Trinity College Dublin has decided to seek a new name for its central library, the Berkeley, after concluding that the alumnus it honors, the 18th-century philosopher George Berkeley, owned slaves in colonial Rhode Island and wrote pamphlets supportive of slavery.
A fellow of Trinity and the former librarian there, Berkeley is regarded by academics as one of the most influential thinkers of the early modern period. Some view his philosophical and scientific ideas on perception and reality as foreshadowing the work of Albert Einstein.
But last month, the governing board of Trinity, Ireland’s oldest university, announced that it had voted to “dename” the library after months of research and consultation by a group established to review problematic legacies. The group based its recommendations on an analysis of historical records, already in the public domain, showing that Berkeley had purchased several enslaved people for a plantation that he operated while living in Rhode Island from 1729 to 1732.
Already a noted scholar, Berkeley went to America with plans to use wealth from the plantation, as well as public donations, to open a school in Bermuda that would take Native American children — by force if need be — and convert them to Christianity.
His plans never materialized, however, and Berkeley donated his farm, along with its enslaved people, to Yale University before returning to Britain and then Ireland, where he eventually became the Anglican Church’s Lord Bishop of Cloyne.
Trinity College’s provost, Linda Doyle, said that though Berkeley’s name was being removed from the library, his intellectual legacy remained intact. Berkeley, she noted, remains recognized globally as one of the most brilliant thinkers to emerge from Ireland, and she said his philosophical and scientific theories would continue to be taught at the college.