Posted on April 30, 2019

Cambridge University Launches Inquiry into Slave Trade Links and Historic Racism

Camilla Turner, Telegraph, April 30, 2019

Cambridge University could issue an apology for historic racism after its vice-Chancellor launched an inquiry into how the 800-year-old institution benefited from the slave trade.

Researchers have been commissioned to pour over the university’s archives to how much it gained from the “Atlantic slave trade and other forms of coerced labour during the colonial era”.

The two-year inquiry will examine whether financial bequests made to departments, libraries and museums were made possible from the profits of slavery.

It will also probe how far Cambridge academics “reinforced and validated race-based thinking between the 18th and early 20th Century”.

It comes after the Rhodes Must Fall movement in 2015 saw students demand the removal of a statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College.

The following year, Jesus College at Cambridge took down a bronze cockerel statue which had been looted during a British colonial expedition to Nigeria in the 19th century, after students asked for it to be repatriated.

Other universities have also sought to renounce their imperial pasts in recent years. In 2016, Queen Mary University of London quietly removed a foundation stone laid by King Leopold II amid student complaints that he was a “genocidal colonialist”.

Harvard Law School replaced its official crest, because of its links to an 18th-century slave owner, following five months of demonstrations and sit-ins by students.

Gill Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at Cambridge University, said that launching an inquiry is a “backhanded” approach and risks “messing with history”.

She said that given the current “climate of anti-colonialism”, examining historic links with colonialism is “one of the things every university now feels they have to do”.

Prof Evans told The Telegraph: “When you look at the actual history is not what it seems. Given the norms of the day, what they thought they were doing is not what it looks like.

“Before you start taking blame the first task is to understand the period, look at what the people who acted at the time actually thought they were doing. Culpability isn’t transferrable from age to age without some nuancing”.

An advisory group of eight academics, who have been appointed to lead the inquiry, will recommend “appropriate ways to publicly acknowledge” historic links to slavery which could include a making some form of statement or apology.

The review will focus on the central University’s links to slavery, but it is likely that individual Colleges will follow suit and conduct their own research.

Professor Toope, Cambridge’s vice-Chancellor, said he set up the inquiry following the “growing public and academic interest in the links between the older British universities and the slave trade”.

He said it is “only right” that Cambridge should look into “its own exposure to the profits of coerced labour during the colonial period”.

Prof Toope, who is Canadian and took up the role as vice-Chancellor in 2017, added: “We cannot change the past, but nor should we seek to hide from it.

“I hope this process will help the University understand and acknowledge its role during that dark phase of human history.”