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Brutal questioning puts Jesus College’s Rustat petition on back foot



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An astonishing tour de force of legal manoeuvring on day one of the Tobias Rustat memorial hearing in Jesus College Chapel saw the opposition team’s lead, Mr Justice Gau, pull apart the case for the removal of the monument from the chapel.

The Tobias Rustat memorial
The Tobias Rustat memorial

If anyone thought the faculty petition espousing the case for the relocation of the memorial commemorating their 17th century College benefactor would be a shoo-in, they were in for a rude awakening. Using the considerable repertoire of legal skills at his disposal, the cross-examination of witnesses on the first day of the consistory court sitting was brutally incisive, even to the point of positing that if Christianity portrays violence in every church in the land via the fate of Jesus, why should the violence and brutality of the slave trade not also be acknowledged?

The ferocity of the questioning also included what amounted to a suggestion of hypocrisy – that if the Rustat memorial is taken down, how come the University of Cambridge is so happy to accept money from China, which is busy enslaving the Uyghurs?

The process began at 10.17am when the court usher said: “All rise.” The four judges took their place at a table facing the witness stand, behind which was the memorial itself. Incidentally the monument is far larger than you might expect – the white marble looks as if it weighs a tonne, and it must be seven feet tall and three feet wide. It dominates the west wall, is higher than the cross at the other end of the chapel, which was there for 350 years before the College came along. Taking it down would probably require a crane. The judges – Mr Howard Dellar, Mrs Susan Black Ely and Mr Stephen Borton, were led by the deputy chancellor, His Honour Judge David Hodge QC.

To their left were the team resisting the petition, lead by Mr Justice Gau, with a team including Professor Lawrence Goldman, emeritus fellow in history at the University of Oxford.

To the right of the judges were the petitioning team, led by Mark Hill QC, whose opening remarks asserted that the hearing was “nothing to do with cancelling, erasing, or somehow nullifying the name of Rustat”. Other reminders of Rustat – a stone with a Rustat inscription, the glass window with his coat of arms in the dining hall, and another tribute in the cloisters – would, said Mr Hill, remain in situ.

“The issue is a simple one – should the memorial proudly sitting on the west wall remain or be moved to East House?” he said.

Jesus College Chapel. Picture: Keith Heppell
Jesus College Chapel. Picture: Keith Heppell

Initial exchanges referred to presentational matters concerning amendments to the petition, which Mr Gau suggested were confusing.

“It is not, perhaps, worded in the most profitable way,” he said dryly of the final version, just one of the documents in a file containing 1,329 pages seen by the court, though not available to the five media representatives sitting behind the defence team.

“We batted first as it were,” responded Mr Hill.

At 10.45am the first witness, Reverend James Crockford, dean of chapel, took the oath. Within a couple of minutes Mr Gau asked Rev Crockford about the various options which had last year been conceived for the monument’s new home – the wine cellar. (The inference was clear – the college had considered disrespecting Rustat to the point of moving his memorial to a singularly ill-suited location.)

“There was certainly no mention of a wine cellar at that stage,” replied Rev Crockford.

“The feedback we had encouraged us to look for a permanent solution, not a temporary one,” he added of the initial discussion into moving the memorial. By the end of the year, he added, the wine cellar suggestion “would not be the petition we would submit”.

Mr Gau replied: “This was not the petition you thought it would be because the wine cellar was attracting, shall we say, adverse publicity? It was perhaps making the college a bit of a laughing stock?”

“I wouldn’t say so,” replied Rev Crockford levelly.

The purpose of this line of questioning was unsettling because tacked on to it was surely another motive – the suggestion, which became a theme if not an obsession of Mr Gau’s, that the college hadn’t thought through its case. From the college’s point of view, of course, it had set up the Legacy of Slavery Working Party (LWSP) in 2019 precisely to discuss and assess the options. But ridicule can have an unsettling effect.

The cross-examination moved on. Undergraduates at Jesus College had sent emails saying that the Rustat memorial left some “disturbed and upset at being faced with it”.

Mr Gau: “Do you know what information is given to students about Rustat?”

Rev Crockford: “It centred on two facts, firstly that Rustat was a significant benefactor, second that he held a significant position in the Royal African Company and the African Adventurers [the company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading into Africa was created in 1663 and lost its charter in the 1720s]. Principally they were given information through reports of legacy and slavery practices.”

Mr Gau: “So students you spoke to and who emailed has read the LSWP interim report?”

Rev Crockford: “I can’t vouch for everyone but I imagine that is the case.”

Mr Gau referred to further emails “on page 1,228/1,229, from members of the college dated 20th January 2021”. One email read: “I’m an undergraduate at Jesus College. I believe the memorial celebrates Rustat, a dedicated slave trader, an goes against everything the college stands for.”

“But there is no evidence that Rustat was any sort of slave trader?” asked Mr Gau.

“Not perhaps in the narrow definition of ‘slave trader’,” Rev Crockford replied.

The memorial dedicated to Tobias Rustat on the west wall is very substantial. Picture: Keith Heppell
The memorial dedicated to Tobias Rustat on the west wall is very substantial. Picture: Keith Heppell

Mr Gau said: “It adds that the college ‘is tarnished by the memorial and by violent white supremacy’, and the writer is ‘concerned by the efforts of external white supremacists’... It looks like the people who oppose this are white supremacists?”

“Not necessarily,” replies Rev Crockford.

“And that’s a serious answer is it?”

Receiving no reply, Mr Gau continued: “Is the college view that parties opposing this are white supremacists or racists?”

“Absolutely not,” replied Rev Crockford.

Mr Gau went on to assert that repeated use of certain phrases were being used in some of these emails (as in, perhaps they were coached). One read: ‘It’s totally wrong for someone who holds the values of slavery to be glorified in our community’. Another says: ‘It is totally wrong for someone involved in the horrific crimes of slavery to be glorified in our community.’

“Is it true that time after time after time, undergraduates are writing the same sentence – accusing Rustat of ‘horrific crimes’ being ‘glorified’?” asked Mr Gau. “Where did that come from?”

“That I don’t know,” replied Rev Crockford, adding: “It is the confirmed view of expert witnesses that Rustat held significant positions in the Royal African Company: I do not find it unusual that undergraduates would find it horrific.”

“Every single email?” Mr Gau said.

“‘Every single email’ is not correct,” Rev Crockford said.

“Do you want me to read every email?”

“No.”

Mr Gau went on to raise concerns about the failure of the petitioners to “deal with his life as a whole” and followed that up with a memorable exchange about the Christian faith.

“Is it possible that people might come to chapel who are unchurched?” he asked.

“I would hope so,” replied Rev Crockford.

“So when they see a dead man who has been tortured, would they not see that as repellent?”

“They usually know something of the story,” replied Rev Crockford, perhaps alluding to the fact that violence happened to Jesus, rather than his meting it out to others.

“But a dead man who has been tortured in a repellent way?”

“Yes.”

“So they would put that into context? Where Simeon says to Mary that ‘a spear will pierce your soul’, would you exclude that from a reading in church?”

“No.”

“Would you put it into context?”

“If necessary, yes.”

“But the rationale here is to remove him [Rustat] and put him into another building. Why cannot Rustat’s life be put into context in this building?”

“As guidance on contested cases shows, each case must be taken on its own. Every time the undergraduates exit or enter they must come into contact with this memorial and I don’t think it is fair to ask that.”

Tobias Rustat
Tobias Rustat

Professor Goldman then took up the cudgel. He wanted the 18 years of faithful service and loyalty to the king (Charles II) to be taken into account.

“In your submission you write about the Judeo-Christian tradition, which focuses on sin,” he remarks.

“It considers sin,” replies Rev Crockford. “I wouldn’t say that sin was central.”

“But the Lord’s Prayer says: ‘Forgive us our trespasses’. The question is where is the sin, and where is the forgiveness?”

“When you forgive someone you don’t necessarily put a monument up to them.”

The dean stepped down at 12.30 after almost two hours of questioning: it was commendable performance under questioning that was at times, wilfully mischievous. Any suggestion that this was some sort of ancient ritualised cosplay was by now long gone.

It was more of the same for the next witness, Amatey Doku, an alumnus of Jesus College. When Mr Gau returned to the issue of the emails and the petition, Mr Doku said: “If they had concerns about the full picture, they were grown-up enough to be able to not sign it.”

When Prof Goldman suggested “the physicality, the lettering of the stone”, was itself educative, Mr Doku replied: “There are lots of different ways to educated and that job can be better done when it’s not inhibiting the work of the chapel.”

The Right Reverend Stephen Conway, the Bishop of Ely, was the first to take the stand after lunch.

Bishop Stephen was concerned to clarify that his role as the visitor – “an ancient role connected to the foundation of the college” – is “only concerned about this memorial and how it should be displayed in this place”.

Bishop Stephen said he was supporting the petition because keeping the memorial on the west wall “is not the desire of this college, and there is a desire for it to be displayed in a non-ecclesiastical setting”.

“Was he a good man?” asked Mr Gau of the 17th century benefactor.

“I have nothing to say about him as a character, it’s now up to the mercy of God,” Bishop Stephen said. “This is about the memorial not the man behind it.”

Of the optics, he pointed out to the court that “here we have a memorial raised up higher than the Cross of Jesus and that’s already a lot of symbolism.”

He added: “I don’t think its current position is necessary but my concern is the life of students and teachers in the life of the college and I don’t think that takes precedence to what happens to the memorial.”

Mr Gau said there are hundreds of other memorials to people connected to the slave trade in churches – should they all be removed?

He added: “There may well be memorials in a range of guises which we find reprehensible and it is for us, as an ethically diverse nation, to open up places like this. It’s an obligation to see this as others might, and we have to address as a nation what we believe to be true and Rustat is one example of where that question sharply arises.”

It was a rare occasion when the wider issues around this case were addressed – a tribute, perhaps, to the briefs for keeping the exact mechanisms of how the slave trade flourished out of view.

Dr Veronique Mottier
Dr Veronique Mottier

Next up was Dr Veronique Mottier, fellow of Jesus College and chair of the LSWP. Mr Gau wanted to know if she accepted that the LSWP’s remit “stretches away from the 17th century right up to the current time”.

“I’m interested not just in transatlantic slavery but in the effect of transatlantic slavery on the present day.”

“Has the college benefitted from contemporary slavery?” queried Mr Gau. “You’ve seen the document shared with you about China.”

“I’m chair of the LWSP,” Dr Mottier replied.

Mr Gau: “Do you think that China is a nation that enjoys slavery?”

Dr Mottier: “I’m not an expert on that subject.”

“But you must have an opinion as a human being?”

At this point judge David Hodge interrupted, saying he was “anxious regarding matters which do not matter to the court”, but Mr Gau continued anyway. Addressing Dr Mottier, he said: “You perhaps saw the report of China being involved in genocide. How much money has the college been receiving from China?”

“You may want to ask the college about that,” replied Dr Mottier.

“I will,” replied Mr Gau, before moving on to suggest that “it looks like you move the tablet but you keep the money”. He asked whether it would be best to “send the money back”, accused the college of presenting “an unfinished process” and asked one more question.

“Why come here with the superficial question of the memorial, but avoid substantive issues of what to do with money from slave traders?”

“You are reprioritising the terms of the enquiry,” Dr Mottier replied. “There are all sorts of practical actions beyond Rustat, and indeed removing the Rustat memorial would be a substantive act. As I explained, it is an institutional change, it takes time.”

The hearing continues until Friday. The judgement could be given immediately following the closing speeches, otherwise it will be presented within one month of the end of the sitting.



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