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Rustat plaque supporters attack Cambridge University for getting their history ‘wrong’

The Jesus College alumni who recently succeeded in their bid to keep the Tobias Rustat memorial in the college chapel have rounded on their alma mater with a personal attack on the Master, Sonita Alleyne, on Jesus College’s team, and at the University of Cambridge for calling Rustat a “major investor” in the slave trade.

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 ecclestiastical hearing which took place on February 2-5 saw Jesus College petition to have the memorial to the 17th century benefactor removed to a “more suitable” location. The proposal was opposed by 65 alumni who paid for an expensive – and combative – legal company, Pump Court Chambers, to keep the memorial where it is. On March 23 the Diocese of Ely, the supervisory body for church assets in the region, ruled – against the wishes of the Archbishop of Canterbury – that the memorial should stay.

With Jesus College currently considering an appeal, a spokesperson for the 65 alumni suggested the verdict would be “difficult” to change.

“They have 28 days from last Wednesday (March 23) to lodge an appeal,” the alumnus said. “The difficulty with an appeal is that the judge has come to his conclusions on the basis of the facts and it is very difficult to change a judgement based on facts. They may want to appeal because they are affronted or taken aback and feel they have to appeal, and if they do we will participate and hopefully the judge will uphold the original verdict.”

The spokesperson added: “There’s a saying from the Thatcher years: ‘Everyone needs a Willie Whitelaw’. It’s a reference to the benefits of having grey hair and wisdom. I don’t know if the Master has any grey hair but probably the bigger priority now is repairing relations with a large number of alumni.

“This is not a happy episode in the college’s history. It’s the first time there has been any public battle between any alumni and the college and of course they’ve got the same sort of battle going on with China. If I were in the Master’s shoes, I would forgive and forget.”

There are 9,500 alumni of Jesus College alive: more alumni – 180 – wrote to the college to support the application than the 65 who paid for it to be opposed. The 65 do not just want to keep the memorial where it is – they seek for the historical record to be amended in his favour, the spokesperson added.

“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. I don’t know where the pressure is coming from to remove the memorial, Black Lives Matter probably, but it seems the college has not done its homework.”

The Rustat memorial in Jesus College’s proposed new exhibition site
The Rustat memorial in Jesus College’s proposed new exhibition site

A spokesperson for Cambridge Stand Up to Racism responded: “The Black Lives Matter movement has raised the consciousness of black and white people across the world in a profound way. This has encouraged historians, teachers and many others like Sonita Alleyne to counter a culture which has for too long turned a blind eye to the violence of the slave trade, the British Empire and colonialism.”

Taking aim at the Jesus College team, the alumnus said: “We did our own research [about the memorial and its place in Jesus College lore] and they ignored it.” The college team “hadn’t done their homework” for the hearing, he added.

So is the group embarrassed to have brought this divisive action against their own college?

“Of course it concerned us greatly and we asked them on a number of occasions to sit down and discuss it to avoid any embarrassment, but they’ve brought on themselves embarrassment and criticism of the way they’ve handled the matter.”

A spokesperson for Jesus College said: “The Legacy of Slavery Working Party spent two years thoroughly researching Rustat. Their research was meticulous.

“The college did engage with the objectors but what they presented to us didn’t add to what we already knew. We followed the process required by the church.”

The alumnus said the group had stayed quiet because “none of us, unlike the Master, is seeking attention” and referred to a recent article in a national newspaper. In the article it is apparent the Master is distressed and offended. How do you feel about the distress you’ve caused?

“Yes, there’s no doubt she feels very strongly about the memorial in the chapel – no doubt about that. But the judge cut through it all and said she’s entitled to her views, but she’s not a practising Christian – not that that matters, but it means she doesn’t have to go into the chapel, she doesn’t seem to do that anyway. The judge found that there was not enough reason to take the memorial down. The Master didn’t take a logical approach but, as the judge said, there were two very strong views on display at the hearing.”

Sonita Alleyne became Master of Jesus College in 2019
Sonita Alleyne became Master of Jesus College in 2019

The college’s spokesperson said: “The chapel is used for many activities in addition to worship, including welfare events, music, drama, prize-givings and other formal events in the college calendar. For some members of our community the presence of the memorial in its prominent position is a barrier to participation in the many events which take place in our chapel.”

Meanwhile, another alumnus, the historian Lawrence Goldman, explained that the decision to speak to the press was made because “the alumni are elderley gentlemen in their 80s”. Prof Goldman, who cross-examined the Jesus College witnesses at the hearing, added: “They just want an easy life, they’re not particularly used to talking in public.”

Of the financial arrangements he said: “Everybody was asked to put in around £500 each, and in that way a fighting fund of around £35,000 was set up to hire the barrister, and for the fees on research. I put in £500 and I was allowed to cross-examine the witnesses.”

QCs such as Justin Gau can be expected to charge around £1,000 an hour, so the alumni certainly seem to have got astonishing value for their money – the hearing alone lasted 15 hours over the three days.

The Cambridge Stand Up to Racism spokesperson said: “The alumni, rather than support the first black master of a Cambridge College in her justifiable desire to remove a plaque on the chapel wall celebrating a slave trader, have chosen to undermine her publicly. Furthermore they could have supported Sonita Alleyne for introducing a more equitable admissions policy to encourage more black students into Cambridge University.

“The alumni shamefully employed the legal equivalent of a hit man who created a totally inappropriate adversarial setting which allowed him to ambush those people who wanted a reasoned debate on why the Rustat plaque should be removed from the chapel wall.”

Tobias Rustat wrote his own memorial for the plaque which is mounted on a wall in Jesus College Chapel
Tobias Rustat wrote his own memorial for the plaque which is mounted on a wall in Jesus College Chapel

Prof Goldman says of his own motivation: “It is every generation’s responsibility to conserve the heritage we all inherit. It is not our place to remove heritage, but to conserve it. Everything Tobias Rustat did was perfectly legal in the 1680s and 1690s.”

He goes further.

“The college has put it about that he was a slave trader. He wasn’t, he was a courtier. He was expected to invest in the Royal African Company [between 1662 and 1731, the company forcibly transported 212,000 Africans from West Africa to America as slaves, of whom 44,000 died en route in the Middle Passage]. There was no anti-slavery movement in this country until the 1780s. He bought one share I think – he was an investor. In his eyes and in the eyes of the age he was supporting the king, and what historians show is that very little of his money came from his slave trade investments.”

This contradicts the university’s own website record on Rustat, which states that he was a “major investor” in the Royal African Company, from which he “derived great wealth”.

“They’re just wrong,” says Prof Goldman. “We’ve done a great deal of research and it simply is not true. Only right at the end of his life did he make any money from these investments – the university hasn’t updated its website.

Wisteria in the First Court at Jesus College. The Rustat drama has exposed the college to mass media scrutiny, mostly unwanted. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography
Wisteria in the First Court at Jesus College. The Rustat drama has exposed the college to mass media scrutiny, mostly unwanted. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography

“In fact the university is as irresponsible as Jesus in this case. They also have a statue of Rustat and were going to take him off the honours board for his library donation.

“You can’t do surgical strikes on history. My view is ‘leave the past well alone’. Impress the world by doing something good with your money. There’s lots of slavery around in the world today, including in China. They could be doing something good about that.”

A spokesperson for the University of Cambridge, invited to respond, stated: “Please find the University’s statement on Tobias Rustat here.”

The Jesus College spokesperson said: “This isn’t about the past, but how the church responds to people in the present. This matters to our student body who respect the concept of racial dignity and the ability for all members of our diverse community to take part in everything that college life has to offer.

“Rustat supported the slave trade over a period of 30 years, as an investor, lender and in the running of those companies. His involvement predated and postdated his gifts to Jesus College.

“The widespread opposition to the presence of his memorial in the college chapel is the result of this involvement and not any false narrative allegedly created by the college about the sources of Rustat’s wealth. Whether his financial ventures were successful is irrelevant.

“We are confident that our stance will place us on the right side of history. We are considering our next steps, including whether to appeal.”

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