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Eccelesiastical court to decide future of memorial to benefactor and slave trade investor Tobias Rustat at Jesus College, Cambridge





An ecclesiastical court is to be held in Jesus College to hear a dispute over whether a memorial to a 17th-century benefactor who invested in and helped run slave-trading companies can be moved from the chapel of the University of Cambridge college.

Jesus College master Sonita Alleyne says of the proposal to move the Rustat memorial from the college chapel: “This is the right solution for our college”. Picture: Keith Heppell
Jesus College master Sonita Alleyne says of the proposal to move the Rustat memorial from the college chapel: “This is the right solution for our college”. Picture: Keith Heppell

Tobias Rustat, 1608-1694, who invested in the Royal African Company, became one of Jesus College’s largest benefactors before the 20th century.

The college last year submitted an application to the Diocese of Ely to relocate the memorial to Rustat from its chapel to a permanent exhibition space in the college.

A consistory court case, starting on February 2, is due to help decide the fate of the monument.

College archivist Robert Athol said last year that the plan to move the monument to an exhibition setting will “allow for 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 legacy of enslavement began with the transatlantic slave trade during the 15th century when Portugal, and subsequently other European kingdoms, was finally able to expand overseas and reach Africa. The Portuguese were the first to kidnap people from the west coast of Africa and to take those they enslaved back to Europe. In Britain, the practice became formularised when the Royal African Company was set up in 1660 by the royal Stuart family and City of London merchants as an English mercantile company trading along the west coast of Africa.

Rustat, who was made Yeoman of the Robes to Charles II in 1650 (a position he held until the king’s death in 1685), took an active role in running the Royal African Company. He was elected three times for a one-year term as an Assistant (company director) – in 1676, 1679 and 1680. Some of his wealth derived from investments in the Royal African Company and the Gambia Adventurers (which was absorbed by the Royal African Company when its license expired in 1678).

The Tobias Rustat memorial, currently housed in Jesus College Chapel. Picture: Jesus College
The Tobias Rustat memorial, currently housed in Jesus College Chapel. Picture: Jesus College

Historian William Pettigrew has stated that this company “shipped more enslaved African women, men and children to the Americas than any other single institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade” and that investors in the company were fully aware of its activities and intended to profit from this exploitation.

The marble memorial is on a wall within the college’s chapel and was originally commissioned by Rustat during his lifetime, when he had already become a major college donor. As per a request in his will, Rustat was buried in the chapel. His memorial, though since moved twice, has been in its current location since 1922, where it “dominates the wall as you enter”.

Following recommendations made by the college’s Legacy of Slavery Working Party in 2019 and 2020, the college took the view that the memorial represents a celebration of Rustat which is “incompatible with the chapel as an inclusive community and a place of collective wellbeing”.

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”.

“The chapel should offer a welcoming space accessible to every member of our community,” she said last year.

“This is the right solution for our college.”

Tobias Rustat, 1608-1694, whose memorial at Jesus College Chapel is the subject of a rare ecclesiastical hearing starting February 2, 2022
Tobias Rustat, 1608-1694, whose memorial at Jesus College Chapel is the subject of a rare ecclesiastical hearing starting February 2, 2022

A number of college alumni have objected to the proposal to move the memorial.

A Jesus College spokesperson said on Monday: “It comes down to whether it’s appropriate for the celebratory monument to Rustat to be in a place of worship and reflection, our chapel, which is at the heart of our diverse community.

“The college is not seeking to cancel Rustat or erase him from the record: it is applying to have his memorial moved from a place of worship to a more suitable – but still prominent – place in the college.

“In addition to religious events, the chapel plays a central role in college life and hosts many historic and ceremonial occasions as well as concerts and recitals, welfare activities and student arts festivals.

“The memorial is an obstacle to some members of our community participating in all these college events.”

The consistory court case is listed for three days from February 2. This process is being followed because the chapel is a Grade I listed building and only changes consistent with Faculty Jurisdiction Rules operated by the Church of England can be made.


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