BHM: uncovering the History of Edinburgh’s Black Alumni

To move away from the university’s eurocentric past, Edinburgh students have explored alumni from ethnically marginalised groups.

 Focusing on  African and Caribbean students and their trajectories in the first instalment of the project, UncoverEd has brought to light several biographies of men and women attending classes in Edinburgh in the 19th and 20th centuries. Earlier this month, Esme Allman, Natasha Ruwona, Lea Ventre, Tom Cunningham, and Henry Mitchell presented their work to a packed audience in Teviot Dining Room as part of a series of events within Black History Month.  

Henry Mitchell and Tom Cunningham, the original founders of the project, started researching African alumni for their respective PhDs at the Centre for African Studies at the university in 2016. From there the project has grown to include several undergraduate students devoting their time to unearthing Edinburgh’s colonial history. 

Their findings suggest that it was the medical school, especially, which attracted colonial students and was a recruitment hub for British students to be sent off as naval surgeons within the British Empire. Scholarships were awarded to African students from especially West African colonies by the British government with the aim of incorporating them as medical officers in the British army. 

This is how Africanus Horton, who graduated in 1859, was able to study at the medical school. Born to parents who were liberated slaves, his appointment as a British army doctor earned him a place in Sierra Leone’s social and political elite. A sepia-tinted photograph they retrieved shows him in the style of colonial officers, chest-out with cane and a decorated uniform. In Sierra Leone, he worked on treating malaria, which was claiming the lives of many European soldiers and officers. Later, he travelled widely throughout Africa, publishing works on the political economy of West Africa and became one of the first proponents of pan-Africanism, a movement to strengthen solidarity between all people of African descent. 

The cure for malaria had not been discovered yet and the British Empire had kept recruiting promising young Africans to come to Edinburgh to study medicine in order to be assimilated into the army medical service. 

Africans tended to be more resistant to the horrors of a malaria infection, a characteristic which was exaggerated and used to justify racial and imperial ideologies. For this reason, black physicians were instrumental in maintaining the military presence in the colonies and were the reason for the generous scholarships. When, however, the cause for malaria was discovered black medical graduates and physicians were swiftly excluded from service in the British army. 

Bandele Omoniyi, who had come to Edinburgh on the promise of attaining a post with the British army, was bitterly disappointed. He was still, shockingly by today’s standards, in favour of imperialism, but “argued it needed to be reformed – warning that if the empire wasn’t reformed, black subjects would be radicalised,” explained Henry Mitchell. 

The presentation displayed an array of differing and converging biographies, concluding with a discussion about Edinburgh’s place in the intricate web of colonialism and how we should deal with it today. Several students praised the project for lending students of colour representation in the university, making people of African heritage feel represented on campus. Who and why we honour alumni, should, concluded the UncoverEd team, be rethought in light of colonial history. 

Photo: Andrew Perry

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