Campaigners argue that the Seeley Library should be renamed due to Seeley's colonial connectionsAndrew Dunn

On 29th November 1966, members of the Red Guard descended upon the Cemetery of Confucius, tore apart its tombs, and hung the naked corpse of Confucius’ 76th-generation descendant from a tree. The euphoric ringleaders reported to Chairman Mao that “we have levelled Confucius’ grave; we have smashed the stelae extolling the virtues of the feudal emperors and kings; and we have obliterated the statues in the Confucius Temple!” A more progressive age was dawning upon China, and its leaders no longer had time for the imperialist vestiges of “Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Customs.”

It has been nearly five decades since the Cultural Revolution ended. But it is clear that its underlying motivation — that the enlightened members of the present should extirpate the heresies of the past — remains alive and well. It is a similar impulse which propels the campaign to rename the Seeley Historical Library today. Of course, the Cambridge students behind this campaign are much more urbane than the Red Guard. They do not come to us brandishing shovels and pickaxes; instead, they have presented, with all courtesy and decorum, an open letter. “The library’s name,” they write, “must be changed to the History Faculty Library… Current and future students should not have to set foot in a library that commemorates British imperial conquest.” They tell us it does not matter that John Seeley was one of the most important historical thinkers of his age; that he served the University as Regius Professor of Modern History for two and a half decades; that he advocated, contrary to many of his colleagues, for the admission of women into Oxbridge. Instead, his “vague liberal beliefs” are but a smokescreen hiding his ideological deviancy and his support for the imperialist cause.

“In reducing Seeley’s legacy to imperialism, the authors of the open letter have neglected to contextualise Seeley’s political thought within his own time”

It is a shame that the signatories of the letter — especially fellow historians — have ignored Herbert Butterfield’s warning against judging historical events with present concerns. Indeed, in reducing the entirety of Seeley’s legacy to a question of imperialism, the authors of the open letter have neglected to contextualise Seeley’s political thought within his own time and failed to credit the magnitude of his achievements. The Expansion of England, so roundly condemned by the open letter, was far from aberrant at the time in its support of overseas expansion. Historiographically, it was innovative, offering an antidote to traditional narratives of constitutional progress by focussing instead on the international dimension of English history. Seeley was also instrumental in shaping the curriculum of the Historical Tripos, and as such was an integral part of the History Faculty’s institutional history. Finally, he was known among his peers not for close-minded bigotry but for liberalism and progressivism. That so many historians are trying to paint him as an apologist of imperial cruelty, rather than seeking to understand him on his own terms, is a worrying omen for historical enquiry. It shows they are more concerned with picking apart the sins of their predecessors than understanding the past as it then was.

The movement to remove Seeley’s name from the library is but a minor skirmish within the war being waged over memory and the study of history. Recent events, such as the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman in 2020, have put the issues of race and oppression at the forefront of the political picture. No doubt, such a reckoning is long overdue — there is no excuse for the cruel treatment of racial minorities, or for the brutality which seems so depressingly common among the police forces of the world. But we must distinguish between making the future a better place and denouncing the mistakes of the past. Already, history is being treated by many as an arena for winner-takes-all political warfare. The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol last year springs to mind; but there were also campaigns to pull down the memorials of Peel and Gladstone. The University of Edinburgh even disowned David Hume, the great empiricist philosopher, for lending money to a friend to buy slaves. In other words, those who are tainted with the original sin of slavery are to be memory-holed and forgotten.

“Nearly all our ancestors will have held values which were repugnant – or at the very least alien – to the modern observer”

In expunging the legacies of those whom we don’t agree with, we set ourselves up as the supreme judge of all those who came before. Such hubris is dangerous. It presumes that we – and we alone – have a privileged insight into the principles of justice, an insight which none of our predecessors were privy to. It exalts our own opinions and sensibilities, ignoring the fact that our successors will no doubt find us just as disagreeable and ridiculous as we find our forebears. Moreover, if we followed the principle that we should remove any vestige of the past which we disagree with, we would find ourselves with very little history left to study. Nearly all our ancestors will have held values which were repugnant – or at the very least alien – to the modern observer, but that does not mean we should tear down their temples and defile their tombs (or indeed, take their names off libraries).


Mountain View

Student open letter calls for Seeley Library to be renamed amidst colonial links

Ultimately, the idea that the University must rename the Seeley Library to “confront its legacies of colonialism” is dubious. It is surely possible to appreciate Seeley’s contributions to political history and the institutional legacy of the University without espousing justifications of imperial conquest. It is also irrational to ask University staff in the 21st century to apologise for the decisions their predecessors made centuries ago, as they are not responsible for them; in any case, what is done cannot be undone. Perhaps a small group of activists will feel some sort of short-lived satisfaction that Seeley’s memory has been sacrificed on the altar of social progress, but it is unclear how this is going to make the University act any better. What this will do, however, is expose our history to endless relitigation as we struggle to determine who to applaud and who to condemn. And the open letter’s magnanimous suggestion, that Seeley’s name should somehow still be kept for “a section with texts on imperialist history,” risks leading to the de facto sequestration of certain books in the History Faculty equivalent of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Perhaps they expect us to be grateful that the heretical works of Macaulay, TE Lawrence, and Niall Ferguson, instead of being thrown out, will instead be gathered under the new “Seeley Collection” and left to gather dust in the corner of the library’s storage room.

The campaign to rename the Seeley Library is therefore driven by the same impulse which made the first Protestants storm into cathedrals and shatter their stained-glass windows, and which made the Red Guard vandalise Confucius’ grave. The Cultural Revolution ended in tragedy, and severed the connection the Chinese people had with millennia of heritage. While the issue of the Seeley Library is miniscule in comparison, we would do well to remember Lawrence’s adage that big things have small beginnings. If we do not take a principled stand now, it may soon be too late to do so in the future.

Note: this article was written at the time of the campaign’s launch.