Graduate Spotlight- Sheeva Sabati (Education)

January 10, 2019

Settler Colonial Imaginaries and the naming of the first UC Campus  


“Westward the course of empire takes its way;

The first four acts already past,

A fifth shall close the drama of the day;

Time’s noblest offspring is the last” [1]


In spring of 1866, the Trustees of what would become the first public university of the nascent state of California were gathered at the grounds of the proposed campus. Inspired by the views, Trustee Frederick Billings recited the stanzas, “Westward the course of empire takes its way….,” recalling George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne and patron of learning. Bishop Berkeley had penned these lines in anticipation of his travels to the Bermuda Islands in the mid-18th century, where he had planned to educate, evangelize and ‘civilize’ its Aboriginal peoples. To the Trustees, Bishop Berkeley’s efforts to spread Western thought and Christian values through the auspices of education captured the spirit of the institution they hoped to build.  Berkeley became the namesake of the future campus and the city that would be built around the public university of the newly formed state. [2]



Panoramic photograph of Berkeley campus, 1899

UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library


The dedication and naming of the Berkeley campus is often recounted with a sense of nostalgia by founders and historians of the UC, or as a mere matter-of-fact. Indeed, colonial metaphors were commonplace in mid- to late-nineteenth century descriptions of the West, and were crucial tools in producing the frontier as a symbol of American ideals. The public university encapsulated these auspices, both for its founders and the broader public. An editorial written in The Pacific, a locally-based newspaper, echoes the Trustee’s vision:

“There is not another such college site in America, if indeed anywhere at all in the world. It is the spot above all others we have yet seen or heard of where a man may look in the face of the nineteenth century and realize the glories that are coming on. Before them was the Golden Gate in its broad-opening-out into the great Pacific. Ships were coming in and going out. Asia seemed near – the islands of the sea looking this way. Many nations a few years hence, as their fleets with the wealth of commerce seek these golden shores, will see the University before they see the metropolis, and their first thought of our greatness and strength will be impressed upon them by the intelligence and mind shaping mind within the walls of the College more than by the frowning batteries of Alcatraz.” [3]

Within the context of accelerated racial violence that ushered California into statehood, including bounties paid to settlers for Indigenous lives, the formation of the University of California likewise coalesced pervasive white settler imaginaries, promising the political, moral and economic potential of the state. The university was a space that could be imagined into: an embodiment of the region’s wealth and the continued riches it would attract; it’s simultaneous distinctiveness as a U.S. university and its worldly status; an institution with stature and import, morally positioned above other state-sponsored institutions through its worthy scholarly and educational pursuits. The university was nothing short of a symbol of the continued horizons of possibility, not only for California, but for the natural course of Western Empire.


[1]William Warren Ferrier, Origin and Development of the University of California (Berkeley, California: The Sather Gate Book Shop, 1930), 244.

[2]Ferrier, Origin and Development of the University of California.

[3]Ferrier, 182.