Rhodri Davies, Programme Leader, Giving Thought

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Charities Aid Foundation

The role of giving

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Philanthropy and the Sins of the Past: Statues, Slavery & Tainted Donations

25 June 2020

Statues and slavery have been very much in the news in recent weeks. The toppling of the long-controversial effigy of Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour by Black Lives Matter protestors has led to many other towns, cities and institutions grappling with their own historical links with the slave trade.

This new wave of reckoning has so far seen a statue of slave trader Robert Milligan removed from London’s Docklands; Oxford University’s Oriel College announce their support for the removal of a memorial to colonialist Cecil Rhodes; and a number of venerable companies such as the brewer Greene King and the insurance market Lloyds of London announce they are to offer new support to groups supporting BAME communities and seeking racial justice in recognition of their own past links to slavery.

This has generated a huge amount of debate about the best way to acknowledge and come to terms with problematic parts of our country’s history. In some ways I am loath to add to this debate because there is a real danger that it becomes part of a wider culture war and thus distracts from the much more pressing issue of dealing with the blight of systemic racism and injustice that is at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement. However, these recent events do raise important questions about philanthropy that are worth giving some consideration. In particular:

    • What role does philanthropy play in shaping our historical narratives of issues like slavery?
    • Conversely, how does our understanding of history shape our narratives of philanthropy?
    • What should philanthropic organisations that have problematic historical associations to issues like slavery do about it?


    Let’s focus first on the specific issue of problematic statues and why this matters for philanthropy.

    Our starting point here should be to recognise that statues are not neutral objects that somehow spring forth from the living earth to depict historical events in an entirely objective way. Rather they are subjective representations, designed by people with a particular purpose in mind and reflecting the context of their creation. So we always need to ask a series of basic questions including: When was this statue erected? Why was it erected? And who paid for it?

    Some of those who defend statues like that of Edward Colston, or take issue with their removal, argue that it is better to keep them in place because they “teach us about our past”, including slavery. But is this really true? Of course statues can act as memorials to tragic or shameful events just as much as they can act as celebrations. However this is entirely dependent on the nature of the statue, the information it conveys and the context in which it is presented. In the case of Colston it is pretty disingenuous to suggest that we can learn anything from his statue about slavery, given that there is no mention of the subject anywhere on the plaque (despite the efforts of local campaigners over many years).

    This is where philanthropy becomes relevant; because the statue of Colston is not acknowledging him as a slave owner, but rather celebrating him as a philanthropist. And this makes it a physical embodiment of one of the most awkward truths about philanthropy throughout history: that it has often played a role in atoning for, or deflecting criticism of, wider sins.

    In some cases this may be done consciously by those doing the giving. If we look back at the pre-Reformation period, for instance, the idea that acts of charity (ideally towards the church) could absolve a donor from their sins and thus help to ensure their passage to heaven was a major money spinner for the medieval Catholic Church (and, indeed, the selling of such “indulgences” was one of the things that most bothered Martin Luther and his followers). Fast forward to today and you still don’t have to go that far to find examples of people trying to use visible acts of philanthropy or deflect attention away from other misdemeanours or to buy absolution from them in the court of public opinion. Most recently, US Senator Kelly Loeffler - when faced with criticism over allegations of making stock trades that benefitted from private security briefings - decided to base her strategy on highlighting her own public acts of charitable giving (presumably in the hope that this would defuse the criticism?) You can read more on this story in a recent article by Jon Dean (and also listen to me discuss Jon’s recent book “The Good Glow: charity and the symbolic power of doing good” with him on the CAF Giving Thought podcast).

    Faced with examples like this of people deliberately trying to utilise the halo effect of giving to cover other misdeeds, it becomes ever more tempting to agree with G K Chesterton’s cynical assessment that “philanthropy is the recognisable mark of a wicked man”.

    In most cases, however, the motivation for visible acts of philanthropy or the desire to commemorate philanthropists is unlikely to be as conscious or malign as “let’s use philanthropy to obscure X”. But that still doesn’t mean we should simply take at face value. The fact that someone is immortalised in a statue as a philanthropist still reflects a choice and a belief that it is appropriate to lionise that person in this way in the context of their wider actions; so we need to ask what purpose the celebration of their philanthropy is serving. The Colston statue is a particularly interesting example in this regard because it brings to light broader issues and highlights how important it is to be aware of when and why a memorial to a given donor was erected.

    The natural starting assumption is probably that any statue of this kind was erected during the donor’s lifetime, or not that long afterwards, as a reflection of a broad public desire to recognise their generosity. In the case of Edward Colston one could certainly be forgiven for drawing this conclusion, given that a plaque on the statue literally states that it was “Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city.” But this is pretty much a bare-faced lie: the statue was in fact erected in 1895 - more than 170 years after Colston’s death - and largely financed by a small group of Bristol merchants (led by James Arrowsmith, President of the Anchor Society) following a notably unsuccessful public fundraising campaign. (For further details, I thoroughly recommend this article from the Bristol Radical History Group).

    So what we are actually looking at when we look at the Colston statue is not “philanthropy as it was in the 18th century” but “how 18th century philanthropy was used by the Victorians for their own mythmaking”. And this is something the Victorians were quite big on. There was a real trend for using the supposed glories of donors of an earlier era to make points about the desirability of philanthropy and how it should be practiced. The historian Peter Shapely notes in a study of philanthropy in Victorian Manchester, for example, that  there was a revival of interest in the 17th century merchant Humphrey Chetham which saw statues of him erected in the Cathedral and outside the Town Hall because “Chetham’s example was important to the Victorians in helping to construct and underpin nineteenth century notions of what constituted a public man”.

    The 18th century prison reformer John Howard, likewise, became a figure of such mythical status that he appeared in everything from morally-improving children’s books to newspaper articles berating contemporary philanthropists for failing to live up to his example. (An editorial in the Times in 1857, for example, lamented that “John Howard, like an Apostle of old, went to the places and mixed with the people that he wished to reform, and he had his reward in an early grave and the admiration of the world” but that by comparion, “modern philanthropy does not run such dangers and will not excite such gratitude”).

    Part of philanthropy’s role in the Victorian era was as a tool for social control: as Brian Harrison has argued, it “helped to validate existing social institutions by highlighting the generosity of the rich and the inadequacies of the poor” and thus offered “a means of redistributing the national income without disrupting existing institutions.” Historical examples of the marvellous exploits of philanthropists past were an important element in this, as they reinforced the idea that the ideal state of affairs was for the wealthy to be benevolent and for the poor to be grateful to them for it.

    This goes part of the way to explaining the situation with the Colston statue: as in most other cities, the elites of Bristol were keen to quell unrest and maintain the social order, and narratives of philanthropy were a key part of that. However, that still leaves the question of why Colston particularly. Was he just so impressive as a philanthropist that he was the obvious choice as a philanthropic figurehead for Bristol? Well, no, not really. 

    Although Colston was relatively high-profile as a donor in his own time, he was far from being the city’s best-known (or most generous) philanthropist. For instance, Richard Reynolds, a Quaker merchant who followed 100 years after Colston made a much more significant contribution through his charity. And it doesn't seem as though Colston’s giving wasn’t particularly admirable in nature either: according to David Owen’s English Philanthropy 1660-1960 (which remains the authoritative tome on the subject ), “his charitable preoccupations were those of the Anglican-Tory Revival, with all of the narrow bigotry of which the movement was capable” and “his philanthropies reflected his violent religious prejudices”.

    What, then, was it about Colston that led a group of merchants to expend so much energy on erecting a statue of him long after his death, when no-one had thought it necessary up to that point? The answer lies in the particular nature of Colston’s wealth, and thus brings us back to the question of slavery. For his supporters, the fact that he made his money through merchant seafaring was crucial, as this could be juxtaposed with his philanthropy and thus - as Spencer Jordan argues in an unpublished PhD thesis - justify depicting him “as both ‘merchant prince’ and ‘moral saint’”. Furthermore:

    “For many of the city's bourgeoisie this aspect of the Colston myth was a principal characteristic. The conjunction of Colston as 'golden past' and 'merchant prince' was used to legitimate the new vanguard of business leaders appearing with the decline of the city's mercantile trade by mid-century. The parades, dinners and collections allowed the city's political and economic elite to pose as the inheritors of Colston's mantle who would sustain Bristol's economic fortune and shower equivalent largesse on the city's poor and needy.” 

    Over time, those elements of the Colston story that were less desirable were de-emphasised or dropped entirely. Hence, as Jordan notes:

     “By the mid nineteenth century the celebrations were not about Edward Colston the man per se but rather the city of Bristol as revealed by one of its greatest sons. Aspects of his life that jarred bourgeois sensibilities were quietly dropped. From the 1860s Colston was represented as a more general figurehead of self-made wealth than as a paragon of the city's slaving heritage; while his fervent Anglicanism was superseded by a less-denominational mantle, suitably devout and chaste.”

    However, through it all, “the continuing depiction of Colston as a merchant prince, albeit one that lost reference to slavery, remained an essential component of the mythology if Colston was going to be used as a ritualised link to the 'golden past’”. This gives lie to any suggestion that slavery is merely incidental to Colston’s story, or that we should appraise his legacy as a philanthropist in isolation from his legacy as a slave trader, because his involvement in slavery was clearly central to why he ended up being lauded as a philanthropist in the first place.

    The Colston case may be a particularly egregious one, and have elements that are unique. But more generally, if statues of past philanthropists are to have value in “helping us to remember our history” as some claim, then we need to make sure that the lessons we draw are the right ones. As we have seen, these may be lessons about the way in which nineteenth-century elites used the philanthropy of earlier times as the basis for myth creation in order to enable social control and the maintenance of hierarchies at a local level. Or they might be lessons about how the symbolic power of philanthropy has been used in attempts to divert criticism of where wealth comes from. 

    All of which demonstrates (I hope!) that having a greater appreciation of the history of philanthropy in the UK can be valuable when it comes to untangling some of the thorny issues thrown up by current controversies over statues. However given that 99% of people, when faced with an unquestioningly celebratory statue of a philanthropist, are (understandably) unlikely to interrogate what it might tell them about critical historical narratives on charity and the role of philanthropy, it seems impossible to conclude that simply leaving a statue like that of Edward Colston up in its current form is going to teach us anything particularly meaningful. It is thus hard to feel too bad about its relocation to the bottom of a harbour.

    Tainted Money

    Statues and commemorations of problematic past philanthropists clearly raise a whole host of issues, but if we assume for a minute that we can put such considerations to one side ─ either because we have solved those problems or simply because we are dealing with instances in which there is no suggestion of celebration ─ we are still left with thorny questions about how to deal with any philanthropic assets that such donors left behind. When it comes to slavery, plenty of organisations that have been around for a long time may well have connections with individuals who have questionable links.

    This question of historically problematic wealth is a special case of a far wider question for philanthropy: can you put “bad money” to good uses? Navigating the ethical issues raised by such “tainted donations” is one of the longest-running challenges for philanthropy. As far back as the 8th century, for instance, the Venerable Bede (sometimes called the Father of English History) grappled with the knowledge that “if the Church was to be enriched by the pious gifts of the faithful...the sources of these offerings and the intentions behind them could be problematic”. This even led the Council of Clovesho in 747 to decree that “alms shall not be given from goods unjustly plundered or otherwise extracted through force and cruelty” (as highlighted in a paper by Martin Ryan).

    Bringing things right up to the present day, the last few years have seen many iterations of the tainted donations issue come to the forefront: for instance the controversy over the Sackler family’s philanthropy in light of their role in the US opioid scandal, or the more recent concerns over the relationship between disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein and MIT. (In fact, this basic story turns up with such regularity that I wrote blogs about it back in 2011 and 2015, and did a podcast about it in 2019...)

    Unsurprisingly, given this long history, there are many complex issues and no clear agreement on the right answers. There are, however, a few key questions that we need to ask. Two of particular importance are: What qualifies money as "tainted"? And is it better to take tainted money and put it to good uses or to turn it down/give it back?

      On the first we need to clarify the basis on which we are claiming a donation to be tainted. Is it:

      • On the basis of circumstances specific to that particular donation?
      • On the basis of a wider critique of an entire industry of which the donor in question is a part?
      • On the basis that the entire system within which the wealth has been generated is somehow tainted?

      This is important, because it determines both how we identify the possible domain of tainted donations and what the appropriate course of action may be for anyone who wants to make redress for having benefitted from tainted money. In the case of slavery, for instance, there is an important question about whether we are choosing to focus only on those cases where there is a demonstrable direct link to slave ownership and trading; or to look more broadly at cases involving donors who made wealth in other industries that were reliant on slavery. The challenge in the latter instance is, as George Bernard Shaw wrote, that “practically all the spare money in the country consists of a mass of rent, interest and profit, every penny of which is bound up with crime, drink, prostitution, disease and all the evil fruits of poverty as inextricably as with enterprise, wealth, commercial probity and national prosperity. The notion that you can earmark certain coins as tainted is an unpractical individualist superstition”. If one buys this argument, does it mean all money is tainted- or none? 

      There are further factors that complicate things when we are talking about historically tainted money, too. For instance, do we need to be careful in applying ethical standards across temporal boundaries? (This is clearly not the case with slavery, but in other cases there might be far more grey area). Or is there a statute of limitations of any kind? I.e. does there come a point at which any ill done through the accumulation of wealth is so distant in time that we should sever the links with the present that might place responsibilities on those who now hold that wealth?

      Putting all that aside for one moment let's assume, for argument’s sake, that we can agree that a certain past donor is clearly tainted. The question then is what any organisation that suspects they might have benefitted from that donor should do about it. Is it better to accept or keep the tainted money and put it to good uses or to turn it down/give it back? In terms of the latter option, when it comes to historical donations it clearly isn’t possible to turn them down (as they already happened long ago) and “giving it back” may also not make sense in that all the actual money in question has almost certainly been spent. However, if such a donation formed the basis of an endowment or other present wealth, then the question of whether some kind of restitution or reparation are appropriate remains very much open.

      This raises a complex set of issues that will be relevant for some philanthropic organisations: either with respect to slavery, or with respect to other historical activities that we now think problematic (or may come to think of as such in future). It is therefore important to engage with these issues now.



      So what is the upshot of all of this for people in the philanthropy world?

      When it comes to statues and memorials to dead donors, we shouldn’t necessarily be cynical; but we should be a lot more willing to interrogate their provenance and purpose. If, for instance, you have a big statue of a problematic donor ─ or their name emblazoned somewhere on a building ─ then you probably need to acknowledge this at the very least; and also to think about whether this constitutes celebration and whether that consequently implies removal or renaming in some form would be appropriate.

      However, the question of troublesome statues is in many ways the simpler issue (even if it can require getting to grips with historical detail!) and is unlikely to affect that many organisations. Much more complicated, and with wider implications, is the question of what to do about historically tainted money in the philanthropy sector. What should organisations that find themselves facing this issue do?

      I’m sorry to disappoint you at this late stage, but I don’t have the answers to this question (although given that it has troubled some pretty sharp minds over the last 1500 years or more, perhaps I shouldn’t feel too bad…) However, here are some suggestions for further questions you could be asking if you are concerned that your organisation has financial links to money that is to some extent tainted:

      • Is the taint sufficient to require action? If not, are you willing to defend that decision?
      • Does keeping the money amount to condoning donor?
      • Are you confident you are doing good with that money?
      • Does the good you do need to be more closely aligned with the nature of taint (i.e. aimed at providing reparation in some sense?)
      • Do you need to consider reparation payment above and beyond any existing philanthropic funding?

        The answers to these questions will be context-specific and almost certainly quite complex, so it is impossible to generalise about what responses they will dictate (there may also be legal technicalities that further complicate things, as I discussed with John Picton on the CAF Giving Thought podcast).

        One thing, however, seems increasingly clear: any sense that we can separate the right hand of how money is made from the left hand of how it is given away is no longer valid, and there will increasingly be demands for all philanthropy to be contextualised (whether that is current context or historical). Rather than getting defensive, those of us who are interested in shaping a positive future for philanthropy need to face up to these challenges.

        Rhodri Davies

        Public Good by Private Means

        Rhodri Davies' book tells the story of philanthropy through the ages, and examines the relationship between philanthropists, the state and society.

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