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Jesus College’s Tobias Rustat dilemma won’t be settled by wine cellar move



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The future of the memorial to Tobias Rustat is currently under discussion at Jesus College as part of its ‘Legacy of Slavery’ inquiry – but it won’t be relocated to a wine cellar, as has been mooted in The Times newspaper.

The Great Hall at Jesus College
The Great Hall at Jesus College

Tobias Rustat was a 17th century philanthropist with investments in the Royal African Company, which shipped more enslaved people to Africa during the transatlantic slave trade than any other corporation.

In 1667 he gave Cambridge University Library its first endowment, to buy “the choicest and most useful” books. He also donated £2,000 to Jesus College in 1671 for scholarships for orphan sons of Anglican clergymen. Rustat dedications in Cambridge include a statue on the library building, a funeral memorial inside the Grade 1 listed chapel at Jesus College where Rustat lies at rest – and Rustat Road near the rail station.

The College is currently involved in “a process of critical self-reflection on the long-term legacies of slavery and colonial violence”.

The review process began in May 2019 with the setting-up of the Legacy of Slavery Working Party (LSWP) was set up. The LSWP – eight academics, two student representatives and the College archivist – published an interim report in November 2019 and an update in November 2020.

The update stated that Tobias Rustat’s name should remain displayed on its donor wall, but “to make changes wherever he is explicitly celebrated in College”.

Tobias Rustat, 1606-1694, a courtier to Charles II and benefactor of the University of Cambridge
Tobias Rustat, 1606-1694, a courtier to Charles II and benefactor of the University of Cambridge

In December, the College served public notice of its application to the Diocese of Ely to relocate the Chapel memorial to its benefactor.

Last month the college began a process of considering the views of the various heritage advisory bodies that the Diocese had consulted as part of the Faculty application process. This includes options for relocating the memorial to a more fitting educational space within the College, which somehow resulted in the speculation about the wine cellar in The Times.

A College spokesperson said: “Following the public notice of our application to the Diocese of Ely to relocate the memorial to Tobias Rustat, Jesus College is considering the views of the various heritage advisory bodies that the Diocese had consulted as part of the Faculty application process, including various options for relocating the memorial to a more fitting educational space within the College. Relocating the memorial to a wine cellar is not an option that is currently under active consideration.”

Meanwhile Cambridge City Council leader Lewis Herbert said of the furore: “More important are the views of Rustat Road residents, and we have been asking them and their Resident Association. (PS Never heard anyone involved in slavery defended before by saying that part of their life was disconnected from the rest.)”

The latter perhaps refers to the Rustat family claim that the money Tobias made from his investments in the slave trade was separate from the money he gave to the University of Cambridge.

The review comes as the LSWP is preparing to launch a second phase of research. In March-April 2021, the College will fund eight two-week paid research internships for current Jesus College undergraduates and postgraduates. In collaboration with several academics from the LSWP, the student interns will undertake research in the College archives and Old Library, combined with online work with databases and digital collections on each of LSWP’s four research strands: people, money, objects, and ideas.

Sonita Alleyne, Master of Jesus College, Cambridge
Sonita Alleyne, Master of Jesus College, Cambridge

Professor Stephen J Toope, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, writing on the topic, said: “History is inescapable in Cambridge. It is inconceivable that a British institution as old as our University would not have been touched by colonial practices of enslavement and enforced labour – whether benefiting from, helping to shape, or indeed challenging them.

“A society’s historical baggage and its modern-day challenges are inextricable. Understanding our past and shaping our future are not separate projects. The University of Cambridge is exceptionally well placed to undertake both of them.

“The legacies of enslavement form a part of who we are today, and inform what we wish to achieve. We can never rewrite history, or do away with our heritage, but we can try to address prevailing inequalities. This process begins through greater self-knowledge and self-reflection.”

A process which the residents of Rustat Road are also now embroiled in.



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