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Consistory court convenes to decide fate of Rustat memorial in Jesus College Chapel

The painstaking effort to resolve the future of the Rustat memorial in Jesus College Chapel, which will culminate in a hearing starting at 10am today, has been given cautious approval by the Cambridge branch of the Stand Up To Racism group and the black community in the city.

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

The process began with the setting-up of the college’s Legacy of Slavery Working Party in 2019. The group brought together eight college academics including the keeper of the Old Library, plus the college archivist, an external advisor, and two student union representatives. Their findings led to the college to conclude that the memorial represents a celebration of Tobias Rustat “incompatible with the chapel as an inclusive community and a place of collective wellbeing”.

In May 2021, the college bursar submitted a petition to the consistory court of the Diocese of Ely to authorise the removal of a memorial dedicated to Rustat from the west wall of the college chapel. Rustat, who lived from 1608 to 1694, invested and helped run the Royal African Company – an industrial-scale operation to kidnap Africans from the west coast of the continent for shipment to the US. He became one of Jesus College’s largest benefactors before the 20th century.

The submission went before the Diocese of Ely because the chapel is a grade I-listed building due to its historical and architectural importance, and changes to it fall under Faculty Jurisdiction Rules operated by the Church of England.

Consistory courts were set up following the Norman invasion in 1066-1071. Initially powerful in meting out justice in matters involving both the laity and the church, the consistory court is today an ecclesiastical court, dealing with matters of law relating to the church – mostly in relation to its buildings. In the Church of England, every diocese has its own consistory court.

The court has the same process as the High Court in relation to the attendance and examination of witnesses, and the production and inspection of documents, which will make for a fascinating hearing with the added drama of taking place in Jesus College Chapel, the very place where the Rustat memorial – which he designed and paid for – is located.

The memorial is prominently located in Jesus College Chapel. Picture: Keith Heppell
The memorial is prominently located in Jesus College Chapel. Picture: Keith Heppell

The court, which hears very few cases, is an independent court presided over by a judge known as the chancellor. The chancellor may announce his/her decision at the conclusion of the hearing, or the decision may be reserved. In either case a detailed written judgment will follow. There is an appeal process.

The arguments for and against removing the memorial commemorating Rustat from the chapel of Jesus College have been passionate, but the college has made it clear that this is not about ‘cancelling’ Rustat. The process is as far from the populist removal of the statue of slaver Edward Colston from its Bristol plinth as it could be. Indeed, the memorial could be relocated elsewhere in Jesus College.

College archivist Robert Athol said last year that the plan to move the monument to an exhibition setting will allow for the restoration and study of the monument, and it will enable people to engage with it as an artistic piece and as “a vehicle for discussion about the history and legacy of enslavement”.

The master of Jesus College, Sonita Alleyne, said that the college’s proposal to relocate the monument to an educational exhibition space was “part of a process of critical self-reflection on the long-term legacies of enslavement and colonial violence”.

A discussion took place last Wednesday (January 26) at the Cambridge Stand up to Racism meeting.

One of those present told the Cambridge Independent: “The meeting was attended by 18 anti-racist activists in Cambridge including a delegation from Cambridge Campaign against Racism and three Labour councillors and one ex-Labour councillor.

“There was a good nuanced discussion as to what to do with statues which ranged from removing them altogether to leaving them in place with a display, stating that the statue was of a slave trader and the misery that this caused. There was unanimous agreement about the first paragraph of the statement.”

Sonita Alleyne, Master, Jesus College
Sonita Alleyne, Master, Jesus College

The group said in its statement: “Cambridge Stand up to Racism strongly support the decolonisation movement active in academic institutions across the country. We support the master of Jesus College, Sonita Alleyne, who wants to move the plaque of the slave trader Tobias Rustat from the chapel.

“Furthermore, we support the removal of the memorial plaque from Jesus College altogether and its placing somewhere where its significance can be properly explained.

“The brutality of a slave trader ‘benefactor’ has been hidden from history for too long. We supported the removal of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol and we support the campaign by Hackney Stand Up To Racism and Diane Abbott to remove Robert Geffrye’s statue from the Museum of the Home in Hackney. We feel that Tobias Rustat is another in the same line of despicable merchants who made their fortunes out of the misery of others.”

In October, Jesus College became the first UK institution to restore a looted Benin bronze to Nigeria, following recommendations by the Legacy of Slavery Working Party.

Defenders of the status quo – 70 alumni of Jesus College – have asserted that ‘only’ 1.3 per cent of Rustat’s wealth was derived from his enslavement activities.

The memorial dedicated to Tobias Rustat located on the West wall of Jesus College Chapel. Picture: Keith Heppell
The memorial dedicated to Tobias Rustat located on the West wall of Jesus College Chapel. Picture: Keith Heppell

Tanisha Broady, who runs the Rock of Virtue diner in the city and is an advocate for equal rights, welcomed the hearing.

“I’m really happy to see people getting together to resolve it,” she said. “We need a level field of justice for everyone. We can do so much as people to come together and make things better for each other. It’s maybe because I’m a Christian, but I think the root of it is we have to have love for each other, and people have to have love for themselves. If you don’t love yourself you can’t give love. It’s about peace, love and unity – but most of all love.

“For me personally I think the memorial needs to go because it’s important what a person stands for – he might have done a lot of good but he was a slave master with slaves from all sorts of different places. If it is removed it means as a society we’re saying ‘we’re trying to break free of this slavery thing’. Whether someone was a slave master or a slave driver, if they were part of this [trade] I don’t think they should be standing tall in a public place.”

A spokesperson for the Diocese of Ely said: “This close to the hearing and subject to the Chancellor’s decision, it would not be appropriate for us to make any further comment at this stage.”

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