed that the project is still in its early stages; this is acknowledged in their action plan. Many of their early findings are based on the publicly available UCL database of slave ownership; this being a point to push off from. The group sees establishing itself as a recognised body as essential to maintain a legacy and achieve bigger things in the future. They have floated ideas of a digital space for Black History Month and for larger-scale displays in the spring; however, this is dependent on restrictions. Mr Simboli explained that their main goal is to establish a “framework that works within not just the community but the University administration and gives students the opportunity to experience high-level research and to work with staff and community members – a true partnership – and bring some sort of dialogue.” Critically, they want to be in a position where conversations about BLM, and of indentured servitude and forced labour, extend “long past this immediate fervour.”