Cambridge University sets up £1.5m fund following new slavery admissions
The University of Cambridge has admitted it accrued benefits from its involvement in the slave trade and has created a Cambridge Legacies of Enslavement Fund as it bids “to make the Cambridge of tomorrow more self-reflective, more equitable and more open to all talent”.
The new fund – and the admission that Cambridge, ranked eighth among global universities, is still not as open as it would like – has been unveiled with £1.5m of seed funding and an agenda “to seek further funding from philanthropic and collegiate sources”. The funds will be used for “research, community engagement and partnership activities”.
The investigation was carried out by the Legacies of Enslavement Advisory Group, whose inquiry into Cambridge University’s historical links with the slave trade concluded that the institution received “significant benefits” from slavery. The group was appointed in 2019 by outgoing vice-chancellor Professor Stephen J Toope.
Their findings, made available in an extensive digest ahead of full publication in 2023, found that the university and its colleges benefited from companies and individuals that participated in the slavery trade, and accepted fees derived from the families of plantations.
The slave trade and imperialism generally were more successful than any other empire or country before and, perhaps, since. Twelve million Africans were forcibly taken from their homes and families and shipped to the US before the Slavery Abolition Act was passed by Parliament in 1833 (in the US the 13th Amendment was added to the constitution in 1865).
In Cambridge, the history of involvement with this massive enterprise started in 1599, when Fellows of Cambridge Colleges helped set up the East India Company, which was soon active in the trade in Malagasy enslaved persons. Names of Cambridge academics are also present on the East India Company’s founding documents, the charter of which mentions chattel slavery, and which transported enslaved Africans from Mozambique and Madagascar.
The 17th century investments by Tobias Rustat – including financial assistance setting up the University Library and donations to Jesus College – were revealed earlier this year when the College tried unsuccessfully to have the memorial to the slavery investor removed from Jesus College Chapel.
From the 1660s, the parents of Cambridge students and influential College benefactors were among those who led and invested in the Royal African Company, which took a key role in the Atlantic slave trade between 1660 and 1731.
Likewise the Virginia Company of London, a slave-trading organisation chartered in 1606. 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 Jr of South Carolina – were enslavers. The family of Arthur Middleton of Trinity Hall owned more than a dozen Carolina plantations and more than 3,500 enslaved persons over many generations. Thomas Lynch Jr, who studied at Gonville & Caius, also owned at least seven South Carolina plantations.
A similar pattern can be identified, say the authors of the digest, with the South Sea Company (1711-1853) in the early 18th century. In terms of investment, Cambridge’s most significant and direct financial involvement in Atlantic slavery was with the South Sea Company. (Bear in mind that the University itself was a comparatively small institution, with the bulk of activity and resources held by the individual Colleges.) Cambridge Colleges including 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.
The South Sea Company’s engagement in the slave trade started 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, and during this period made substantial financial gains. Furthermore, the restructuring of the South Sea Company’s debt after the crash 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. Equally, since investment in South Sea stock was often undertaken in the pursuit of capital building projects, buildings like the Gibbs Building at King’s College are also “substantially a product of it”.
Cambridge Colleges educated the heirs of many involved in the trade in and ownership of enslaved people. Some Colleges appeared to encourage the admission of these wealthy individuals.
From the mid-17th to the 19th century the Colleges earned significant amounts of money from these students in fees, representing a long-lasting institutional exposure to wealth derived from slavery.
Prof Toope says: “It is not in our gift to right historic wrongs, but we can begin by acknowledging them. Having unearthed our university’s links to an appalling history of abuse, the report encourages us to work even harder to address current inequalities – particularly those related to the experiences of Black communities.”
Professor Toope adds that the report has helped the university better appreciate the nature of its links with the slave trade.
“A university as long-established as Cambridge would inevitably have benefited from what was, until the 19th century, a widely accepted system of exploitation,” he said.
“This report helps us better appreciate the nature of those links. It also offers a glimpse into some of the ways in which, as a provider of education, the university played a role in promoting some of the ideas that underpinned the practice of enslavement.”
Along with the digest is a series of recommendations, which the University of Cambridge has committed to implementing.
These include setting up a dedicated slavery research centre, enhancing existing academic links with universities in the Caribbean and West Africa, increasing the number of postgraduate scholarships and bursaries for black British students and students from Africa and the Caribbean, and commissioning a piece of art for the university estate commemorating the achievements of black academics in the university.
The university acknowledges that Black academic and professional services staff are “poorly represented across the university, particularly at senior levels”. Further steps will be taken “to support the professional advancement of Black members of staff”.
Funding will be made available to enhance research partnerships in West Africa and the Caribbean, building on existing ties with universities in both regions. Full details will be worked out in consultation with the partner universities involved.
The University of Cambridge is not the only university to address the issue of historic involvement in slavery. In 2019, Glasgow University announced that it is to pay £20m in reparations to atone for its historical links to the transatlantic slave trade. Last year Glasgow University concluded it had benefited financially from Scottish slave traders in the 18th and 19th centuries by between £16.7m and £198m in today’s money. This year a Glasgow city council report concluded that slavery had tentacles in every corner of the city.
A spokesperson for Stand Up To Racism Cambridge said: “We welcome the setting up of the Cambridge Legacies of Enslavement Fund, and the commissioning of a public work work of art by a black artist memorialising Black Cambridge scholars.
“However the initiative runs somewhat counter to the lack of support given to Black scholars active in Cambridge today. Sonita Alleyne, for example, the Master of Jesus College, has campaigned to get the plaque honouring slaver Tobias Rustat removed from the Jesus College Chapel. The plaque has not been moved. We fear that this initiative will just be a bland public relations exercise. If Stephen Toope, vice-chanellor of Cambridge University, is serious about ‘addressing current inequalities’, he should encourage the use of the University’s vast wealth and follow Glasgow’s University bold, historic move, and donate £20m or more in slave trade reparations.”