On Charlottesville and home

Today was the first day of the new school year here in Fife. Two of our daughters attend a school named ‘Madras College’, where our church congregation also happens to meet of a Sunday morning. It is a very ordinary state-funded Scottish high school which, like many thousands of British institutions, owes its odd name to an old connection with someone involved in the Empire. Most of its buildings in desperate need of replacement, although there is one fine quadrangle of great architectural merit and real note.

I have forborne from commenting much in public on the—horrific—scenes enacted last weekend in Charlottesville, VA, scenes sparked by the intention to remove a monument to someone who was revered by his contemporaries, but has been judged more harshly by history. I have praised courageous friends—one in particular—who have taken a stand, and made the assumptions that every British person has made, that the rights and wrongs are obvious and clear, but I have not wanted to say this too loudly—because I have wondered what is as obvious and clear from far away about my life, my culture, my home, that I don’t see, and whether I would have the moral courage to confront it if I could see it.

The fine quadrangle at the heart of our girls’ school, and the odd name, both owe their origins to the Revd Andrew Bell (1753-1832), who was born on the street that the school now stands on here in St Andrews. His admiring biography was written in three volumes by Charles and Robert Southey after his death.

He was educated in town, went to the university here. Upon graduating, he accepted a post as tutor to the sons of Carter Braxton, a tobacco farmer in Virginia. Braxton owned, of course, many slaves—as a young man he owned a ship and had at least attempted to become involved in the slave trade. Out of his profits, he paid Bell a salary—some of it in shares in his tobacco enterprise. Bell grew moderately wealthy on the immoral profits of slavery.

In 1781 Bell returned to Britain, fearing for his life in the War of Independence. He was ordained within the Church of England, served briefly an Episcopal congregation in Leith (near Edinburgh), but then in 1787 set sail for India, armed with a newly-minted honorary doctorate from my own university here in St Andrews.

He landed in Chennai (which was then called Madras), and harvested several lucrative chaplaincy contracts with local British regiments. His great work in India, however, started two years later, when the East India Company opened its ‘Male Orphan Asylum’ at Egmore Redoubt, Madras, for ‘the orphaned, illegitimate, and abandoned sons of British officers’. Bell became Superintendent, and served with great distinction, devising a model of education that he named ‘the Madras system’, where older boys served as ‘monitors’ (or tutors) and instructed younger boys. He talked about educational advantages for the boys in public—and about savings on teachers’ salaries in private.

He served the Asylum for seven or eight years before returning to Britain because his health was deteriorating. He was clearly loved by his boys, who were born into desperate situations, and who he helped greatly. That said, and although chaplain to the regiments of many of the boys’ fathers, he did not, it seems, ever query whether British soldiers should be routinely raping native women and leaving them destitute, or disowning the children born as a result of such assaults.

He grew very rich in the Raj, so much so that when he sought an acquaintance’s help in securing a pension from the East India Company, the reply was tart: ‘[t]he very little [influence] I have, I would rather reserve to help the helpless, than in adding more rupees to the enormous heap you have brought home with you.’ (quotation from Southey & Southey, II.34). He obtained his pension, nonetheless, and so had both vast capital and comfortable income gained from the immoral profits of the Imperial occupation of India.

He believed his real treasure, however, was the system of education he had developed, and set about recommending it to various poor and charitable schools. My university encouraged him, and awarded him a further honorary doctorate; his success may be gauged from the fact that his funeral was held in Westminster Abbey, where his grave is under the central aisle of the nave. In his will he left money to found a school using the Madras system in St Andrews. The bequest was handsome, and the Madras College began on the street where Bell had been born, in a fine quadrangle, which survives to this day.

It would be hard to cast Bell as an evil man; indeed, he did much good. His modern biographers (see, e.g., the DNB) have him as wanting in character—egotistical, inflexible, despotic. There is no doubt, however, that he was loved and revered by the destitute children he gave so much of his life to help, both in Madras and in England, and his harshest critic could not deny that he did these children great good. But he was simply blind to the structural evils around him, whether slavery in Virginia or colonial oppression and routinised sexual assault in Madras, and, worse, he was unhappily adept at profiting from those evils.

He has a minor place in the history of British education, but his lasting monument is in Madras College in St Andrews, where there is a fine quadrangle, built on the profits of Virginia slavery and on the figurative and literal rape of India.

Today was the first day of the new school year here in Fife. Two of our daughters attend a school named ‘Madras College’, where our church congregation also happens to meet of a Sunday morning. It is a very ordinary state-funded Scottish high school which, like many thousands of British institutions, owes its odd name to an old connection with someone involved in the Empire.

I have forborne from commenting much in public on the scenes enacted last weekend in Charlottesville, VA, scenes sparked by the intention to remove a monument to someone who was revered by his contemporaries, but has been judged more harshly by history. I have made the assumptions that every British person has made, that the rights and wrongs are obvious and clear, but I have not wanted to say this too loudly—because I have wondered what is as obvious and clear from far away about my life, my culture, my home, that I don’t see, and whether I would have the moral courage to confront it if I could see it.

1 Comment

  1. Bev Murrill
    Aug 16, 2017

    History is selective…

    Thanks for putting a slant on this situation that not many people look for, Steve.

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