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Cambridge University to investigate its historical links with slavery


By Alex Spencer


Cambridge University has launched a two year investigation into how it may have benefited in the past from slavery.

The inquiry will explore how the institution may have gained from slavery and the exploitation of labour, through financial and other bequests to departments, libraries and museums.

Cambridge University and Colleges
Cambridge University and Colleges

The university’s advisory group will report back in 2021 and recommend ways for the university to ‘publoicaly acknowledge’ any links and address their impact.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen Toope said: “There is growing public and academic interest in the links between the older British universities and the slave trade, and it is only right that Cambridge should look into its own exposure to the profits of coerced labour during the colonial period.

“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.”

The official procession following Professor Stephen Toope appointed as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Professor Toope took over from Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz on 1 October 2017. Picture: Keith Heppell.
The official procession following Professor Stephen Toope appointed as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Professor Toope took over from Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz on 1 October 2017. Picture: Keith Heppell.

The Advisory Group, which was commissioned by Prof Toope, will also t will also investigate the extent to which scholarship at the University of Cambridge might have reinforced and validated race-based thinking between the 18th and early 20th Century.

David Lammy MP responded on Twitter: “I commend Cambridge University decision to examine its colonial past and slavery. To whom much is given much is expected.The wounds of that period still reverberate today. Contrition and atonement for of a grievous wrong is the only way to face the future.”

The inquiry will be conducted by two full-time post-doctoral researchers, based in the Centre of African Studies, part of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. The research will examine specific gifts, bequests and historical connections with the slave trade.

The final report is expected in autumn 2021. Alongside its findings on historical links to the slave trade, the report will recommend appropriate ways for the University to publicly acknowledge such links and their modern impact.

Professor Stephen Toope
Professor Stephen Toope

The Advisory Group will be chaired by Professor Martin Millett, the Laurence Professor of Classical Archaeology. He said: “It is reasonable to assume that, like many large British institutions during the colonial era, the University will have benefited directly or indirectly from, and contributed to, the practices of the time.

“The benefits may have been financial or through other gifts. But the panel is just as interested in the way scholars at the University helped shape public and political opinion, supporting, reinforcing and sometimes contesting racial attitudes which are repugnant in the 21st Century.”

Last year Glasgow University announced a programme of “reparative justice” after a year-long study discovered that the university benefited from the equivalent of tens of millions of pounds donated from the profits of slavery.

As a result of the study, the university will also create a centre for the study of slavery and will add a memorial at the university in the name of the enslaved.



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