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Discovering Robert Sutherland

Amelia Briggs-Morris (Artsci’16) presents a poster displaying the research she conducted into Robert Sutherland to Principal Daniel Woolf, as Barbara Reeves (Classics) looks on. Through her research Ms. Briggs-Morris located and documented Sutherland’s funerary monument and translated the Latin inscription. (University Communications)

Thanks to some undergraduate research a little more light has been shed on the life and times of Robert Sutherland, one of the most important and intriguing figures in the early history of Queen’s.

Despite his role in saving the university from a financial crisis by bequeathing his entire estate of $12,000 upon his death in 1878, there is precious little known about Sutherland.

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That dearth of information drew the attention of Amelia Briggs-Morris (Artsci’16) as she looked into the history of the Department of Classics as part of a Work-Study program under the supervision of Classics Professor Barbara Reeves. Like Queen’s, the department is celebrating its 175th anniversary, and is reviewing its history. 

“Robert Sutherland was one of the first people that Dr. Reeves suggested we look into,” Ms. Briggs-Morris says.

The big details of Sutherland’s story are fairly clear. He made his way from Jamaica to Ontario and eventually studied at Queen’s, becoming the first known university student and graduate of colour in Canada. He would earn 14 academic honours while at Queen’s. Later he would become British North America’s first known black lawyer and practiced law in the southwestern Ontario town of Walkerton for 20 years. 

An impressive story certainly, but one lacking in fine details.

Dr. Reeves and Ms. Briggs-Morris first turned to the Queen’s University Archives and while there were boxes of information on the majority of important early figures at Queen’s, Sutherland’s history amounted to a “skimpy” folder.

“There are people with boxes and then for Sutherland there’s just this tiny little file,” Ms. Briggs-Morris says. “I’ve been telling my friends about him but no one has ever heard about him even though he’s a very important figure. When they do hear about him, however, people are awestruck.”

The duo set out to add to that story, but with a Classics twist.

Sutherland’s funerary monument, created under the order of Principal George Grant and placed upon a plot paid for by alumnus and eventual Supreme Court Justice James Maclennan in Toronto’s Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, featured a Latin inscription written by Rev. James Williamson, a prominent professor at Queen’s. 

However, the record of this monument involved a “fuzzy” image with no details about the inscription. 

It was a gap in the story that simply had to be filled.

“When you look at it, he basically saved the university and there isn’t even a picture of him,” Ms. Briggs-Morris says. “Queen’s had honoured him at the time but there isn’t even really a proper record of this honour. And it was only recently that they named Sutherland Hall after him.”

Latin and Classics made a natural fit so during Reading Week Ms. Briggs-Morris traveled to Toronto, located Sutherland’s grave and took a photo of the monument. With the support of Dr. Reeves, the inscription was then translated. 

“Sutherland is one of Queen’s and Classics’ most important alumni and Queen's honoured him after his death with a Latin funerary monument. Yet the monument itself has received almost no attention,” says Dr. Reeves. “In association with Queen’s and Classics’ 175th anniversary, there was a clear need to document this monument and its Latin inscription. The resulting research, which has highlighted both what is present and missing from the epitaph, provides new avenues for understanding Queen’s and Canada in the 1870s.”

Their translation reads: “In memory of Robert Sutherland B.A. who lived 46 years and on June 2, 1878, died. The University of Queen’s college, his heir, placed this monument lest his loyalty to his alma mater falls into oblivion.”

Curiously, the epitaph makes no mention of Sutherland’s date of birth, birthplace, family members or his profession, all of which were common on contemporary monuments.

Armed with this information, Ms. Briggs-Morris then wrote a commentary, and contextualized the monument in regard to Principal Grant, Professor Williamson and Justice Maclennan and presented the work at the Inquiry@Queen’s undergraduate research conference.

Ms. Briggs-Morris is proud that she has added to Sutherland’s story. The work also demonstrated the value of undergraduate research, says Dr. Reeves.

“Really, the value of these Inquiry@Queen’s-type projects is that the students get to sink their teeth into something themselves,” she says. “I was pointing Amelia in directions but she was then going and doing the work and also coming back with information that I was completely unaware existed. And that’s a wonderful thing.”