A society’s understanding of its history has always been, and remains today, of vital importance. The way people understand their past can exercise a powerful influence over their actions. We know from preceding and present examples that history is too often used to justify those actions. A critical and mature evidence-based approach that eschews the creation of set narratives, and that continually revisits our interpretations and understandings of historical events, is central to the proper study of the past. This provides one of the defences of society against the misuse of the past to justify political action in the present. In a democracy, one of the roles of universities is to promote independent research and freedom of expression. This inevitably results in the discovery of new evidence, generates fresh interpretations and changes perspectives, sometimes in ways that people find unsettling. But discomfort with the past is no reason not to explore it, especially when we find clear evidence of its implications for present day life.
This report is intended to contribute to a better understanding of the history of the University. There has never previously been a broad inquiry into legacies of enslavement in Cambridge, partly because of its well-known role in the anti-slavery movement, and it is now timely to address the subject. Not everyone will agree with our interpretations, or our recommendations, but it is important for the University to seek to better understand the legacies of enslavement that have contributed to creating the Cambridge in which we all live, work and study today. We trust that our work will be read in this spirit, and understood as part of our responsibility to current and future generations, not least for those members of our community who are descendants of those who were enslaved. This report represents one stage in a developing conversation about this subject; we trust that the University will engage with the evidence presented and the recommendations made with those people in mind.
Chair of the Advisory Group
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1 — General introduction
1.1 — The Advisory Group
The Advisory Group on the Legacies of Enslavement was created in early 2019 at the request of the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen J Toope, in light of the growing public interest in the issue of British universities’ historical links to enslavement and the slave trade. It was asked to advise him on the University of Cambridge’s historical links with enslavement and on the legacies of those links, and to propose future action in the light of this. A public announcement of the establishment of the group was made by the Vice-Chancellor on 30 April 2019.
In establishing this inquiry the Vice-Chancellor wrote:
'History is inescapable in Cambridge. It is inconceivable that a British institution as old as our University would not have been touched by colonial practices of enslavement and enforced labour – whether benefiting from, helping to shape, or indeed challenging them.
A society’s historical baggage and its modern-day challenges are inextricable. Understanding our past and shaping our future are not separate projects. The University of Cambridge is exceptionally well placed to undertake both of them.
The legacies of enslavement form a part of who we are today, and inform what we wish to achieve. We can never rewrite history, or do away with our heritage, but we can try to address prevailing inequalities. This process begins through greater self-knowledge and self-reflection.'
The initial membership of the Advisory Group comprised:
- Chair: Professor Martin Millett (Classics)
- Professor Ash Amin (Geography)
- Dr Adam Branch (POLIS, Centre of African Studies)
- Dr Mark Elliott (MAA)
- Mr Toni Fola-Alade (HSPS, African-Caribbean Society)
- Dr Mónica Moreno Figueroa (Sociology)
- Dr Sarah Pearsall (History)
- Dr Mark Purcell (University Library)
- Professor Sujit Sivasundaram (History, Centre of South Asian Studies)
- Secretary: Dr Ángel Gurría-Quintana
During the course of the inquiry, there have been some changes in the membership of the Advisory Group. Student and alumni representation was enhanced by the addition of Sharon Mehari and Priscilla Mensah, whilst Professor Nicholas Guyatt (History) joined the group in Michaelmas Term 2021 when Dr Sarah Pearsall left the University to take up a post in the USA.
The group’s work has been ably supported throughout by Sean Scinta who has worked as part-time project administrator.
The members of the group were invited by the Vice-Chancellor to serve in an individual capacity. The intention was to create a small interdisciplinary group that included some individuals with knowledge of the University’s museums, libraries and collections. Members were expected to liaise with other experts on the subject, both within and beyond the University.
The Advisory Group’s terms of reference are published on its webpage.
With funding from the Vice-Chancellor’s Endowment Fund, the Advisory Group agreed to appoint two postdoctoral researchers, to be based in the Centre for African Studies, to undertake primary historical research for the project. Following an open competition, the following were appointed:
The work of these two historians was divided to ensure that both financial and ideological aspects of the subject could be represented in the final report. Their remit was to produce academic work of the highest standard, to take part in academic meetings and seminars, and to publish their research as part of their career progression. The scope of their research was to encompass both (a) historical (including archival) research into the ways in which the University may have been involved financially and otherwise in the slave trade or other historical forms of coerced labour connected to colonialism, and (b) the University’s contribution to knowledge that may have supported the validation and dissemination of racialised and racist social structures and beliefs. Within their work, they were also asked to consider broader context, and especially the prominent place of Cambridge in the anti-slavery movement.
The postdoctoral researchers worked within a broader ecosystem of research on these topics in Cambridge, with many Cambridge Colleges undertaking their own research projects independently. With this in mind we invited the researchers to take a broad view, but with an awareness that they would only be able to explore a small part of the vast amount of evidence potentially available in the time allocated to them. Research on this area in Cambridge is accretive, and the contribution of this project should be understood in that context.
The Advisory Group agreed that it would be beneficial to establish an external panel to provide help and advice, especially to the postdoctoral researchers. The panel was asked to offer occasional guidance on matters arising, intellectual and otherwise, to complement the expertise available within the University. Those who kindly agreed to fulfil this role were:
- Professor Toby Green (King’s College London)
- Dr Meleisa Ono-George (The Queen’s College, University of Oxford)
- Professor Olivette Otele (University of Bristol)
- Professor Diana Paton (University of Edinburgh)
As requested by the Vice-Chancellor, the Advisory Group published an initial report in May 2020 and agreed to deliver its final report in the summer of 2022. Despite the serious constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which restricted both the work that our researchers had planned to undertake in archives and the seminars that we had intended to hold, we have adhered to that timetable in delivering this report and our recommendations. A complete version of the research undertaken will be published in a peer-reviewed academic monograph in 2023.
1.2 — Process and approach
It is important to appreciate that our University in the broad sense is not a single body, but is formed of the institutions of the University of Cambridge alongside 31 Colleges. The Colleges are independent, self-governing bodies. Although our terms of reference relate only to the University of Cambridge in the narrow sense (its academic departments, faculties and other institutions), the Advisory Group recognised that its work has relevance to the collegiate University as a whole. From the outset, we sought collaborations with those already engaged in such research in Cambridge, elsewhere in the UK and beyond. The postdoctoral researchers have been based in the Centre for African Studies, but have worked in an interdisciplinary context across the University and Colleges, developing relationships with other staff and students who are actively engaged in similar research. As the project has developed, we have been pleased to see further comparable work being undertaken independently in several Colleges, and we have sought to liaise closely with those involved. To this end we have also maintained a project website that has advertised events and provided information on our work.
Following the consultations and discussions across the University immediately after the announcement of this inquiry (as detailed in our initial report), we launched a series of further events to encourage academic discussion and to share research with a broader public. Dr Sabine Cadeau convened a seminar series ‘Slavery and its Afterlives,’ which was co-hosted with the Centre of African Studies. This 11-part seminar series explored the history and legacy of Atlantic slavery from an expansive breadth of thematic, disciplinary, and geographical perspectives. It hosted scholarly speakers from Brazil, South Africa, the USA and the Caribbean, and attracted well over 200 individual participants. Prominent guest speakers included Keila Grinberg, João Reis and Hazel Carby.
A seminar, ‘Dialogue on Reparations’ with contributions from Dr Michael Banner and Professor Henning Grosse Ruse-Khan, was held in April 2022 with more than 40 participants. Other events included a presentation at the University’s Festival of Ideas in 2021, as well as contributions to other conferences and meetings. Among them were events organised by the CRASSH research network, including ‘Slavery & Freedom: Material and Visual Histories’, co-convened by Danika Parikh, Jake Subryan Richards and Sabine Cadeau in 2021.
The full programme of events has been curtailed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but has nonetheless enabled a wide range of people from within Cambridge and beyond to contribute to and engage in the discussions that have led to the drafting of this report.
2 — General background
In this report we use the term enslavement to mean systems under which people were treated as property and used for their labour, and the term imperialism to mean the extension of a country's power and control through colonisation, use of military force, or other means.
2.1 — Introduction
In our initial report in 2020 we wrote: 'First, we recognise that enslavement and its legacies are not reducible to an object of academic study, nor are they issues that lend themselves to simple institutional solutions. Rather, enslavement and its legacies carry a whole history of racial violence, terror, exploitation, and long-term harm inflicted on specific parts of the world and communities of people, in particular on communities of African descent and on the global South. We recognise that no academic initiative can do justice to this legacy, and so we begin by humbly proposing our effort as one provisional, inevitably imperfect attempt to try to shed light on and help address the part of this history of violence that is closest to ourselves here at Cambridge. Our starting point is that Cambridge, like many other major UK and North American institutions, benefited both directly and indirectly from enslavement, the slave trade, and imperialism more broadly, so an understanding of that involvement should be central to the University’s efforts to address some of the structural inequalities that are a legacy of enslavement, in particular around the continued impact of racism in our own community. Our inquiry joins in the work of other British universities such as Glasgow and UCL and of many North American universities.'
In the intervening period, public attention has been increasingly focused on these broader issues, as a result of the death of George Floyd in May 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement, and in this country the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol. In Cambridge a vigorous debate has focused in particular on the memorial to Tobias Rustat in the chapel of Jesus College, while there has also been wide debate about other aspects of our imperial legacy, for instance the campaign for renaming of the Seeley Library and various discussions about 'decolonising' the curriculum.
Concerns over such matters are prone to generate intense discussion which can often be divisive. Some have emphasised the links between British imperialism and persistent inequalities within and beyond modern Britain; for others, imperial history remains a matter of national pride. Even amongst those who are critical of Britain’s engagement in the slave trade, there are many who highlight the country’s role in its abolition, noting Cambridge’s prominence in that movement. It is appropriate at the outset to note and echo the recent words of the Duke of Cambridge. In a speech at a dinner in Jamaica in March 2022 he said: “I want to express my profound sorrow. Slavery was abhorrent. And it should never have happened." He went on to endorse the words of his father, Prince Charles, who in Barbados in 2021 referred to “the appalling atrocity of slavery which forever stains our history". At the same time, we should be well aware that reactions to these statements among the people of the Caribbean illustrate a demand for actions as well as words.
This report recognises that there are deeply held feelings about a broad range of issues concerning the legacies of Empire in the broad sense, so it seeks to contribute to the continuing process of providing an evidence-based framework to explore the complexity of the University of Cambridge’s history which is undoubtedly deeply entangled with the country’s imperial past. In doing this, it is important to underline the fact that this is not only about the past, but about the present. Knowing and better understanding the past is key to creating a better future. We cannot change the past, but can and should seek to understand its contemporary relevance for many of our fellow people, especially those whose families have come here from across the former British Empire and who still experience the effects of socio-economic inequality and of racism stemming from the legacies of past enslavement. As such this report is as much about informing the University’s future actions as it is about understanding the past.
2.2 — Scope
The history of Cambridge’s participation in imperialism and slavery is extremely complex and the potential evidence voluminous, so anyone approaching this report with the expectation of finding a complete or simple story will be disappointed. Before summarising the research it is important to outline what we have, and have not, set out to do. To be clear, this report does not attempt to provide a comprehensive historical narrative account of the links between the University and slavery. Rather, it provides in-depth insights based on case studies, and also attempts to open up new lines of enquiry that we think should be pursued in the future. In approaching this subject we aim to avoid individualising 'blame' and invite our readers instead to think about the people concerned within the institutional context of their times. Equally, although one can hardly avoid the moral dimension of the harm that was caused to enslaved people and their descendants, we have tried to avoid the language of individualised judgement and invite our readers to do so too.
The academic research undertaken for the project, which represents one of several current efforts within the University to produce original research on this question, represents intensive work by two researchers, both historians. They have only been able to explore a relatively small amount of existing material given the nature of the evidence available and the scale of the questions that could be addressed. We have chosen to illustrate this through in-depth studies rather than attempting to provide what would inevitably be a superficial account of the whole topic. The detail these studies provide show the complexity of the material but also illustrate a series of new lines of evidence and point clearly to directions where further detailed research is desirable. We believe that they also do justice to a difficult field of study, where subtle judgement rather than simple conclusions are required. On the other hand, by taking a narrow focus, we have not been able to explore some key areas beyond the legacies of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery itself, most notably in other geographical areas and into the broader but related histories of indentured and coerced labour into the present. It is important to appreciate that the research undertaken for this project is only a first step in fully exploring the subject, and much more work is required to further understand it, for instance in comprehending the institution’s multiple colonial investments in the late-19th and 20th centuries.
It should also be noted that in contrast to some comparable studies elsewhere, the approach followed takes a broad view of the legacies of enslavement. While we consider financial connections in the form of donations and investment, the report also tries not to make the research principally about numbers. There can be no doubt that collectively the collegiate University gained economic benefit from colonial exploitation, which was itself based on the labour of enslaved people, as did the country as a whole, and the economic legacy of that gain has continued to the present day. However, assessing and quantifying that gain faces a range of methodological challenges and pitfalls. Even in more straightforward institutions, questions of the scale and sources of money are complex. In the context of Cambridge the matter is even more complicated. First, the University itself was a comparatively small institution through the crucial period, with the bulk of activity and resources held by the individual Colleges. This means that any overarching understanding of financial gain could only be obtained through an in-depth analysis of each individual College that was in existence at the time, as well as those whose later endowments may have derived from the exploitation of enslaved people – a task that the forthcoming book begins to address with case studies on half a dozen Colleges. However, research on the University of Cambridge’s financial connections shows them to be significant. Second, unlike later foundations, whose donors can often be straightforwardly checked against the lists of those who received financial compensation after abolition in 1833 using the UCL database, Cambridge’s relationship to slavery frequently goes back to at least the 17th century, hence the task is greater, with the records needing to be located and carefully evaluated individually, so the precise assessment of financial gain is consequently extremely complex. The studies summarised below do not shy away from exploring the financial dimension, but we believe that reducing discussion just to a matter of money also misses the key point that people in, and associated with, Cambridge played a wide variety of roles in a system that was based on the exploitation of enslaved peoples. Seeking a fuller understanding of this and evaluating its extent and significance seems more important than simply attempting to quantify monetary gain. Furthermore, it is essential to separate this historical assessment from any discussion of reparations, which are too easily reduced to the supposed settling of a debt financially.
Finally it is important to appreciate that the commissioned research can only touch on a small part of what is an enormous subject. We believe that this research has been rigorous. It has been subject to academic peer-review and provides a reliable insight into Cambridge’s deep involvement with systems that were built on the exploitation of enslaved people. We are also aware that only through further careful research will it be possible to assess more fully how representative this work might be. Nevertheless, we believe that our findings already justify a series of recommendations to the University for future actions to recognise how past acts of exploitation are related to the present.
3 — Historiographical and institutional background
This report is one ripple in a rolling sea of academic, institutional, and public interest in the legacies of enslavement and empire. Following the lead of generations of historians from the African diaspora, scholars in the past decade have come to see the British Empire as, in part at least, a ‘slave empire’ in which the enslavement of African-descended peoples, in particular, helped to underpin political, economic, cultural, and social relations from the colonies to the metropole.
Slavery can no longer be thought of as a peripheral issue in histories of the British Empire. In reinterpreting the Empire’s origins, growth, and development, scholars have a newfound understanding of slavery’s end that is far more paradoxical than the triumphant histories of centuries past. Historians have revealed that the legacies of this ‘slave empire’ endured long after the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 in the form of new modes of coerced labour and racist ideologies. These legacies can be seen throughout the United Kingdom in the universities, marbled museums, expensive artefacts, expansive cities, and bustling ports that once depended on slavery and the slave trade for their prosperity. In the shadow of this wealth and privilege, these legacies also drive the racism, inequality, and prejudice that affects communities of colour in the form of higher infant mortality rates, poorer education outcomes from primary school onwards, a lack of sense of belonging at institutions (including Cambridge), and a glass ceiling that restricts Black Britons’ access to high-paying jobs – thereby leading to higher Black unemployment in an advanced, modern economy, such as Britain.
Having acknowledged the centrality of slavery to British imperialism, scholars enhanced our understanding of Britain’s history. Whilst they debate the impact of slavery and the consumer economies of cotton, sugar, and tobacco on the Industrial Revolution and the Great Divergence, these conversations centre on the degree to which Britain’s slave empire helped make the nation great, rather than whether slavery helped Britain prosper. Indeed, historians have proven that slavery, assumptions about Black inferiority, and the freedom to enslave were an accepted and widespread part of Britain’s political culture, as they were in other slave-trading nations, such as France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain. Historians have revealed that Britain’s financial revolution and the craze for shares, bonds, and speculation were propelled, in large part, by investments in slave-trading joint-stock companies, such as the Royal African, East India, and South Sea companies. They have recounted how former slaveholders took their wealth to other parts of the Empire, including Australia, America, and India, and used their influence to propagate other colonial enterprises. And they have recently shown that money derived from slavery, and the significant numbers of students sent to universities, schools, colleges, and educational institutions throughout the Empire, helped to forge these institutions. It has also been argued that abolition was far from inevitable – abolitionists were part of an insurgent, multi-ethnic movement struggling against a powerful enslaver class who had the money, connections, and political guile to ensure that emancipation took many generations to accomplish. Far from leading to Black freedom, the process of emancipation and abolition resulted in new forms of unfree labour and racism. Britain, for example, imported indentured labour from the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere in Asia to the Caribbean, Africa and elsewhere.
As historians have recognised the centrality of slavery to imperialism for decades, it should be no surprise that universities – the places where scholars work to challenge and complicate our preconceived understandings of the past – have begun to confront this history. More than 200 years after the first African American student attended college (John Chavis, a Presbyterian minister, in 1799), universities and colleges in the United States have confronted their past and, in so doing, started to respond to wider calls for rights, inclusion, and justice. In 1860, the total capital embodied by all four million enslaved men, women and children was greater than the value of the US’s banks, factories, and railroads combined. Universities, too, benefited from this wealth – as shown most dramatically at Georgetown University where the sale of 282 enslaved persons in 1838 helped a cash-strapped institution to survive and continue functioning. Whilst Yale, Brown and Georgetown have proven the necessity of these inquiries, undergraduate, postgraduate, and faculty researchers have done ground-breaking work at numerous institutions, including at Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, Columbia, Princeton, Harvard, and the University of North Carolina. Having published reports, monographs, edited collections, and journal articles, these scholars have shown that slavery and its legacies remain essential topics to American, British, and, indeed, world history.
Though the responses to these legacies have differed in approach and emphasis, research has found numerous similarities in the historical entanglements of American universities and slavery. Using account books, letters, diaries, and material culture, researchers have uncovered founders and benefactors who enslaved people and invested in the slave trade, and recovered the lives of enslaved people who either travelled with students or were employed at the university to serve the white planter class. The consensus is that slave money and labour, alongside assistance from the colonial and federal governments in ‘acquiring’ and selling valuable land owned by Native American peoples, helped colonial, antebellum, and post-Civil War era colleges in the United States become modern research universities, and that the universities helped to preserve the ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery and inspire further efforts to colonise indigenous peoples – forming what the historian Craig Steven Wilder has called a ‘third pillar’ beside the church and state as national institutions dedicated to perpetuating and propagating slavery and racial science. This extraordinary flowering of research into the legacies of enslavement and colonialism, and its implications for reconciliation and reparations, have led some to dub our current moment the ‘age of apology.’
Britain is also reckoning with this ‘age.’ British-based historians have been influential partners in revealing the pervasiveness and power of Britain’s slaving empire, and British institutions have begun to confront their past. The UCL Legacies of British Slave-ownership Project and Glasgow University’s inquiry into the legacies of enslavement have seen particularly commendable efforts to locate students from slave-owning backgrounds, examine bequests with slavery links, and highlight faculty and lecturers who propagated slavery and racism throughout the British Empire. The UCL database initially focused on those slaveholders and their families who attained money from the Emancipation Act in 1833. By following the money, Nicholas Draper, Catherine Hall and others have shown that 5 to 10% of the British elite appear in the compensation records as owners, mortgagees, legatees, trustees, and executors. Slaveholders and slave money, then, were not hidden – these Britons were a mainstream part of national life.
The Glasgow report was the first focused investigation into the legacies of enslavement at a major university in the United Kingdom. Known for its many contributions to the Scottish Enlightenment, and for its role in the campaign to end the slave trade and Caribbean slavery, including two abolition petitions sent in 1788 and 1792 and an honorary doctorate awarded to William Wilberforce, the university, as the investigators Stephen Mullen and Simon Newman have shown, was situated “no more than a stone’s throw away from the heart of the mercantile businesses profiting from the trade in slave-produced goods.” The intertwined problems of slavery and freedom, therefore, were no less prevalent in the United Kingdom than in the United States. Glasgow University, the researchers note, educated 133 students from slave-owning backgrounds (constituting around 3% of the student population between 1727 and 1838) and received 16 bequests from individuals who were either associated with, or actively participated in, the slave economy. At 2016 figures, these bequests amount to £6,165,230. These scholarships and endowments were integral to that institution’s continued operation and growth in its early history.
The University of Cambridge and many of its constituent Colleges and museums – in parallel with legacies inquiries at Exeter, All Souls, and St John’s Colleges in Oxford, and the universities of St Andrews, London, Bristol, and Liverpool – have started to re-examine their histories as well. Earlier reports, both those from North America and especially that from Glasgow, have been important influences on shaping approaches to the subject in Cambridge. Amongst the Cambridge Colleges, Christ’s, Jesus, King’s, Queens’, Gonville & Caius, Homerton, St Catharine’s, Downing and Emmanuel and others have conducted their own work on the legacies of slavery – many of which have arrived at similar conclusions to Glasgow and their work has contributed to this report you are now reading.
Historians have long acknowledged that Cambridge University played an important role in the effort to end the slave trade and Caribbean slavery, and it is well-known that abolitionists pivotal to this movement, such as Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, and Peter Peckard, once called Cambridge home. The abolition of the slave trade was one of the few issues that the City of Cambridge and University officials – racked by political, religious, and intellectual disagreements throughout the early modern period – had some degree of unity about. The University Senate sent petitions to the House of Commons in 1788 and again in 1792. Colleges, Masters, and Fellows also sent money to the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. While the University and Colleges have sometimes viewed their association with slavery principally in terms of the struggle against it, a fuller picture acknowledges both that abolitionists met with opposition within the University, and that the University and Colleges had a long history of involvement with slavery and coerced labour both before and after the ‘antislavery moment’ of the late-18th and early-19th centuries.
Neither the University of Cambridge nor the universities sector, it must be said, are alone in re-examining their histories. Museums, heritage organisations and financial bodies have started to engage in significant work into the legacies of enslavement. In September 2020, the National Trust published a report with a stated commitment to 'research, interpret and share the histories of slavery and the legacies of colonialism at the places we care for'. This history, they noted, was 'woven into the fabric of the British Isles'. The British Museum, National Gallery, and other comparable centres of material culture have engaged in this research. At the National Gallery, for instance, museum staff have identified the names of 67 individual trustees and donors – in addition to painters and sitters – with connections to slavery. The Bank of England has apologised for the involvement of their directors in the slave trade, and has commenced a 'thorough review' of its collection of portraits and images, and engaged with staff and researchers to produce its own response to the legacies of British slavery in the City of London. It would be no exaggeration to conclude that the legacies of enslavement have become one of the most important philosophical, legal, political, cultural, and social challenges in Britain in the 21st century.
4 — Research findings
4.1 — Introduction
Substantial original historical research has been undertaken by our two postdoctoral researchers. They worked independently to address the brief outlined above to encompass both:
(a) historical and archival research into the ways in which the University may have been involved financially and otherwise in the slave trade or other historical forms of coerced labour connected to colonialism, and
(b) the University’s contribution to knowledge that may have supported the validation and dissemination of racialised and racist social structures and beliefs, including how those may continue into the present.
The key findings of their research are outlined below. The Advisory Group has been particularly concerned that full academic publication of this research should be subject to scrupulous external peer-review. The need for this close academic scrutiny, and delays created by the COVID pandemic, led us to decide that publication of the full results should not be rushed. It is the Advisory Group’s expectation that the full results of the research for this project will be published as an open access monograph during 2023, and the work is currently with Cambridge University Press for peer-review. Rather than delay the completion of our report to the Vice-Chancellor, we are now providing a digest of the findings of the research, which has already benefited from robust internal and external academic scrutiny.
4.2 — Digest of research findings
The research undertaken for this project does not pretend to be comprehensive, and it is particularly important to appreciate that in an institution like collegiate Cambridge with its series of independent Colleges and old-established institutions like the Fitzwilliam Museum and the University Library, it would be difficult ever to compile a comprehensive picture of the past. Given the complexities of the historical documents that survive, there can persist uncertainties about the identification of particular individuals and the exact interpretation of their past roles. Further information on slavery will likely continue to emerge from Cambridge archives and libraries for generations to come. These issues should not prevent us from providing an evaluation of the evidence as it is now understood, especially since our interest is primarily institutional, or from proposing actions based on current knowledge. The following digest summarises current understanding based on the full range of available research from our project and that in Colleges. It seems improbable that further and more detailed research will significantly alter these conclusions. The following account is divided into a series of broad themes that reflect the range of connections between collegiate Cambridge and the exploitation of enslaved people.
4.2.1 — Engagement in ownership of or trade in enslaved people
While we have not seen any evidence that Cambridge institutions directly owned any plantations that exploited enslaved people, individuals closely associated with Cambridge and its Colleges did own plantations and were deeply involved in colonisation and in establishing the institutions of slavery from its inception.
For example, leaders of the Virginia Company that was established by James I in 1606 to colonise the east coast of North America were educated at St John’s College, Cambridge. Enslaved African persons were taken to the Virginia colony from 1619 and to the colony of Bermuda from 1630. Native Americans were also enslaved in Virginia from soon after the founding of Jamestown in 1607 until far into the 18th century. The minister John Cotton, a former Emmanuel Fellow, helped to draft the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties, which legalised indigenous and African slavery in New England. Fellows of Cambridge Colleges were involved with the East India Company, first formed in 1599 and which was soon active in the trade in Malagasy enslaved persons. Cambridge academics can also be found on the founding documents of the successor new East India Company dated 5 September 1698, the charter of which mentions chattel slavery, and which transported enslaved Africans from Mozambique and Madagascar.
After the Restoration in 1660, the parents of Cambridge students and influential College benefactors were amongst those who led and invested in the Royal African Company, which took a key role in the Atlantic slave trade. A similar pattern can be identified with the South Sea Company in the early-18th century (see below). Later, many College Fellows and Masters had close links to enslavers, either owning plantations and slaves themselves or being related to such owners. Such links were numerous and present at most Colleges in existence at the time.
Taking a broader view, it is relevant that a number of Cambridge College alumni were owners of slave plantations in the Americas. All three of the Cambridge graduates who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 – Thomas Nelson, Jr of Virginia, and Arthur Middleton and Thomas Lynch of South Carolina – were enslavers. The family of Arthur Middleton of Trinity Hall owned more than a dozen Carolina plantations and over 3,500 enslaved persons over many generations; that of Thomas Lynch Jr of Gonville & Caius also owned at least seven South Carolina plantations. For New World enslavers, an education at Cambridge was a powerful symbol of their social status and a means to forge connections on both sides of the Atlantic.
Beyond the underlying horrors of the slave trade – it is estimated that about 12.5 million enslaved people were forcibly transported across the Atlantic, with as many as 1.7 million dying during the crossing – the practice of enslaving human beings was fundamentally brutal in nature. The British theologian Charles Wesley, on visiting South Carolina in 1736, was appalled to see the reality of slavery at first hand: 'Colonel Lynch cut off the legs of a poor negro,' he wrote of the grandfather of Gonville & Caius graduate Thomas Lynch, 'and he kills several of them every year by his barbarities.'
4.2.2 — Direct investment in the Atlantic slave trade and beyond
Cambridge’s most significant and direct financial involvement in Atlantic slavery centred on its investments in the South Sea Company. Cambridge Colleges (those that have come to our attention being Corpus Christi, Gonville & Caius, Jesus, King’s and Pembroke) directly purchased South Sea Company shares and annuities during the years of the company’s major participation in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Cambridge Colleges also received bequests from donors who were major investors in colonial companies such as the Royal African Company, the South Sea Company, and the East India Company. In certain prominent cases donations came in the form of South Sea capital itself.
Such financial involvement both helped to facilitate the slave trade and brought very significant financial benefits to Cambridge. From the Restoration in 1660, East India bonds were owned by several Cambridge institutions, including Trinity College, although they do not seem to have reached the same extent as investments in the South Sea Company. The South Sea Company’s engagement in the slave trade began in 1713, having been negotiated by Matthew Prior, a Fellow of St John’s College. From 1713 to 1740, it was directly involved in large-scale slave trading between Africa, South America and the Caribbean. Even after it ceased to be involved in this trade, the company received a further significant sum by selling its slave-trading rights back to the King of Spain in 1750. Cambridge Colleges were large investors in South Sea stock during this period and they made substantial financial gains through this. Furthermore, the restructuring of the South Sea Company’s debt after the crash (the ‘Bubble’) of 1720 meant that many Colleges continued to benefit substantially from the reliable dividend on its bonds right down to their redemption in 1854. The research shows the complexity and the extent of these investments across Cambridge over a very long period, thereby emphasising how a significant part of collegiate Cambridge’s endowment is ultimately derived from the slave trade. Equally, since investment in South Sea stock was often undertaken in the pursuit of capital projects, buildings like the Gibbs Building at King’s College are also substantially a product of it.
The institutional financial patterns that defined Cambridge’s relationship with the first wave of British colonialism continued to define Cambridge’s financial relationship with second-wave colonialism: the turn to the east, the expansion of the East India Company in South Asia, the colonisation of Australia, and the partition of Africa. Investment in colonial bonds at Cambridge did not stop with the South Sea Company, or the East India Company. Through the later-19th and early-20th centuries, Cambridge institutions continued to seek attractive yields in a wide variety of colonial paper assets. Profits from Australian or African mines in the late-19th and early-20th centuries cannot be separated from the displacement and subjugation of a variety of peoples through various means or the racial ideology that defined 19th- and 20th-century colonial rule (see below).
4.2.3 — Long-term benefits derived from the ownership of or trade in enslaved people
Long-term income derived from the slave trade also accrued as a result of major gifts and benefactions to collegiate Cambridge. Most prominent is the donation that supported the foundation of the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1816. Lord Fitzwilliam’s South Sea assets had come to him from his grandfather, Matthew Decker, a governor of the South Sea Company at its inception, a director of both the Royal African Company and also of the East India Company. Similarly John Woodward’s investments in South Sea stock formed part of the endowment for the Woodwardian Professorship of Geology under his will of 1728. There were many smaller gifts, in aggregate representing considerable sums.
Other major gifts, not always in money, are less directly related to the donors’ financial gains from the exploitation of enslaved people but are also significant. In some cases, donations were received from individuals who made most of their money from other sources but who were still closely involved in slave trading. Tobias Rustat’s donations, which include significant funding for the University Library, may not have derived directly from the profits of the slave trade, but he was a leading figure as a director of the Royal African Company: as such he played an important institutional role in promoting and sustaining the slave trade. Samuel Pepys subscribed to the Royal Africa Company and was a significant benefactor to Cambridge through the legacy of his library to Magdalene College. More modest donations involving individuals and/or proceeds connected to slavery and the slave trade can be tracked in part through the tradition of Fellow Commoners giving items of silver plate to their Colleges.
Numerous other benefactions from less well-known people can be traced with links to capital accumulated from direct or indirect involvement in the trade in enslaved people. There were several hundred such figures through the history of collegiate Cambridge and links demonstrating the origin of this wealth can be followed well into the 19th century. For instance, money from estates in the West Indies left by James McMahon created the McMahon Law Studentships at St John’s College. Alfred Newton, whose family had held slave plantations, and who played an important role in establishing Zoology in Cambridge, bequeathed a collection of books held by the Zoology Library, sometimes referred to as the Zoology (Balfour and Newton) Library.
4.2.4 — Educating slave estate owners’ sons
Given the role of the University of Cambridge as a place of education through the period with which we are concerned it is hardly surprising that the heirs of many involved in the trade in and ownership of enslaved people were educated in its Colleges. The extent of this is substantial and the income they paid in fees represents a long-lasting institutional and significant economic benefit.
Unsurprisingly, in the same way that Cambridge was the home of some who led the companies (see above), it was also the place of education for many others who went on to exploit enslaved persons. This was not simply a question of there being few alternatives. In their efforts to recruit and cultivate links with members of wealthy families more broadly, Colleges encouraged their admission, seeking out the sons of enslavers as students, and writing pamphlets to convince these wealthy youths to attend the institution. From the mid-17th to the 19th century the Colleges earned significant amounts of money from these students and, in the context of a widespread acceptance of slavery in Britain, attracting these students was important. The money they spent here was also important for the local and wider economy as the children of enslavers can be shown to have spent significant sums of money.
It was also not the case that those in Cambridge remained only marginally aware of the slave trade. As noted above, a number of Fellows individually came from families that owned enslaved people, and there is sound evidence for the close relationship between enslavers and Fellows, as for instance in the letters of Thomas Gooch, Master of Gonville & Caius (1716–54). Gooch wined and dined students from prominent Virginian enslaver families, including the Carters, and used his political and ecclesiastical connections to assist his brother, William Gooch, the Governor of Virginia, in passing legislation related to the tobacco economy. In a spring 1727 letter, William Gooch wrote that he had named one enslaved person ‘Caius’ in honour of his brother’s College.
In summary it is clear that Cambridge provided an education to many people who would profit directly from slavery and the slave trade. The money of planters’ sons was important and represents a long-lasting institutional exposure to wealth derived from slavery wealth. The institution also provided an important form of social and cultural capital for enslaver families, allowing them to forge connections in British society that cemented their social position. It is harder to know whether a Cambridge education helped to propagate pro-slavery beliefs (see below) but there can be little doubt that as students from slave-owning families lived alongside and shared much in common with the other aristocrats and gentlemen who attended Cambridge, with whom they developed shared values, leading many in English society to accept and in many cases actively defend Atlantic slavery.
4.2.5 — Role in abolitionist and anti-abolitionist movements
Cambridge has often celebrated its association with the struggle for abolition since individuals such as Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce were educated and developed their campaigns here. However, pro-slavery ideas are equally to be found in Cambridge’s history too. It is also important to acknowledge that the University was not exceptional in this regard and, like other institutions, it had deep financial, personal, and intellectual entanglements with slavery and the slave trade, which some of its prominent members actively defended.
We should also stress that opposition to slavery was not born in the 18th century, nor was it first developed in Cambridge. There had long been debates about slavery in different religious traditions, including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, whilst in the context of the Atlantic slave trade, enslaved Africans and Native Americans had themselves resisted slavery from the 16th century. It is also worth noting the role of Cambridgeshire in the life of the important Black abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, who is not often remembered in the city.
The history of debates about abolition in the University are themselves complex and reflect the prejudices and widespread racism and commitments to civilisational and orientalist superiority of the time. As slavery and the slave trade came under scrutiny, some Cambridge intellectuals actively defended them while others passively accepted their continuation. Amongst those defending slavery and racism was Thomas Thompson of Christ’s College who, in 1772, argued that slavery ‘rescued’ Africans from the oppression of their homelands. This precipitated responses from those who became leading Cambridge abolitionists. Those who stood in favour of slavery were equally active and committed, with Stephen Fuller, a former Fellow of Trinity College and Jamaica’s agent in Britain for 30 years, from 1764 to 1794, perhaps the most prominent. The pro-slavery movement had begun in the 1760s and flourished through the period of the American Revolution, defending British sugar interests and promoting the reform as opposed to the abolition of slavery. Fuller was actively supported by other Cambridge men, including parliamentarians educated at Cambridge, including Sir Charles Davers (Trinity College), Sir William Young (Clare College), and Brownlow Cust (Corpus Christi).
Following the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 it took almost three decades until British slavery was formally abolished in 1833, though historians remind us that unfree labour continued throughout the British empire in a variety of forms after that date. Cambridge alumni and Fellows were active on both sides of the abolition debate. The pro-slavery campaigners were well organised and prolific in their writings. In this period, most white abolitionists supported gradualism, rejecting the immediatism favoured by many Black campaigners, such as Equiano, and white anti-slavery activists, such as Quaker schoolteacher Elizabeth Heyrick. Racist opinions were widespread even amongst abolitionists, with many like Samuel Taylor Coleridge believing in the civilising and disciplining potential of the plantation.
A full accounting of Cambridge’s abolitionist history must include the complexities and ironies explored in the recent exhibition at St John’s College on “Slavery and Abolition: Collections Uncovered”. Clarkson’s own correspondence demonstrates not only his gradualism and elitism, but also his evolution from an advocate for reparations to the victims of enslavement to an acceptance of compensation as a politically expedient solution. Future research should further interrogate the legacies of Clarkson, Wilberforce, Peckard, and the broader Cambridge abolitionist movement in light of the 1834 compensation act, racial ideology, the colonisation of Africa, and the evolving idea of Britain’s civilising mission. Historians have now demonstrated that there was a line of inheritance from abolitionist civilisational discourse to the partition of Africa for liberal imperial ends of ‘rescuing’ its people.
One clear and highly legible snapshot in time is provided by the records of the 1834 slave compensation. A few important Cambridge graduates were simultaneously renowned abolitionists and also recipients of compensation for major plantations and hundreds of enslaved people. During his time as Governor of Jamaica, Jesus College alumnus Howe Peter Browne, 2nd Marquess of Sligo, was celebrated as the ‘emancipator of the slaves.’ A plantation heir himself, he drew the ire of the planters when he summarily emancipated his own slaves from ‘apprenticeship’ and helped to establish the first free Jamaican town called Sligoville. Renowned for his benevolence and his role in emancipation, he received a massive compensation of over £5,500 in 1834 for 286 enslaved people on two large Jamaican plantations. Henry William Coulthurst graduated from St John’s College as second wrangler in mathematics and earned many degrees before becoming a Fellow at Sidney Sussex College and pursuing a long career in the church. He was a prominent supporter of his close Cambridge associates and abolitionists Wilberforce, Clarkson, and Isaac Milner. And yet he was at Cambridge precisely because he came from a major West Indies sugar dynasty. His father was the owner of plantations including the Bakers Plantation of Barbados, and Henry William Coulthurst’s brother Conrade made an unsuccessful claim for 143 enslaved labourers in 1834.
After enslavement ended in the British Caribbean, former enslavers and abolitionists were active in continuing discussion at Cambridge concerning slavery in the United States. Edward Strutt Abdy was a leading Cambridge abolitionist. Free African Americans who studied at the University, including Alexander Crummell, were active in the campaign. However, the evidence shows that Cambridge was an important bastion for pro-Confederate thought during and after the American Civil War, thereby providing continued support for slavery. For instance, John George Witt, a King’s Fellow, was an associate editor for The Index, the Confederacy’s main propaganda paper in Britain. After the war, Witt invited Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederate States, to tour Cambridge (although the offer does not seem to have been taken up) and Witt continued to associate with exiled Confederates. He invited Colin J McRae and George Eustis, Jr, both Confederate agents in Europe, to a College dinner and he helped Judah Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State, get a position as a Queen’s Counsel. (He later served as one of the executors of Benjamin’s will.) Contemporary reports of debates in the Cambridge Union Society suggest that many Cambridge students were vehement supporters of the Confederacy.
4.2.6 — Role in intellectual work underpinning of racism
Throughout the period under discussion individuals at Cambridge were writing about race, and presenting ideas that were used to justify the enslavement and colonisation of other people. Our research has not focused on this in depth, but it is potentially very significant and deserves further research. Intellectual and scientific justifications for racism, including those developed at Cambridge, have long played a significant role in underpinning and supporting everyday assumptions of racial inequality and particularly of Black inferiority.
In the 1670s Dr Thomas Townes, the son of a Barbadian enslaver and a Christ’s alumnus was an early advocate of an innatist idea of racial difference, which ascribed differences between white and Black persons to biology rather than to environmental factors. His ‘scientific’ work, drawn to the attention of the Royal Society by Martin Lister, one-time Fellow of St John’s College, marks the start of a long line of Cambridge thought that was used to justify racism and slavery. Similar attitudes had been expressed early in the 17th century by the poet and scholar John Donne, a Cambridge Doctor of Divinity, who saw the purpose of the colonies as places where white vagrants, Native Americans, Black servants, and other ‘undesirable’ people would work for the benefit of a white elite.
Such attitudes were closely tied to Christian missionary activity, for instance through the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), which later became the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, and with which many in Cambridge were actively engaged. The Governor of the Leeward Islands, Christopher Codrington, bequeathed his Barbadian plantations to the SPG, and Cambridge Fellows, such as Thomas Tenison, the Archbishop of Canterbury, served on the committee that ran these estates. In their sermons, Cambridge Fellows tried to convince enslavers that Christian conversion would not render enslaved people free, and some argued that Christianity could serve the interests of the plantation system by rendering African-descended people more amenable to enslavement, more willing to defend their masters against Native American attacks, and less likely to rebel against American slave societies.
Nevertheless, these intellectual approaches raise an important question: to what extent were Cambridge students instructed in race and slavery throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries? This is difficult to answer for the earlier period, given the diffuse nature of education at early modern Cambridge, but one can say for certain that Cambridge academics tried to instruct their charges in American history and the nature of slave societies, particularly after lectures became more systematised in the 19th century. For example, Charles Kingsley, Regius Professor of History at the University from 1860-69 (and a descendant of Caribbean enslavers), gave a lecture series on the history of the United States. The notes from this course do not survive. Still, we know from a journalist who observed these lectures that Kingsley believed the Confederacy had a moral right to secede, that guilt for the Civil War rested on the abolitionists, and that the Confederate States were committed to emancipation.
Slavery and the natural rights of enslaved persons sparked debate within Cambridge. Thomas Rutherforth, who became the Regius Professor of Divinity in 1745, published his Institutes of Natural Law (1754) in which he developed a theory of the inequality between human beings and thereby sought to justify enslavement. Even after the demise of slavery, racist discourses continued to be developed in Cambridge. In the late-19th century this took in debates about Darwinism. And in the 20th century this was connected, for instance, to a rigid conception of race within eugenics. Our research has not explored these areas in depth, and they deserve further future research.
4.2.7 — Celebrating and memorialising those involved in slavery and racial ideology
As noted above, key institutions within Cambridge like the Fitzwilliam Museum memorialise those linked to slavery. However, the contemporary unfamiliarity with Cambridge’s broader engagement with slavery, and a lack of focus on individuals, has led to the continued memorialisation of others whose roles in its history should now be open to debate. Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, Member of Parliament for the University of Cambridge, is one such figure who is commemorated with a statue. He is celebrated as a statesman whilst his key roles stalling the anti-slave trade campaign and in Britain’s campaign to conquer and restore slavery in Saint-Domingue during the Haitian Revolution are ignored.
There are further examples of College benefactors, some of whose wealth derived from slavery and who are memorialised in a variety of forms. For instance at Gonville & Caius College, Bartholomew Wortley’s benefaction is commemorated by a statue. There are also examples in University institutions, including Adam Sedgwick who is celebrated for his pioneering work in geology with a museum named after him. Sedgwick was the beneficiary of compensation money in 1837 via a legacy from Ann Sill, whose family had owned the Providence Plantation in Jamaica since at least 1774. Other instances of institutional memorialisation include the Zoology (Balfour and Newton) Library, linked to a family fortune derived from Caribbean slave plantations (see above) and in the broader context, both the Haddon and Seeley libraries that are named after scholars whose work is perceived by some to be entwined with racist ideologies. A working group to articulate principles and guide decisions on renaming is being established.
5 — Recommendations
5.1 — Introduction
This project is not only about the past. Recognising that the past is a potent force in the contemporary world, our recommendations are intended to lead towards new courses of action for the University community now and in the future. It is important that the University publicly acknowledges its historical links to the exploitation of enslaved people and commits itself to future actions in the light of this.
This raises the question of reparative justice, which has been the subject of discussion in events organised by the researchers. Persuasive voices have called for financial reparations to be paid by institutions like Cambridge. If accepted, these raise questions of how much, to whom, and in what form. As noted above, even the first of these questions raises issues that are very difficult to assess let alone quantify. Equally, financial compensation cannot fully address present-day legacies such as racism. It is important that there is open discussion of this across the University, but for the present, we take the view that it would be more constructive to think instead about how the University might deploy substantial and meaningful resources – intellectual, social and financial – to make a difference to the communities affected by the legacies of enslavement.
If such institutional and intellectual actions are to be meaningful, they must be developed through dialogue with those communities that continue to be disadvantaged by the legacies of enslavement today, including those within Cambridge, within the UK, and beyond. In doing this, the University may wish to take into account of the statement by the CARICOM Reparations Commission.
In our initial report we made a series of specific recommendations. Since then, a number of actions and initiatives have been initiated within the collegiate University, some in response to our suggestions, others as a result of independent initiatives. We have noted and acknowledged these in the following discussion.
We have organised our recommendations around four themes. Each one will require investment as well as institutional support from the University. Therefore, to bring all these efforts to fruition, we recommend the establishment of a permanent Cambridge Legacies of Enslavement Research Centre (the naming of which should be the subject for discussion) that would take the lead in consolidating and building on the diverse efforts already underway across the collegiate University and take forward this ambitious agenda. In support of this, we also recommend that the University, with the assistance of its Development and Alumni Relations team, works towards the creation of a Legacies of Enslavement Fund, mobilising existing funds and developing a fundraising campaign to enable the realisation of our recommendations.
As we noted in our initial report, these efforts should draw upon the experience at other universities, where a wide set of changes, large and small, have been instituted. Cambridge should extend its relations with universities in those parts of the world beyond the UK where the legacies of enslavement are most present. In developing such links, it is important that the relationships allow agency to those within the partner universities.
5.2 — Theme 1: Research and institution-building
Critical research and knowledge production must be a central part of Cambridge’s long-term response to its links with enslavement and its legacies. Indeed, the archival research by the postdoctoral researchers and others has shown how much more there is to be done, both in primary historical research and in broader interdisciplinary studies. The groundswell of interest across the collegiate University in research around these issues, and in particular the involvement of Cambridge and other British institutions, could best be sustained and developed through the establishment of a Cambridge Legacies of Enslavement Research Centre. This should include the provision of funding for visiting professorships and studentships for scholars from the African diaspora to work on their projects on slavery. Its remit must be sufficiently broad to encompass Black British histories and contemporary Black studies in ways that encourage studies of post-emancipation societies from the 19th century until the present and embrace a history of African-descended people that is not limited to slavery but that explores Black history more widely. It should also extend beyond the present research to address other modes of coerced labour in imperial history through to the present. There are various models for such a research centre at other UK universities; but the shape of the research centre should be informed by a series of discussions led by a steering committee with representation from student, academic staff, university leadership, and stakeholders beyond the University in coordination with University leadership.
The research centre should nurture and develop a series of research projects carried out by Cambridge academic staff, postdoctoral researchers, and students; it should promote the extension and exploration of the research opened up by this inquiry and other similar inquiries across the collegiate University. For instance, one of the key aspects of the research has been gaining a better understanding of the significance of South Sea instruments in collegiate Cambridge through the 18th century. This is work that has much broader implications for knowledge of those who benefited financially from the slave trade, and presents a number of avenues for expanded research programmes.
It is important that the scope of research is not limited to consideration of the Atlantic slave trade alone. This group strongly encourages the exploration of broader historical contexts, more recent histories and contemporary case studies in order to explore the links between the past and present. In this context, the University (in particular the History Faculty and Selwyn College) has been working closely with Professor David Dabydeen and the Ameena Gafoor Institute to secure funding for research into Indentureship and its legacies. A launch event was held at the House of Lords in October 2021, which led to coverage of the initiative in Asian Voice. There are plans for a visiting scholars programme to enable researchers to use Cambridge’s archive materials on indentureship. This offers a potential model for the kind of sustained and sustainable financing for such a programme of visiting researchers from appropriate institutions in the Global South, which would be necessary to render our vision of the centre a reality.
Together with research projects, such a centre would also undertake a major programme of public-facing events, workshops, conferences, and artistic initiatives. As we noted in our initial report, events should be supported with two objectives. First, to provide spaces and opportunities for students and staff to explore, challenge, and debate courses of action that can follow from the inquiry. Second, to provide a means by which people from communities from beyond the University that have been damaged by enslavement and its legacies can have their voices heard within the University setting. Such events have already been launched at Cambridge, including the 'Slavery and its Afterlives' seminar series, and plans are underway for an international conference on reparations and enslavement. Our museums have also made significant headway in this direction. In 2022-24, the University of Cambridge’s Museums consortium (UCM) will facilitate conversations around the legacies of empire and enslavement through an interdisciplinary public programme. This will include a landmark exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2023 on the links between Cambridge, Cambridgeshire and Atlantic slavery. The exhibition will explore the ways racist ideology was, and continues to be, reinforced and challenged by works of art and other visual and material culture. The UCM programme draws on a long-term commitment to researching and sharing the complex histories of the University’s collections, including its museums, libraries and archives, relationship-building with communities both in Cambridgeshire and around the world, and widening audience access, engagement and participation. The work is guided by an Advisory Group of critical friends and an ambitious programme of audience research and community consultation.
5.3 — Theme 2: Engagement with Black British communities
As has been documented in this report and elsewhere, the legacies of enslavement are woven into the fabric of Cambridge not only financially and intellectually, but also institutionally through structures that have excluded Black British communities from access and inclusion in the University, whether as students, academic staff, or the broader community of stakeholders. As sociology student Maya McFarlane’s Bridgetower Prize-winning essay declares: 'It could be a 90% Black student population for all I care but if those Black students don’t feel like they can be themselves and are having to re-package their Blackness in a way that is palatable to the institution then no change has really been achieved at all. And it’s a tough pill to swallow. I think we all want to say that we’ve made loads of progress, and we have, but it’s so important to keep looking forward to what we can do now.' Therefore, the Advisory Group recommends a series of initiatives that aim to transform Cambridge’s institutional framework. First, we support the extension of existing University initiatives committed towards racial justice, inclusion and equality, including the Race Equality Champions, the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, the staff Race Equality Network, and the UCU’s Anti-Racism/BME Staff Working Group that seek to increase recruitment of more diverse academic staff. A focus on the recruitment of more Black staff at senior levels should be a priority. Second, we recommend a major new programme of studentships for Black British students at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels; this can build upon the success of the Stormzy Scholarships and growing College bursary schemes. Third, we recommend expanded funding and support for ongoing efforts at Cambridge committed to making the University a nurturing and inclusive environment for all students. Existing endeavours such as the Black Advisory Hub, the African Caribbean Society, the African Society, the BME Campaign, and the End Everyday Racism Project should should play a key part in the process alongside other University and College initiatives. Finally, research and education programmes at Cambridge should be built together with Black British students, staff and communities that speak to the ongoing legacies of enslavement and racism; a crucial existing initiative in this direction is the Black Cantabs Research Society.
5.4 — Theme 3: University partnerships
Cambridge should commit significant and continuing resources towards building equitable, collaborative, and sustained partnerships with universities in regions affected by slavery and the slave trade, in particular in West Africa and the Caribbean, with a guiding commitment to education and knowledge justice. These partnerships will develop research agendas, higher education programmes, and institutional initiatives designed to address the continuing legacies of slavery and the slave trade on a transnational scale. These partnerships should mobilise disciplines across the full range at Cambridge and should be guided by the extensive and ongoing work towards broadening and enriching the curriculum and in research across the University and in higher education globally. It is important, however, that such support is designed and developed in conversation with universities in those areas. In this context, discussions are currently underway with a donor for a major programme of MPhil scholarships for African students, with a particular focus on sustainability, which will involve a significant component of support and mentoring for career development.
Cambridge can build upon its already extensive relations with universities across Africa and the Caribbean, developing new research and education collaborations, and ensuring that the partnerships that exist are sustainable, equitable and just. For instance, the Advisory Group heard from Sir Hilary Beckles about the relationship between enslavement on sugar plantations, diet and the prevalence of diabetes in Afro-Caribbean communities, demonstrating the importance of inter-university, interdisciplinary initiatives linking scientific and medical research with the legacies of enslavement.
Amongst other initiatives already underway the University’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, in collaboration with Jesus College, has established an Early Career Research Fellowship in Archaeology aimed at those from Black heritage backgrounds. These five one-year postdoctoral fellowships will provide the successful candidates with training, mentorship and support to drive their careers forward and to support a more diverse pipeline of future talent.
Student exchanges should also be part of this long-term relation building, and the announcement of an extensive scholarship programme for African students to pursue MPhil degrees at Cambridge and for students from small island nations within the Commonwealth can be an important step in this direction.
5.5 — Theme 4: Memorialisation
The Advisory Group believes that it would be appropriate for the University to create a memorial to the victims of slavery and the slave trade whilst also celebrating pan-Africanist culture and thinking. One view explored was that Cambridge should take a lead in pressing for a national memorial on a scale commensurate with the human misery caused by the slave trade, raising the profile of the harm done in the way that Holocaust memorialisation has been so successful. A parallel for this is perhaps provided by the way that the University helped mark the contribution of US service personnel to the UK in 1939–45 with the provision of land for the Cambridge American Cemetery and memorial at Madingley.
In discussing memorialisation, the Advisory Group also considered a range of other options, and noted comparable issues have previously been considered in relation to the naming of University buildings and the streets in Eddington. It is important that in future, careful consideration is given in the naming of buildings and public places in the University to ensure that those communities affected by the legacies of enslavement are given prominence.
For the present, and having debated issues over the 19th century statue of Tobias Rustat on the eastern elevation of the gatehouse of the Old Schools, overlooking the main administrative centre of the University, we believe it would be appropriate to commission a Black artist to create a work of art to confront and contextualise it. A prominent work of art of high quality here would make a fitting memorial whilst enhancing the artistic environment of the University.
Memorialisation also requires re-thinking and reforming the way that enslavement and colonialism are represented at Cambridge. This has particular relevance for the University of Cambridge Museums and other collections. The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) has been in a long-term discussion with Nigerian representatives and European partners, through the Benin Dialogue Group about the future of the Benin Bronzes in museum collections. The conversation has moved from temporary returns via loans to permanent return to new facilities in Benin City, including the proposed Edo Museum of West African Arts. In 2019 MAA and the University of Cambridge Museums adopted a new framework for the return of artefacts, explicitly referencing artefacts ‘appropriated in the aftermath of violence, for example in the context of a colonial intrusion or war’. In 2021 MAA and the University expressed the expectation that artefacts looted during the Benin expedition of 1897 would be returned should a claim be made. A proposal to return 116 of these artefacts was approved by MAA’s Museum Committee in March 2022 and will be considered by the University’s Council. (In this wider context the Cambridge Archaeological Unit has worked with the British Museum and Legacy Restoration Trust to also undertake some of the archaeological work on the site of the planned Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City).
The University Library has repurposed income from its Rustat Fund from the financial year 2020–21 on, for the purchase of library resources that contribute to understanding of the history and legacies of enslavement and the Africa diaspora. The historical uses of the fund should be the subject of further detailed research, although it is noted that this is likely to be complex. In addition, the background to the fund will be clearly set out when collection items historically purchased by it are placed on exhibition or published online or in print.
6 — Next steps
As noted above, the COVID-19 pandemic has curtailed some of the broader debate that the Advisory Group originally planned, and we are aware that our recommendations demand further discussion within the collegiate University. To put this into context, we would draw a parallel between our report and that of a parliamentary select committee – we have gathered evidence and made recommendations to the Vice-Chancellor. We understand that he will publish our report alongside his response. There should then follow discussion at all levels within the collegiate University with proposals for action presented through the governance system of the University. The Advisory Group is keen to see its report debated but is concerned that this does not delay action. To this end, we recommend that a small group is established to refine our recommendations in the light of wider discussion and then oversee its implementation to an agreed timetable.
Terms of reference for the Advisory Group on the Legacies of Enslavement
The Advisory Group was created at the request of the Vice-Chancellor in light of the growing public interest in the issue of British universities’ historical links to the slave trade. The Advisory Group is not a decision-making body but is constituted to advise the Vice-Chancellor on how the University might acknowledge and respond to the historical links between the University and the slave trade.
The Advisory Group, which will report its findings to the Vice-Chancellor, is chaired by Professor Martin Millett. Membership of the Advisory Group is listed on its website, but may be amended to accommodate members’ availability and specific expertise requirements. The Advisory Group will, if required, consult others including external specialists.
The Advisory Group will commission and direct research into the University of Cambridge’s involvement in, or links to, the Atlantic slave trade and other historical forms of coerced labour, including indentured labour.
The commissioned research will include, but is not limited to, instances in which the University may have gained financially and otherwise from the slave trade or other historical forms of coerced labour connected to colonialism. This extends to the acquisition of artefacts and collections currently in University’s libraries, museums and other collections.
One strand of the commissioned research will specifically address the University’s contribution to scholarship that may have supported the validation and dissemination of racialised forms of knowledge. The commissioned research may consider the abolitionist movement in that context.
Pending a formal application (including costings), the commissioned research will be underwritten, in the first instance, by the Vice-Chancellor’s Endowment Fund.
The Advisory Group recognises that the issues arising from the University’s historical links to the slave trade or other historical forms of coerced labour connected to colonialism, and from their contemporary legacies, are of relevance to the collegiate University as a whole.
The Advisory Group will produce an interim paper setting out its objectives early in 2020. It will aim to report back to the Vice-Chancellor by the end of Easter Term, 2022.
Alongside its findings on historical University links to the slave trade, the Advisory Group will recommend appropriate ways for the University to publicly acknowledge such historical links, and their intergenerational impact – including their effect on university access, knowledge production, levels of attainment and retention.
- Poor health outcomes:
Poor educational outcomes:
www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/articles/ethnicitypaygapsingreatbritain/2018Back to content ↵
- See Eric Williams, Capitalism & Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994 ); Joseph E Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England: A Study in International Trade and Economic Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022); Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism (London: Penguin Books, 2015); Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013); Peter Temin and Hans-Joachim Voth, Prometheus Shackled: Goldsmith Banks and England’s Financial Revolution after 1700 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Christopher Leslie Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Padraic X Scanlan, Slave Empire: How Slavery Made Modern Britain (London: Robinson, 2020); Michael Taylor, The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery (London: Bodley Head, 2020); Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, eds., Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); William A Pettigrew, Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Alan Gallay, The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670 - 1717 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002); Simon P Newman, A New World of Labor: The Development of Plantation Slavery in the British Atlantic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Julie M Flavell, When London Was the Capital of America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011); and Wendy Warren, New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2017). Back to content ↵
- See Jeremy Kutner, “Yale’s slavery link remains touchy,” Yale News, 9 April 2004; Anthony Bogues et al, eds., Brown University’s Slavery and Justice Report with Commentary on Context and Impact (Providence, RI: Brown University, 2021); David Collins et al, eds., Report of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation to the President of Georgetown University (Washington, DC: Georgetown University, 2016); Office of the President, “Reexamining the history of our founder,” Johns Hopkins University, <https://president.jhu.edu/meet-president-daniels/speeches-articles-and-media/reexamining-the-history-of-our-founder/>, accessed 23 May 2022; James Zug, “The Slaves of Dartmouth,” Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, January/February 2007; Marcus L Martin et al, eds., President’s Commission on Slavery and the University: Report to President Teresa A. Sullivan (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2018); Jody Allen et al, eds., The Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation: Report of the First Eight Years (Williamsburg, VA: College of William and Mary, 2019); Eric Foner, “Columbia and Slavery: A Preliminary Report,” Columbia University & Slavery, <https://columbiaandslavery.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/content/Spreadsheets/PreliminaryReport.pdf> accessed 23 May 2022; Martha A Sandweiss and Craig Hollander, “Princeton and Slavery: Holding the Center,” The Princeton & Slavery Project, <https://slavery.princeton.edu/stories/princeton-and-slavery-holding-the-center>, accessed 23 May 2022; Tomiko Brown-Nagin et al, eds., Harvard & The Legacy of Slavery (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2022); Susan Ballinger et al, “Introduction,” Slavery and the Making of the University, <https://exhibits.lib.unc.edu/exhibits/show/slavery/introduction>, accessed 23 May 2022. Back to content ↵
- For slavery, reparations, and the American university, see Wilder, Ebony and Ivy; Leslie M Harris, James T Campbell, and Alfred L Brophy, eds., Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019); Ana Lucia Araujo, ed., Politics of Memory: Making Slavery Visible in the Public Space (New York: Routledge, 2012); Lindsey K Walters, “Slavery and the American university: discourses of retrospective justice at Harvard and Brown,” Slavery & Abolition 38, no. 4 (2017), pp. 719-744; Alfred L Brophy, “The University and Its Slaves: Apology and Its Meaning,” in Mark Gibney et al. ed., The Age of Apology: Facing Up to the Past (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); Alfred L Brophy, University, Court, and Slave: Pro-slavery Thought in Southern Courts and Colleges and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); John Torpey, Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006); Mary Frances Berry, My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-slave Reparations (New York: Knopf, 2005); and Boris I Bittker, The Case for Black Reparations (New York: Random House, 1973); and Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jenifer Frank, Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005). For Indigenous land acquisitions and the founding of universities in the United States, see in particular the ground-breaking work of Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone, “Land-Grab Universities,” High Country News 52, no. 4 (April 2020), pp. 32-45; and idem., “Looking Forward from Land-Grab Universities,” Native American and Indigenous Studies Journal 8, no. 1 (Spring 2021), pp. 176-182. Back to content ↵
- Stephen Mullen and Simon Newman, Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow: Report and Recommendations of University of Glasgow History of Slavery Steering Committee (Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2018), p. 6 (‘133’) and 14 (‘bequests’). For the legacies of enslavement in Britain, see Catherine Hall, Nicholas Draper, and Keith McClelland, eds., Legacies of British Slave-ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016 ); Nicholas Draper, The Price of Emancipation: Slave-Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Jill Pellew and Lawrence, ed., Dethroning Historical Reputations: Universities, Museums and the Commemoration of Benefactors (London: Institute of Historical Research Press, 2018); Madge Dresser, ed., Slavery and the British Country House (Swindon: English Heritage, 2013); and Katie Donnington, Ryan Hanley, and Jessica Moody, Britain’s History and Memory of Transatlantic Slavery: Local Nuances of a “National Sin,” (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2021). Back to content ↵
- See “Legacies of Slavery Project,” Exeter College, University of Oxford, <www.exeter.ox.ac.uk/about/history/legacies-of-slavery-project/>, accessed 4 April 2022; “The Codrington Legacy,” All-Soul’s College, University of Oxford, <www.asc.ox.ac.uk/codrington-legacy>, accessed 5 April 2022; “St John’s and the Colonial Past,” St John’s College, University of Oxford, www.sjc.ox.ac.uk/discover/about-college/st-johns-and-colonial-past/, accessed 4 April 2022; Manhattan Murphy-Brown et al., “’The Bubble’: St Andrews, Fife, and Scottish links to Slavery,” St Andrews School of History, <https://standrewsschoolofhistory.wordpress.com/2020/10/27/the-bubble-st-andrews-fife-and-scottish-links-to-slavery/>, accessed 11 April 2022; Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery, www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/, accessed 7 April 2022; “Exploring how the legacy of the transatlantic slavery continues to impact Bristolians,” University of Bristol, <www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2021/may/we-are-bristol.html>, accessed 5 April 2022; and Lisa Rand, “University of Liverpool accepts slavery roots after new database of links revealed,” Liverpool Echo, <www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/university-liverpool-accepts-slavery-roots-18793590>, accessed 5 April 2022. For the Cambridge inquiries, see Véronique Mottier et al., “Jesus College Legacy of Slavery Working Party: Interim Report (July-October 2019),” <www.jesus.cam.ac.uk/sites/default/files/inline/files/legacy_slavery_working_party_interim_report_27_nov_2019%20%283%29.pdf>, accessed 4 April 2022; “King’s College Research into Slavery, Past and Present,” King’s College, University of Cambridge, <www.kings.cam.ac.uk/news/2019/kings-college-research-slavery-past-and-present>, accessed 11 April 2022; Harry Bartholomew, “Legacies of Enslavement at Queens’,” < https://queenslib.wordpress.com/2020/06/19/legacies-of-enslavement-at-queens/> accessed 11 April 2022; “Legacies of Slavery and Coerced Labour report,” Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge, <www.cai.cam.ac.uk/news/legacies-slavery-and-coerced-labour-report>, accessed 11 April 2022; and Jess Ma and Maia Wyn Davies, “Sixteen Colleges to cooperate with Legacies of Slavery Inquiry,” Varsity, <www.varsity.co.uk/news/17705>, accessed 11 April 2022, and “The Downing Family and Legacies of Enslavement” <www.dow.cam.ac.uk/sites/default/files/downing_family_and_legacies_of_enslavement.pdf>. Back to content ↵
- For histories of the University of Cambridge, see ES Leedham-Green, A Concise History of the University of Cambridge (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Victor Morgan and Christopher Brooke, A History of the University of Cambridge, Volume 2: 1546-1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); and Peter Searby, A History of the University of Cambridge, Volume III: 1750-1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); and RR Neild, The Financial History of Cambridge University, (London: Thames River Press, 2012). For abolition at Cambridge, see Brown, Moral Capital, pp. 194-195; John Gascoigne, Cambridge in the Age of the Enlightenment: Science, Religion, and Politics from the Restoration to the French Revolution (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 223-224; and Michael E Jirik, “Beyond Clarkson: Cambridge, Black Abolitionists, and the British Anti-Slave Trade Campaign,” Slavery & Abolition 41, no. 4 (March 2020), pp. 1-24. There have also been numerous histories of individual Colleges, each of which either do not discuss slavery at all or focus on abolition. See John Venn, ed., Biographical History of Gonville and Caius College, vol. 4 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912); Christopher Brooke, A History of Gonville and Caius College (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1996 ); Peter Linehan, ed., St John’s College, Cambridge: A History (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2011); Edmund H New and Robert Forsyth Scott, St John’s College, Cambridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); A Sarah Bendall, Christopher Brooke, and Patrick Collinson, A History of Emmanuel College, Cambridge (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1999); George Macaulay Trevelyan, Trinity College: An Historical Sketch (Cambridge: Trinity College, 1972); RR Neild, The Financial History of Trinity College, Cambridge (Cambridge: Granta Editions, 2008); WHS Jones, A History of St. Catharine’s College: Once Catharine Hall, Cambridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Aubrey Attwater and SC Roberts, Pembroke College Cambridge: a Short History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); John Twigg, A History of Queens’ College, Cambridge, 1448-1986 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1987); AH Lloyd, The Early History of Christ’s College, Cambridge: Derived from Contemporary Documents (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Stanley French, The History of Downing College, Cambridge (Cambridge: Downing College Association, 1978). Back to content ↵
- Sally-Anne Huxtable et al, Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery (Swindon, Wiltshire: National Trust, 2020), p. 5 (“care”); “National Gallery and Legacies of British Slave-ownership research project,” National Gallery, <www.nationalgallery.org.uk/research/research-partnerships/legacies-of-british-slave-ownership-research-project>, accessed 5 April 2022 (‘sixty-seven’); “Statement in relation to the Bank’s historical links to the slave trade,” Bank of England, <www.bankofengland.co.uk/news/2020/june/statement-in-relation-to-the-banks-historical-links-to-the-slave-trade>, accessed 6 April 2022 (“thorough review”); Charlotte Wace, “Prince William: ‘Slavery was a stain on our history,’” The Times, <www.thetimes.co.uk/article/jamaica-is-ready-to-move-on-royals-told-as-prince-william-addresses-slavery-in-speech-dv6sjh57d>, accessed 5 April 2022 (“stain”). Back to content ↵
- Slavery and Abolition: Collections Uncovered <www.joh.cam.ac.uk/slavery-and-abolition-collections-uncovered> Back to content ↵
- Sociology student’s essay wins the Bridgetower Prize <www.cam.ac.uk/stories/sociology-students-essay-wins-the-bridgetower-prize> Back to content ↵
- Climate action scholarships for small island nation students launched in partnership with HRH The Prince of Wales <www.cam.ac.uk/news/climate-action-scholarships-for-small-island-nation-students-launched-in-partnership-with-hrh-the> Back to content ↵