Magdalen College was founded in 1458. Magdalen’s past is intertwined with colonialism, leaving uncomfortable legacies for today that many historic British institutions share. It is seldom possible to pin down the impact of education on anyone’s views or actions. It is clear, however, that many Magdalen alumni went on to hold positions of power and privilege, some of which depended on the exploitation of colonial resources, the creation of racial hierarchies, and the disempowerment of colonised people. There is a great deal that we do not know about Magdalen and colonialism. We hope that this website prompts further research and we look forward to revising this summary as new histories emerge from the archive.
For the first four-hundred years of the college’s history, Magdalen’s direct relationship with colonialism was more often patchy and individual than institutionally sustained. The college was ‘insular’, even within Oxford University. Magdalen showed relatively little interest in the world beyond England and did not risk investments in land overseas. Yet, some men who were educated at Magdalen developed global careers as colonial clergymen or English diplomats whose work contributed to the expansion of Britain’s imperial power. Thomas Roe (1581-1644) matriculated at Magdalen aged twelve and never graduated. He went on to invest in the colony of Virginia, to lead an expedition to Guiana, and to forge diplomatic and trading relations with the Mughal Empire. He was later made into an imperial hero. In 1927, murals of ‘The Building of Britain’ in St Stephen’s Hall Westminster celebrated Roe because he ‘succeeds by his courtesy and firmness… in laying the foundations of British influence in India’.
Until the mid-nineteenth century, Oxford University’s curriculum was formally classical and theological, but some Magdalen scholars simultaneously played a role in the production of imperial knowledge and colonial collections. We know that from 1613 Magdalen had globes within its library. This global imagination may have sparked the curiosity of John Banister (1650-1692) who, while studying at Magdalen from 1667 to 1678, developed an interest in the botany of the ‘New World’. Banister later settled in Virginia as an Anglican clergyman, but continued to write extensively on natural history and sent specimens back to England, including to Oxford University. Other students funded their Oxford education from fortunes made in Britain’s expanding empire. Some of this wealth derived from slave ownership. Edward Hyde East (1764-1847), who matriculated at Magdalen in 1782, was the son of a Jamaican sugar plantation owner whose wealth depended on the labour of enslaved people. As a Member of Parliament, East defended West Indian slave-owners’ interests, before being made chief justice of Bengal in 1813. These men’s stories may be unusual. Most published biographies of people with connections to Magdalen before the mid-nineteenth century give no indication of the place of colonialism within their lives. We need further research into these histories to find out what this absence means.
Between c.1880 and 1945, empire became embedded more overtly within Magdalen. As President from 1885 to 1928, Herbert Warren (1853-1930) brought a new ‘homogenous’ ethos to an enlarged undergraduate college. He sought to mould men’s ‘character’, to create a life-long elite network of ‘Magdalen men’, and to encourage patriotic service. Warren also sought to maintain an exclusively white imperial brotherhood. From 1904, Magdalen welcomed many white Rhodes Scholars from across the globe, but in 1907 the college refused, on the grounds of race, to offer a place to the first African-American Rhodes Scholar, Alain Locke (1886-1954). Magdalen undergraduates were also notorious for mocking the students of colour now admitted to colleges such as Balliol from across the Empire. The introduction of degrees such as Modern History encouraged historians to write and popularise national narratives of Anglo-Saxon superiority and the imperial civilizing mission. After resigning from his Magdalen fellowship, Charles Fletcher (1857-1934) collaborated with Rudyard Kipling to publish his School History of England in 1911. One reviewer condemned its racist stereotypes as ‘a most pernicious influence’, but it remained a best-seller for forty years, shaping the historical understanding of generations of children. Although most ‘Magdalen men’ did not enter colonial service, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography includes many early-twentieth-century alumni whose careers shaped imperial government, the Commonwealth, and decolonisation. T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935), whose Syrian archaeological explorations as a young Oxford graduate were funded by Magdalen in 1911-14, became the subject of enduring public fascination as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. National heroes were formed from complex and controversial lives.
Yet, even when this ideal of elite white male uniformity was at its height, Magdalen was also home to men with quite different stories to tell. Albert Habib Hourani (1915-1993) was the son of Lebanese migrants whose father became a Manchester textiles exporter. He won a scholarship to Magdalen in 1933, graduated with a first-class degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and was awarded a College grant to travel to Lebanon. After learning Arabic and working for the British government, Hourani returned to Magdalen as a research fellow. He went on to become a leading historian of the Arab World and the first director of the Middle East Centre at St Anthony’s College, Oxford.
We gain a deeper insight into this history by also considering evidence from Magdalen’s picture collection. The majority of Magdalen’s pictures comprise portraits of past members, fellows and presidents. These portraits, dating largely from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, depict white, middle-aged men, generally dressed in clerical robes, with a few depicted in academic dress. Although women have been members of the College since 1979, only recently have a few portraits of female fellows been added to the collection.
The published biographies of the English clergymen who feature in these portraits typically record little direct involvement with colonialism. Yet, the picture collection includes two portraits of Hugh Boulter (1672-1742) whose career suggests a different conclusion, revealing how religious and state authority were intertwined in securing English colonial rule. Hugh Boulter studied at Magdalen before becoming a Fellow from 1696-1719. In 1724 he was controversially appointed Archbishop of Armagh and, as such, the ecclesiastical head of the Church of Ireland, a post he held until his death in 1742. Boulter saw his role as maintaining and extending English domination in Ireland. With his power of patronage, he was assiduous in filling judicial, political, and ecclesiastical positions with English appointees, to the detriment of the local population. Roman Catholics, who made up the vast majority of the population, remained subject to penal legislation, were excluded from the legal profession, and were denied voting rights. Research into the other sitters depicted in the portrait collection, including their engagement with colonialism, is ongoing.
The College is also fortunate to possess a fine collection of artworks bequeathed by Lieut.-Colonel Richard Hugh Royds Brocklebank (1881-1965) who matriculated at Magdalen in 1899. The Brocklebank Bequest consists primarily of a collection of Middle Eastern and Persian ceramics and a group of European paintings dating from the 12th to 17th century. The Brocklebanks collected art over several generations and their wealth can be traced back to the family merchant shipping firm, which had been established at the end of the eighteenth century by Capt. Daniel Brocklebank (1741-1801) in Whitehaven, Cumbria. The Brocklebanks traded a variety of goods, including cotton, silk, indigo, furs and spices, and they were particularly active in the West Indies, the Baltic Sea, and after the end of the monopoly of the East India Company in 1813, in India and later China. It would have been common for such a shipping firm to engage in the slave trade and the financial incentives to do so were high. Having checked all the registered ships from the Brocklebank fleet with databases of shipping involved in the slave trade, it seems that the Brocklebanks did not engage in the transportation of slaves. Nevertheless, it is likely that the labour of enslaved people produced some of their cargo, such as cotton from the Americas that later became cloth worn across Britain and its empire.
People of colour are seldom represented within Magdalen’s art collection. The most notable picture from this era reinforces racial stereotypes by portraying black people through their enslavement and white slave-owners through their role in granting liberty. This inaccurate depiction of the struggle against Portuguese colonialism is to be found in a panoramic landscape of Rio de Janeiro painted in 1820 by Henry Chamberlain (1773-1843). In the foreground are four figures, who on close examination can be identified as a sugar plantation owner and three enslaved people. The planter is talking directly to one of the slaves, who is holding a small tree that he seems to have been given by the planter, judging from the latter’s outstretched hand. This highly unusual portrayal may be a rare representation of the act of manumission: the freeing of an enslaved person and his family. Chamberlain later published a series of lithographs of ‘Views and costumes’ from his trip to Brazil. His father was a senior British diplomat, tasked with pursuing the government’s widely-publicised global abolitionist mission, following the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807 but notably before Britain abolished slavery in its Empire in 1833. This fascinating picture may represent the first known visual representation of manumission from South America, and would also be one of the earliest depictions of manumission in Western art.
After the Second World War, Magdalen could no longer ignore global struggles against European imperialism. Slowly and partially, Magdalen’s student population and culture began to respond to movements against colonial power and for civil rights. Larger numbers of international students of colour came to study at Oxford. When the Rhodes Trust elected its first two scholars from newly independent India in 1947, one – Lovraj Kumar (1926-1994) – matriculated at Magdalen. The Rhodes Trust did not elect a second African-American Rhodes scholar for fifty-six years, but two were elected in 1963, including Stanley Sanders who matriculated at Magdalen. In 1971 Richard Rive (1931-1989), a South African novelist and anti-Apartheid activist, was admitted to Magdalen to study for a D.Phil. He researched the feminist novelist, Olive Schreiner, and went on to bequeath part of his library to College. Karen Stevenson, the first Black woman Rhodes Scholar, arrived at Magdalen in the first cohort of women admitted to the College in 1979. Some students also began to engage with anti-racist movements. Nevertheless, as one student in the 1980s later recalled, ‘racial attitudes were challenging’, not only amongst students, but also across the city of Oxford. The Magdalen community included relatively small numbers of graduate and especially undergraduate students of colour and cultural change was slow.
Magdalen has changed significantly over the last decade, at least in the composition of its student body. In 2019, 31.5 per cent of Magdalen’s first year UK undergraduates were from Black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds. However, Magdalen’s Senior Common Room (SCR) remains predominantly white, and the College is committed to taking further action to promote racial equality and address structural discrimination.
Magdalen seeks to invest in anti-racist projects. In 2019, Michèle Mendelssohn’s ‘Making History’ exhibition brought the story of Alain Locke back to Magdalen, alongside that of other Oxford pioneers, Oscar Wilde and Christian Cole. Groups of children from local state schools visited the exhibition as part of a collaboration with Oxford University’s ‘Oxplore’ and ‘Oxford for Oxford’ outreach schemes. The College’s outreach team is also proud to support Target Oxbridge, an in-depth year-long outreach programme for Black African and Caribbean students and students of mixed race with Black African and Caribbean heritage. In 2019 Magdalen hosted Target Oxbridge’s Year 12 residential event, while during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown College collaborated with the Humanities Division on a virtual Humanities Study Day for UK Black and minority ethnic students. In 2020, the Oxford African and Caribbean Society held their offer-holders day at Magdalen for the third year running.
Magdalen’s commitment to racial justice and equality extends beyond the undergraduate admissions process. In collaboration with the Law Faculty, Magdalen has established a three-year postgraduate scholarship for UK Black or ethnic minority doctoral candidates in Law. In 2019, Magdalen, in partnership with Operation Black Vote, the House of Commons, and the Blavatnik School of Government, launched Pathway to Success. The aim of this project, which is now in its second year, is to seek to equip talented BME participants with the tools and knowledge required to step up to senior leadership positions. Following its success in the first year with thirty participants, over 800 applications were received for the second year, and the number of participants has been doubled. The programme includes a one-week taught residential course at Magdalen, scheduled for spring 2021, and individual mentorship from Magdalen alumni.
Magdalen’s undergraduate and graduate students have been integral to the process of creating a more inclusive and welcoming college. The committees of the Junior Common Room (JCR) and Middle Common Room (MCR) include racial and ethnic minorities officers. In 2020, these officers played a leading role in presenting to Governing Body a series of recommendations to improve racial equality. Magdalen’s racial equality advisory group will continue to meet in 2020-21 to drive and monitor progress in making meaningful and lasting change.
We are indebted to Dr Timothy Hunter who, through his expert and ongoing research, has provided the information about Magdalen’s picture collection. Published histories of Magdalen College do not focus on the relationship between Magdalen and colonialism, but this summary owes a great deal to the wealth of research contained within Laurence Brockliss (ed.), Magdalen College Oxford: A History (Oxford: Magdalen College, 2008). This invaluable collection is the source of all of the quotations from historians. In piecing together this summary, we have also drawn on the following scholarship: Antoinette M. Burton, At the Heart of the Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in late-Victorian Britain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Pamela Roberts, Black Oxford: the Untold Stories of Oxford University's Black Scholars (Oxford: Signal Books, 2013); Richard Symonds, Oxford and Empire: The Last Lost Cause? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); Stephen Tuck, The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union: A Transatlantic Story of Antiracist Protest (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014); Jack C. Zoeller, ‘Alain Locke at Oxford: Race and the Rhodes Scholarships’, The Alain Locke Centenary, The American Oxonian 94, no 2. (2007): 183-224; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (https://www.oxforddnb.com/); Rhodes Trust History and Rhodes Scholar Database (https://www.rhodeshouse.ox.ac.uk/alumni-volunteers/rhodes-scholar-database/); UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-ownership database (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/); Emory University’s ‘Slave Voyages’ database (https://www.slavevoyages.org/); and Michèle Mendelssohn’s exhibition ‘Making History: Christian Cole, Alain Locke and Oscar Wilde at Oxford’ (https://makinghistory.magd.ox.ac.uk/).