The City of Berkeley is struggling with its slaveholding namesake

The city of Berkeley has long been associated with leftism. Famed San Francisco columnist Herb Caen nicknamed the city Berserkeley as an homage to its radical politics. The extremism infects both the town and its famous campus, the University of California, Berkeley. Although most other college campuses have caught up with UC Berkeley, it’s still the grande dame of leftist extremism. That’s what makes it so lovely that Berkeley is wrestling with a bitter historic truth: The name “Berkeley” is an homage to a one-time Rhode Island-based slaveholder who was unimpressed by Native Americans.

From the Bay Area News Group:

The problematic pasts of historical figures have forced the renaming of hundreds of buildings and the removal of dozens of statues from public squares across the U.S. But what happens when the name of an entire community is tainted by racial injustice?

It’s perhaps ironic that Berkeley is the latest place to face this question. The city’s reputation for anti-imperialism has only grown since becoming the nation’s first city to swap Columbus Day for “Indigenous Peoples Day” in 1992 and installing city-limit signs that declare “Welcome to the City of Berkeley — Ohlone Territory” in 2019. Last year, the City Council agreed to begin its meetings with a land acknowledgment, recognizing Berkeley as stolen land from its first inhabitants, the Ohlone people.

But now, historians at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, have renewed scrutiny of records indicating that the city’s namesake — Bishop George Berkeley, an 18th-century Irish philosopher and influential scholar — purchased enslaved people to toil at a Rhode Island plantation he briefly operated until 1732.

Not only was Bishop Berkeley amenable to owning slaves, but he also had a very low opinion of the Native Americans in the colonies:

Ireland’s largest university took a stand on Berkeley last month, voting to expunge his name from its central library. The college’s researchers advocated for the decision, citing public documents showing that Berkeley openly advocated for owning, evangelizing and educating Native Americans, whom he characterized as inhumane, barbarous and savage.

It’s worth noting that Native Americans, who were still mostly in the Stone Age phase of human development, were indeed “inhumane, barbarous, and savage.” This is true of all Stone Age people. They engaged in constant low-level warfare against their enemies and, lacking the resources to hold POWs, had two choices if they prevailed in those wars: They could either slaughter or enslave their enemies. (For more on this, I highly recommend Steven Pinker’s enjoyable The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.)

Of course, Bishop Berkeley, immured in his early-Enlightenment Ivory tower, was unaware that his forebearers were no better. Indeed, Europe was still in the very slow process of temporarily emerging from its own barbarism. (WWII plunged it right back in.) It just had a head start over the Native Americans, so Europeans could convince themselves that they were culturally superior.

But back to that point that we were all once Stone Age people. That means that no society was free of the stain of slavery and prejudice. Moreover, leftists would do well to understand that what ended slavery wasn’t just a giant leap in morality; it was fossil fuel, which meant that the physical labor of animals and humans was no longer an integral part of a society moving beyond subsistence level survival.

In other words, modern people shouldn’t be on their high horse about the fact that they would never do that. When survival is at stake, they would. This is akin to the fact that everyone alive today believes that he or she would be a brave anti-Nazi fighter. As COVID showed, this is a lie. Most would align themselves with a powerful government that promises to save them, whether from economic collapse, disease, or the evil “other.”

The City of Berkeley named itself in honor of someone who was very much a man of his times, with some of his era’s worst beliefs and many of his era’s best beliefs. To shun him is to pretend that modern-day Berkeley has achieved some sort of moral apogee. It hasn’t, and Berkeleyites might want to remember Jesus’s admonition, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone….”

Image: Bishop George Berkeley by John Smibert. Public domain.

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