Good causes stained by death and dirty money

Published by The i paper (6th November, 2017)

Colston’s Girls’ School in Bristol has decided not to ditch its name, despite bearing the moniker of a 17th-century merchant who made a fortune by shipping slaves from Africa to the Americas. In a letter last week to parents, the headteacher insisted it was ‘not appropriate’ to disassociate the school from Edward Colston and saw no benefit from ‘denying’ its financial origin and ‘obscuring history’.

But Colston Hall has taken a different tack after a boycott from local band Massive Attack. The music venue is changing its ‘toxic’ name since it does not believe this offers the right image for a progressive arts organisation in a multiracial city. A bronze statue commemorating Colston remains in Bristol, however, even claiming to be ‘a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city’.

Many might disagree with such an inscription, given the deaths and misery caused by the transatlantic slave trade. Yet this debate in Bristol, with prominent institutions coming to different conclusions, shows some difficulties caused by philanthropy from past times. These controversies arise from bountiful legacies of buccaneering businessmen who, having made fortunes in dubious style, sought to spruce up their image with charitable donations. Note how in Oxford students still demonstrate over a statue of Cecil Rhodes outside Oriel College.

There are valid arguments on both sides of these debates – although sometimes it feels the ferocity of argument over symbols from history serves to displace more important modern debates. Yet you might have hoped all this anger over past donations would, at very least, place modern institutions on guard over pocketing stained cash. Sadly, however, this does not seem the case. Money still overcomes morality for many of Britain’s most famous places.

Look at the Victoria and Albert Museum. If you have been recently, you might have seen the stunning Sackler Courtyard, with thousands of hand-made porcelain tiles in various patterns shimmering over an area the size of six tennis courts. The Duchess of Cambridge went ‘Wow’ when she went to open this amazing creation earlier this year. It joins their Sackler Centre for arts education and Sackler annual lecture. The Sackler Trust has even selected some acquisitions.

The Sacklers are among the world’s wealthiest families, worth an estimated £10bn, and clearly very generous philanthropists. Their name is scattered across other prominent British institutions, with one senior arts world figure telling me they are ‘unbelievably supportive’ patrons. There is a Sackler Wing at the Royal Academy, a Sackler Gallery at the Serpentine and Sackler Library behind Oxford’s Ashmolean. There is the Sackler Crossing at Kew Gardens, Sackler Centres at universities from Edinburgh to Sussex, even a Sackler escalator at Tate Modern.

Yet who are these people, so public-spirited they spray cash around the planet on good works yet so little-known? The family has endowed academic posts, funded medical research and placed its name on new buildings from the Louvre in France to Harvard University in the United States. Clan members talk regularly about their philanthropy, although rarely on how they accumulated their great wealth with such rapidity. For the reason is simple: this family’s fortune comes from the sale of the opioid painkillers blamed for America’s devastating heroin epidemic.

Much of the family cash came from a drug called OxyContin. This potent painkiller, released in 1995, is one of the most lethal products sold on mass scale. Its active ingredient is a chemical cousin of heroin stronger than morphine. Although easily abused by addicts, it was promoted hard for pain relief by a firm that later admitted exploiting doctors’ misconceptions over its strength; it then dominated the market for long-lasting opioids. In Ohio, which I visited three months ago, nearly 800 million doses were sold in 2012 – enough to give 68 pills to each person there. Now this state leads the nation in drug overdose deaths.

This was capitalism at its crudest and least ethical. Ohio’s attorney general told me of seeing a doctor – with ‘no nurse, no receptionist, just him sitting at a table’ – who had issued 43 prescriptions at $200 a pop by 11.15am. But when supplies stopped, or prices rose more than alternatives, addicted patients turned to street heroin. Now you can hear gangsters shout the names of prescription opioids while selling heroin and its super-strong synthetic cousin, fentanyl.

The legacy of this family’s business is 142 dead Americans each day– or what New Jersey governor Chris Christie memorably called “September 11 every three weeks”. No wonder the Sacklers do not boast about how they made those tainted billions. Perhaps a psychologist would suggest this dark history explains the desire to link their name to places of culture and learning.

Yet have all those university chiefs and museum bosses really learned nothing from history? Have they missed the fuss over historic donors, forgotten the furore over a Libyan dictator’s gifts to the London School of Economics? ‘It’s really complicated,’ said one, pointing to how Alfred Nobel, who endowed the world’s most famous peace prize, was an arms dealer.

But it is not complicated. From slave traders to corporate drug pushers, charity is used to clean reputations. The Sacklers made billions from firms that, intentionally or otherwise, sparked a deadly storm of drug addiction ripping apart other families, communities and cities across America. If there was any justice, these people would be stripped of their cash and spend days volunteering in treatment centres. Instead they are feted as patrons of arts and education. And to our national shame, Britain’s most famous public institutions are helping them shine up the family name.

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