What links Kensal Rise Library (run by Brent Council in London), All Souls College, Oxford and the Caribbean slave trade?
Well, as reported in today’s Guardian (May 17), Brent has decided, due to the recession, to close the 111 year-old library. Local people objected. Brent withdrew its workers who had turned up to carry away the books. But will they be back?
It now transpires that the library building is owned by All Souls, a prestigious Oxford college, built in 1488. The college is home to the famous Codrington Library. In 1710, Sir Christopher Codrington, who had studied at All Souls, made a bequest of £10.000 to the college, stipulating that £4000 of that should be spent on books. He also donated his own library of 12.000 books.
So where’s the slavery connection in all this? It’s located in the eastern Caribbean, on two islands in particular: Barbuda and Barbados, the latter Britain’s administrative centre in that part of the world.
Succeeding generations of the Codrington family administered the islands and pocketed the sugar money. Then they thought up a plan that might net them make even more money. How about if they bred their own slaves? This would make them less dependent on the supply of slaves from West Africa.
“..the value of the aforesaid island of Barbuda consisted chiefly in its extreme fitness for a nursery of Negroes and that, in this sense, it is not only a source of much profit…but also a preventive to the African slave trade.”
Meanwhile, back in London, a Bill was introduced, in 1601, aimed at outlawing the “carrying off” of children and servants to take them to work overseas. It failed to get past the second reading and 150 years later, the Codringtons were still importing Charity School boys to work on their estates. Later – towards the end of the eighteenth century, a law was passed on Barbados, where the Codrington family had their seat, making it an offence for slaves to be taught to read or write – a bitter irony when set against the fact that the Codrington profits from slave labour were used to establish the Codrington Library at All Souls.
Perhaps the Fellows of All Souls – and they’re not all elitist – might consider repaying a debt by helping the people of Kensal Rise who want only to be able to read the odd book. Kensal Rise Library, by the way, was opened by Mark Twain just one hundred years ago.
You can read more about this in my book Journeys of a Lifetime, published by Simon and Schuster and available from me http://www.maryrussell.info or from Amazon.