Cambridge to probe historical links to slave trade

Two-year study will help university assess how it may have benefited financially as well as how its scholars contributed to race-based thinking

April 30, 2019
Illustration of African slaves in chains

The University of Cambridge is launching an inquiry into its historical links to the slave trade.

The two-year study will look at the ways that Cambridge contributed to, benefited from or challenged the Atlantic slave trade and other forms of coerced labour during the colonial era.

University archives and a wide range of records elsewhere will be explored to uncover how the university may have gained from slavery and the exploitation of labour, through financial and other bequests to departments, libraries and museums.

It will also investigate the extent to which scholarship at Cambridge might have reinforced and validated race-based thinking between the 18th and early 20th centuries.

A specially commissioned eight-member advisory team, chaired by Martin Millett, the Laurence Professor of classical archaeology, will recommend appropriate ways for the university to publicly acknowledge past links to slavery and to address its modern impact.

Stephen Toope, the vice-chancellor, said that it was “only right that Cambridge should look into its own exposure to the profits of coerced labour during the colonial period”.

“We cannot change the past, but nor should we seek to hide from it,” Professor Toope said. “I hope this process will help the university understand and acknowledge its role during that dark phase of human history.”

The advisory group is expected to deliver its final report to the vice-chancellor in autumn 2021.

Last year, the University of Glasgow announced a programme of “reparative justice” following the publication of a study into its links with historical slavery and other universities were urged to follow its lead.

The report found that while the university itself adopted a “clear anti-slavery position” during the 18th and 19th centuries, Glasgow also received several gifts from those connected to the trade, with an estimated value of between £16.8 million and £198 million in today’s prices.

Professor Millett said that it was “reasonable to assume” that Cambridge will have “benefited directly or indirectly from, and contributed to, the practices of the time”.

“The benefits may have been financial or through other gifts,” added the professor.

“But the panel is just as interested in the way scholars at the university helped shape public and political opinion, supporting, reinforcing and sometimes contesting racial attitudes which are repugnant in the 21st century.”

Research will focus on the central university, rather than its colleges.

Some scholars have questioned the wisdom of requiring institutions to make financial amends for their past links to slavery, arguing that universities are a soft touch when faced with such claims.

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Reader's comments (2)

If history can prove to be about more than mere historicity, more than the raconteur’s hobbyhorse , but a self transcendental force into its own bowels, not to redo bowels, good and bad but the stench therefrom, it would have further unchained itself from being mere slave to intellectual puerility . Basil jide fadipe
I note that few organisations are turning down moneys from rich countries in the middle east whose inhabitants ran a thriving slave trade down the east coast of africa before european traders arrived. I note also that Devon and Cornwall councils, along with many in southern Ireland are not seeking reparations from Morocco for the activities of the Corsairs who captured whole villages into slavery. Their is a limit to historical responsibility why don't we sue Norway for the massacre at Lindisfarne or the Italian government for their treatment of Boudicca and the Iceni?