Roar Writer Louis Jacques on the recent petition to change the name of Guy’s Campus, and why he feels the campus should remain as it is.
Fighting racism in our private and public spaces means examining our environment, behaviour, and places of work and study to understand where we can combat systemic or direct racism. However, it also means doing it well. Removing the statue of Thomas Guy and campaigning to rename Guy’s Campus is not only a historical misunderstanding, but distracts from bigger things we can change at King’s and in London.
In a petition created on Wednesday, June 10, which has gathered around 7,600 signatures at the time of writing, King’s student Ayesha Khan and another unnamed first-year student ask Ed Byrne and The Lord Geidt FKC to remove the Thomas Guy statue on the eponymous Guy’s Campus and to take steps to change the campus name and openly publicise Guy’s ties to the slave trade. No more than one day later, in a joint statement with Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital and Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity, the organisations decided to remove the statue of Thomas Guy from public view.
According to the petition, as well as the comment piece written by Danielle Jones earlier this week, this is because Thomas Guy supposedly “made his fortune (£42,000 in 1720, roughly a massive £400 million today) through his large shares in the South Sea Company […] which would barter slaves to the Spanish colonies in harrowing conditions.” Thus, as both Khan and Jones detail eloquently, it would be hypocritical of King’s to adopt the “multicultural” and “diverse” identity the university has taken to heart when its second-largest and second-oldest campus was founded by, named after, and has a statue of a slaver.
The problem is that he isn’t. While Khan and Jones are right to seek justice for the normalisation or even glorification of people linked to the slave trade in modern Britain, it is incorrect to link Thomas Guy to the slave trade. The truth is that Guy, a prominent philanthropist in the late 1600s, used his money to buy pay-tickets for English seamen in the 1670s. This was a form of government bond, insofar as he was directly paying English sailors’ wages with the promise of interest payouts. However, thirty years after his investment, the government decided to restructure debt by converting it into equity: namely, stocks in the government-run South Sea Company.
Now at this point, it would make sense to say: “Wait, that still means that Guy knowingly held stock in the slave trade and profited off it.” However, that isn’t the case either. First of all, the South Sea Company had only just been established in 1711 (the year of the debt-for-equity swap) and didn’t enter the slave trade until two years later; its primary purpose for many years was as a government debt holding company.
Secondly, it is potentially unlikely that Guy knew of all his holdings in, and the role of the Company, especially seven years after his debt had been swapped. He was the son of a lighterman and an apprentice bookseller who, like many government-friendly financiers, had his money managed by a government-friendly accountant.
Finally, the period when Guy’s stock-owning did coincide with the South Sea Company selling slaves leaves uncertainties about the profitability of his shareholding and his commitments. It has been reported that Guy sold his stocks at intervals in 1720, after an increase in the SSC’s valuation, despite the company making no profit in the time he held his shares. However the nature of the contract he entered with the SSC is unclear, as many stocks of this type had multi-year commitments much like bonds (some recorded at five years) and could mean his investment was legally bound, thus that his choice to own stock coincided with the SSA’s involvement in the slave trade for a much shorter period than portrayed.
In short, because a philanthropist happened to have his government bonds converted into multi-year committed stock in a company which sold slaves, a picture has been painted of Thomas Guy as an active investor in the slave trade. Was it entirely morally right to be purchasing these kinds of bonds while the government encouraged and facilitated the slave trade? No. However, Guy did not consciously decide to support the slave trade either, let alone profit off it. Thomas Guy ultimately remains a symbol of charity and philanthropy in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century London who set up multiple hospitals and almshouses, including our own Guy’s Campus.
All this is not for me to say that we as a whole are jumping the gun on pointing fingers, or being too quick to critically examine our public and private spaces for institutionalised racism. Ayesha Khan was right to question Thomas Guy’s past and our university’s strong ties to him, and was especially right to highlight that King’s did not provide a more nuanced biography of the man in question. While I disagree entirely with renaming the campus or tearing down his statue, it is our College’s duty to educate properly, and that means underlining on our websites and brochures that Thomas Guy supported a government complicit in the slave trade, and did buy a small amount of shares in the East India Company late in his life.
That is why I am doubly critical of the University’s decision yesterday to remove Thomas Guy’s statue from campus. There are strains of racism at the core of many departments and faculties King’s which impact thousands of students on all campuses. I fear that Ed Byrne and others have only decided to remove Guy’s statue as an easy to avoid asking any difficult questions of themselves. Our university’s leaders have hidden behind a lie so they can wait for this to blow over.
King’s can do better in so many ways, and has an important role to play in society. Our researchers, teachers, and students will shape the world to come, and if we are actually committed to dismantling institutional racism, then we must change the way we learn and teach. King’s have ultimately drawn a false conclusion about a philanthropist to avoid having to make any real change, and that is embarrassing. Put the statue back up, and let’s begin learning from our mistakes instead of hiding from change.
Footnote: For posterity and historiographical clarity, I wish to quickly lay out the short historiography here. I used Elizabeth Donnan’s 1930 “The Early Days of the South Sea Company” as reference material which explains the debt-for-credit swap and details the Company’s role as an unprofitable debt holding company in Chapter 1. As well as noting the five-year obligation on many stocks, the book makes a point to say that Thomas Guy selling his shares at high market before the South Sea bubble burst in 1920 was the earliest he could sell his shares (p.140). The 2010 article by King’s College London’s Roger Jones (a doctor, not a historian), which many have used to “prove” that Guy profited off his shares, not only skips the debt-for-credit swap, but cites I.C McManus’s paper “The Wealth of Distinguished Doctors: Retrospective Survey” as proof of Guy’s profiteering, even though McManus’s timeframe was 1860-2001 (136 years after Guy’s death) and does not mention Thomas Guy.