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Jesus College spent £120,000 on failed bid to move memorial to slave trade investor Tobias Rustat

Jesus College spent £120,000 attempting to remove the Tobias Rustat memorial from its chapel, its master has revealed.

Sonita Alleyne said the Church of England must develop a better process after the consistory court hearing which concluded the memorial to the college’s 17th-century benefactor, who invested in the slave trade, should stay where it is.

Sonita Alleyne, master of Jesus College, Cambridge
Sonita Alleyne, master of Jesus College, Cambridge

Writing in the Guardian, she said: “The college will have spent about £120,000 on an antiquated process that it had little choice but to follow, dominated by lawyers, and which is ill-designed for resolving sensitive matters of racial justice and contested heritage.”

Jesus College wanted the plaque to move to an alternative space, arguing at the hearing in February that its presence impacted students wishing to worship in the chapel, or engage in the many other activities that take place there. Many students would no longer enter the chapel, the college has pointed out.

But last month the Diocese of Ely ruled that it would not be removed and claimed that the campaign to move the plaque had been based on a “false narrative” that “Rustat had amassed much of his wealth from the slave trade”.

Jesus College has said this argument is “irrelevant” and what matters is Rustat’s active involvement in the trade.

The college set up a working party on the legacy of slavery in 2019, prior to Ms Alleyne’s appointment as master, uncovering information about individuals and objects. As a result, in November 2021, the college returned a looted Benin bronze to Nigeria.

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

The working party had also highlighted Tobias Rustat’s investment in the slave trade - and Ms Alleyne wrote that as a majority of college fellows agreed it should move to an alternative exhibition space, the issue seemed “straightforward” from a moral point of view.

“Rustat’s activities helped finance the slave factories along the west African coast,” she wrote.

“This enabled ships to transport tens of thousands of enslaved women, children and men across the Middle Passage.

“And it led to these people being worked to death in the killing fields of the Caribbean and Americas.”

The plaque has also been moved on a number of occasions throughout the college’s history.

The Rustat memorial
The Rustat memorial

She said that “what should have been a simple decision turned into a convoluted consistory court process”.

Ms Alleyne added: “The church must develop something better than this.”

And she argued the process “was incapable of accounting for the lived experience of people of colour in Britain today”.

Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has said he supports the plaque’s removal, asking: “Why is it so much agony to remove a memorial to slavery?”

The removal of the plaque was opposed by a group of 65 alumni who paid for Pump Court Chambers to oppose the college’s bid.

A spokesperson for the group told the Cambridge Independent: “The view of Rustat [as a slave trader] is not balanced against the many very good things he did, and he just invested a small amount in slavery which wasn’t perhaps his best decision but he gave most of his money to the church, he served his king for 35-40 years, and he got a pat on the back.”

The college has decided against appealing the decision, noting: “The time and costs involved in appealing the decision are significant, and the grounds on which we are allowed to appeal are restrictive.”

Read more

Church process ‘not fit for purpose’ says Jesus College master as Rustat appeal option turned down

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby on Rustat plaque controversy: ‘Memorials to slave-traders do not belong in places of worship’

Diocese of Ely refuses request to move Rustat memorial from Jesus College Chapel

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