Content warning: This article contains details of enslavement and a discussion of systemic racism. This article also references the abuse of young girls by Schrödinger.
Calls to rename the Berkeley Library began in February of this year, when a petition and campaign was launched by students. In 2020, College themselves stated they were to consider renaming the library, pending an investigation.
Shortly after, Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) voted to support the campaign, mandating the union to lobby College to change the name. At a Council meeting, the motion noted that the name is “inappropriate” due to George Berkeley’s “pro-enslavement beliefs and actions”. At the time, the petition to rename the Library, which is one of Trinity’s seven libraries, had over three hundred signatures. At the time of publication of this article, the petition has reached 581 signatures.
George Berkeley, the Anglican bishop of Cloyne, is Ireland’s most celebrated philosopher, and one of Trinity’s most infamous alumni. Berkeley is known largely for his contributions to defending idealism. His “Treatise” is largely studied in philosophy courses, and remains a cornerstone for many metaphysic theories.
The petition notes that schools in America, a university, a residential college at Yale and a city have all been named after George Berkeley, alongside being remembered in Trinity with a library, gold medal awards and a memorial window in Trinity Chapel.
The petition came two weeks after the Schrödinger lecture theatre was renamed, due to Erwin Schrödinger’s history of sexually abusing young girls.
In 2001, a Yale research team, after thorough investigation, found significant moral problems with both the man himself, and the views that he held. The report in which the following discoveries were made, was made to call on Yale to address its dark past.
Between 1728 and 1731, Berkeley purchased between three and five enslaved people to work at his plantation in Whitehall, a plantation in Rhodesia Island. He drew up plans for the “Bermude Scheme”, a scheme he proposed to fill with kidnapped Native Americans. Berkeley was vocal about his pro-slavery beliefs: he argued that enslavement was justified as it “enabled the conversion of enslaved Africans to Christianity”, and actively denied the possibility of freedom through religious conversion. This opinion was applied in supplying a legal basis for the continued enslavement of people, the petition campaigning to rename the library states.
While some may claim that Berkeley’s beliefs were “of a different time”, contemporaries of his strongly condemned the slave trade. One of which was Francis Hutcheson.
In February 2021, Trinity announced that they were to begin a two-year investigation into its links with it’s “colonial past” and with slavery. At the time, then Provost Patrick Prendergast said that it had been influenced by “debates that arose from the Black Lives Matter movement”.
Following the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in the summer of 2020, Trinity spoke of its renewed “institutional commitment” to address systemic racism at a structural level. In June of 2020, College announced the creation of a Black Studies elective module, in response to a petition launched.
College told the UK Times in November 2020 that it was considering changing the name of the Berkeley Library, but a decision had not been made.
Two weeks ago, TCDSU called for the immediate de-naming of the Berkeley Library. The union announced that they will be referring to the library as “the X Library” in all future communications, and issued an open letter to a Provost Linda Doyle calling for the immediate de-naming of the Berkeley Library. The letter outlined September 30 as a deadline to provide a plan for action to be taken, “before escalated action is taken”.
Given the severity of revelations in recent years, there is no reason as to why College should be dragging their heels on this particular issue. Especially considering Trinity themselves were the first to mention renaming the Berkeley in 2020. Considering the quick action College has previously taken in renaming the Schrödinger theatre, a lack of insight into College’s decision on renaming the Berkeley is astounding. The lack of any announcements to rename the library, or an update to how the investigation into Trinity’s colonial past is progressing, is opening College up to legitimate criticism. This issue desperately needs to be addressed.
Berkeley was an established academic, and his theories will likely be studied whether students wish to learn them or not, but that is absolutely not a reason to memorialise a man who participated in the slave trade. No one individual has a right to be memorialised with a statue or a building or a library, and especially figures who encouraged and participated in the enslavement of men, women and children. As rightly argued by the TCDSU in recent weeks, why delay the process of renaming the library? College has already made commitments in recent years to addressing its colonial past, and has seen a turn-around of less than a week when it came to addressing significant problems with these figures for students. There is no reason for a delay; College should address this with the utmost haste, and any delays set a horrible precedent to College optically and internally. The delay to renaming the premises already sets a precedent – any delays are worsening an already horrific situation.
There are many figures immortalised in Trinity, who simply should not be. The issue of George Berkeley simply remains one of the most horrific immortalisations of a figure on campus. As College continually seems to delay any kind of action towards rectifying this they are neglecting not only students’ needs but an insurmountable number of people affected by systemic racism throughout the course of history.
It is the opinion of this paper that the Berkeley Library should be renamed, and with the utmost haste. This is simply a “no-brainer”. The fact that Berkeley is a historical figure does not warrant him being immortalised in this way. We have a duty to remember these figures in condemnation not celebration. It is simply wrong to celebrate and honour figures like George Berkeley under the pretence of “historical importance”. The harm caused by systemic racism has spanned centuries, and continues to affect people to this day. Berkeley will undoubtedly continue to be studied, and he will not fade from existence simply because there is no longer a library in Trinity named after him. However, we still owe it to those affected by systemic racism to listen and appreciate the significance of renaming the library. Right now, his name is simply letters on a wall, yet the significance of taking it down cannot be overstated. Any delays to the processes to rename the Berkeley should face serious scrutiny, and there is no reason the library cannot be renamed in the near future.
With recent announcements from TCDSU calling for an immediate “de-naming” of the library, and referring to it as “the X Library” in all future communications, Trinity News has decided to take similar measures. From this issue on, whether writers want to refer to the premises as “the Berkeley Library” or “the X Library”, will lay entirely with the author of that piece. For news purposes, the Berkeley will be referred to as such, with an immediate succeeding line explaining the library being referred to as the X Library, and why. For the rest of the news piece, the library will simply be referred to as “the library in question” or “the premises”.
Berkeley owned enslaved people and he defended the slave-trade, providing the basis for the legal justification for slavery; he does not deserve to be remembered and immortalised in this way. He certainly does not deserve to have a library named after him.