By Henry Dee
UncoverED started in September 2018 as a “collaborative decolonial project” researching the centuries-long, unacknowledged history of African, Asian and Caribbean students at the University of Edinburgh. Edinburgh today promotes itself as a “global university”, but few people knew that over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, thousands of students from across the British empire came to study in Scotland’s capital. Their experiences included stories of academic, political, sporting and cultural successes and the formation of life-changing relationships, but also enduring tales of prejudiced landlords, institutional “colour bars” and everyday discrimination. In the first two years of the project, UncoverEd discovered how Edinburgh’s African, Asian and Caribbean alumni became artists, writers, scientists, parents, medics, musicians, politicians and presidents, and played an integral part in Scotland’s own reckoning with its identity as both a colonial and post-colonial nation. Most recently, we have expanded our research to contextualise the lives of University of Edinburgh’s African, Asian and Caribbean students within Britain’s broader imperial project, and look into the University’s institutional connections with colonial expropriation, the transatlantic slave trade and imperial science.
As a team of 12 undergraduate and postgraduate researchers, inspired by student-led protests in Cape Town and Oxford, as well as existing research projects at the Universities of Glasgow, Liverpool and Cambridge, we started with numerous questions: what ways have the experiences of students shifted and in what ways have they stayed the same throughout the changing decades and centuries? Why do we not know more about these people? Why are they not officially remembered?
Working for a week in the University’s Centre for Research Collections, our research initially focused on going through the archives of The Student, Britain’s oldest student newspaper, from the 1880s to the present day. A few alumni were already well-known. These included James Africanus Beale Horton (a leading medical doctor and Pan-Africanist in mid-19th century West Africa), Hastings Banda (the first president of independent Malawi) and Julius Nyerere (the first president of independent Tanganyika/ Tanzania). We soon came across a number of individuals, such as David Pitt (the first person of African descent to stand as an MP in Britain) and Yusuf Lule (who was briefly president of Uganda in 1979), however, who were undoubtedly important even by the conventional metrics of the day and had not been acknowledged within the history of the University. Early women students, in particular, were not well known.
From the records of The Student, we identified a number of individuals and during the second half of the week we focused on writing up the biographies of individual alumni. Esme Allman wrote about the first black woman to study at Edinburgh, Clara Christian, and the “double jeopardy” of “navigating both race and gender within whiteness”. Clara Christian was part of a long history of Pan-African student organising at Edinburgh. While Christian was a member of the Edinburgh Afro-West Indian Association in 1915, earlier delegates from Edinburgh Afro-West Indian Literary Society attended the first ever Pan-African Congress in London in 1900, and John Coleman de Graft Johnson helped organise the 1945 Pan-African Congress in Manchester, representing the Edinburgh Coloured People’s Association (Peter Milliard, another organiser of the 1945 congress, was also an Edinburgh alumni). Lea Ventre, in turn, wrote about the life of Jung Bahadur Singh, an Indian doctor from Guyana, and how the mobility of the Indian diaspora “was possible in as far as their existence could be integrated in the broader, internal mechanisms of imperial institutions and governance”. And Natasha Ruwona wrote about Edward Oku Ampofo, a Ghanaian pioneer of both Pan-African sculpture and medicine.
Between January and June 2019, we held our first public exhibition at the Chrystal MacMillan Building, in central Edinburgh. One emphasis of the exhibition was to contextualise the lives of individual students in Edinburgh through primary sources and institutional and organisational histories. In this vein, Daisy Chamberlain has written about how Edinburgh-trained doctors worked on slave ships and slave plantations in the Caribbean during the early 19th century and were involved in the early codification of scientific racism. And Hannah McGurk has written about how the relationships of Caribbean students in 1960s Edinburgh were “defined and framed by class, race and gender”.
We have created a dedicated website where all our research is publicly available. In addition to our secondary research, the website includes primary source material. This includes Jamaican medic, missionary and Pan-Africanist Theophilus Scholes’ 1905 rejection of scientific racism, Ikbal Ali Sha’s 1920 appeal to Edinburgh as an “imperial university”, and the 1927 “colour bar” in Edinburgh’s restaurants and cafes.
Building on this research, we are now working towards a second exhibition at the College of Science and Engineering’s King’s Buildings, in south Edinburgh, focusing more specifically on the University’s connections with colonial science. This is due to open in November 2021 as part of the “KB101” celebrations, commemorating the first hundred years of the King’s Buildings.
Henry Dee was a co-ordinator of the UncoverED project between 2018 and 2020 while a PhD student at Edinburgh. He is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of the Free State, South Africa.