Animated by social movements such as #RhodesMustFall and #BlackLivesMatter, universities today have entered a period of critical self-reflection on their histories.
Yet this emphasis on campus iconography, or even on the campus itself, skirts a deeper history of universities and empire.
Most public universities founded in the 19th century — especially in what is now Canada, the United States and Aotearoa New Zealand, but also in South Africa and Australia — were large-scale landowners.
Land for endowment capital
Public universities received substantial tracts of expropriated Indigenous territory from their governments that could be leased or sold to generate endowment capital.
Divided into plots and parcels distant from the universities themselves, these lands covered millions of acres. Financing universities through land brought these institutions into the arena of settler-Indigenous land contestation. This is the subject of my research.
Some of this history has been excavated in the recent and influential investigative journalism project, Land-Grab Universities, created and led by historian Robert Lee and journalist Tristan Ahtone.
It locates the public lands, belonging to tribal nations, apportioned to U.S. states to fund universities under the Morrill Act of 1862. Almost 11 million acres would eventually come under educational stewardship, more land than exists in New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware combined. (A million acres is roughly equal to 4,050 square kilometres.)
Land rents to fund universities
Settler societies around the world, especially those under British rule, relied upon the dispossession of Indigenous groups to fund institutions of higher learning.
What made land-granting an attractive financial strategy for universities? First, young colonial legislatures had little available capital. Allocating land as a substitute for coin currency (specie), in the hope that it might increase in value, was pragmatic.
Using land rents to fund universities also followed a longstanding pattern established by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
Settler societies carried on this custom on a larger scale. As early as 1619, the British government assigned 10,000 acres to endow a “Henrico College” in Virginia. Warfare with the Powhatan Confederacy, an Indigenous alliance of Algonquian-speaking Peoples, and underpopulation ensured that this institution was short-lived.
University of Toronto
Across British North America, later Canada, three universities collectively received at least 500,000 acres permanently and over two million acres temporarily.
Records held by the University of Toronto show that, in 1798, the Provincial Legislature of Upper Canada set aside 549,000 acres of land — an area three times larger than the present-day Toronto — for the “maintenance of various educational establishments, including a University.” About 225,000 acres eventually went to University of Toronto’s predecessor, King’s College, in 1828.
As the contemporary Indigenous land map “Native Land Digital” acknowledges, these southern parcels fell within the traditional territories of the Mississauga Ojibwa, Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Attiwonderonk (Neutral) Peoples. Indigenous Peoples have an enduring presence on these lands today.
Other Canadian universities
A few decades later, Manitoban legislators endowed their provincial university with 150,000 acres of recently dispossessed Indigenous land. By 1891, the University of Manitoba used its own “Land Board” to manage this property.
In British Columbia, the province’s University Endowment Act (1907) reserved up to two million acres for a body of higher learning.
The University of British Columbia, founded in 1908, exchanged this land for 3,000 acres of more valuable, unceded Musqueam territory near Point Grey in 1920. Today, this land is a provincially run, unincorporated community named the University Endowment Lands.
Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, South Africa
In the Southern Hemisphere, government officials in Aotearoa New Zealand relied on land endowments for nearly all their colonial universities.
Most land transfer from Māori tribes to European occupiers took place between 1840 and 1890. These years were, not coincidentally, these islands’ most significant periods of development in higher education. About 500,000 acres moved from Maori communities to the eventual colleges of the University of New Zealand. As of 2019, the University of Canterbury remains one of the country’s top public landowners.
While university promoters in Australia and South Africa first relied on mineral profits (especially gold) before looking for institutional funding via land, certain universities still received significant land endowments.
Under its Act of Incorporation in 1874, the University of Adelaide gained 50,000 acres in South Australia’s Tatiara and Wirreanda districts. Mining magnates such as Cecil Rhodes, meanwhile, offered gifts of land to young South African institutions.
Universities reshape environments
Globally, universities gained the permanent use of over 15 million acres — a landmass about triple the size of Wales — of Indigenous land by 1910. This is a conservative estimate that includes at least a million permanent acres in Canada and Aotearoa New Zealand.
Financing universities through land made these institutions no small piece of the process of Indigenous dispossession. In addition, new public universities later institutionalized branches of knowledge like agricultural science whose products, both intellectual and technological, reshaped surrounding environments.
Inventions such as seed varietals and mining technology profoundly transformed landscapes.
They also diverged from Indigenous ways of being and thinking about land, while simultaneously entrenching settlers’ relationship to the land — actions that have had lasting political and ecological legacies.
Exploring university landholding reminds us that the mechanisms sustaining empire and settler-colonial structures aren’t always obvious. In the 19th century, using land to fund universities was a fragmented, but far-reaching, pattern of institutional development.
It’s a pattern that deserves further exploration — not only for what it might reveal about universities, but for its potential as a window into the operation of empire, colonialism and Indigenous dispossession.