Some of the Cambridge colleges that helped give birth to Britain's anti-slavery movement will host an array of distinguished speakers this weekend as part of ongoing celebrations to mark the anniversary of slavery's abolition

Among those giving presentations will be Professor Ruth Simmons, the first African-American woman to head an Ivy League University in the United States, and Mark Malloch-Brown, the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Their visits form part of a series of events to mark both the 200th anniversary of abolition in 1807, and the University's special connections with the anti-slavery movement.

In the late 18th century Cambridge was home to an influential group of academics, businesspeople, traders and policy-makers, who worked to end the slave trade.

As early as 1784, The University's Vice Chancellor, Peter Peckard, also Master of Magdalene College, was speaking out against the lucrative Atlantic slave trade and set an essay competition with the question “Who has the right to enslave someone against their will”? The winner of that competition, an undergraduate at St John's College called Thomas Clarkson, then spent seven years lecturing all over the country to fuel public indignation against the slave trade.

Peckard also went on to help Olaudah Equiano, a West African freed from slavery in Nigeria, publish his autobiography in 1789. The book became a major influence behind the abolition movement and made Equiano, who settled in the Cambridge area, one of its leading figures.

Both St John's and Magdalene Colleges will be hosting some of the weekend's key events. On Friday (February 16th), Professor Ruth Simmons, who, as well as President of Brown University in the US is also herself a direct descendant of American slaves, will speak on “Slavery and Justice in Rhode Island”. Professor Simmons convened Brown's first ever report to question its past ties to the slave trade and received widespread praise for leading the University's tough, scholarly investigation into a past many would rather have forgotten.

Another highlight of the programme will be an academic conference at Magdalene College on February 16th, entitled “Slavery Past and Present”. Mark Malloch-Brown, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations and Sir Richard Jolly, former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, will be among the speakers.

Also on Friday, Magdalene will also host a performance of “Inkle and Yarico” – an anti-slavery comic opera that was staged more than 150 times at Covent Garden in the late 18th century, making it one of the most popular theatrical works of its time. Saturday (February 17th) will see a student conference at St John's entitled “Campaigning: Then and Now”, featuring presentations from Anti-Slavery International and a number of other activist groups.

Dr Derek Peterson, Director of the Centre of African Studies, which is co-ordinating the celebrations, said: “Cambridge's celebration of the bicentenary of the Act of Abolition aims to raise the public's awareness of this region's history of radical political activism. It also aims to illuminate contemporary social and economic inequalities, in order to call a new generation of activists to duty.”

Further talks, musical celebrations and other events will take place during the rest of February and March. The Centre of African Studies is hosting a series of lectures to illuminate the historical and economic context of the abolition itself, while a series of museum exhibitions will offer members of the community the chance to see first-hand objects and artistic works associated with the abolitionists.

Cambridge's churches will take an active hand in the celebration of the Act of Abolition. Many are holding musical services; while on February 18th there will be a gospel mass in St John's College Chapel featuring a performance from the college choir and the London Adventist Chorale, led by leading gospel composer Ken Burton. Christ's College Chapel is hosting a series of evening musical services featuring speakers addressing the theme.

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