Missionaries, presidents and royalty: The first black men to attend Cambridge University

Nnenda Chinda, who co-founded the Black Cantabs initiative, said the project was inspired by the need to make black students aware of their history in the university.

Cambridge first black students

The Black Cantabs Project has researched a number of students at this university.

The Tab will be running a feature on some of these pioneers, starting this week with some of the first black men to attend the university.

Alexander Crummell: The Christian minister who spent two decades in Liberia

The first black student to graduate from Cambridge, in 1853, was born in New York as a free man.

After studying theology in America and promoting the cause of abolition, he was initially registered to study at Trinity College, but wrote: “When I go up to reside I shall be the lamest and weakest man there; and Trinity being the first college in the university and the scholars there more prominent than anywhere else.”

Eventually, he matriculated at Queens’.

Alexander Crummell.

Alexander Crummell. Credit: New York Public Library.

While studying at Cambridge, he – as well as his wife and three children – was supported by a group of British evangelicals. In 1847, he wrote of Cambridge: “Perhaps no seat of learning in the world… has done more for human liberty and human well-being than this institution.” But his time there was marred by the death of his four-year-old toddler, who died in an accident.

While Crummell wrote glowing reports back to the US, the diary of a Cambridge professor revealed at least one incident of overt racism, in which a dismissed maid told his wife: “You are a black devil: you are a slave and the daughter of a slave and your heart is as black as your face!”

After graduating, he abandoned England to head to Liberia as a missionary, where he eventually advocated the repatriation of African Americans to the African continent. He later returned to the US.

David Clemetson: The Jamaican who died fighting under the British Empire – but who was left off Trinity’s War Memorial

Born in Jamaica to a wealthy family, Clemetson later went to the UK, where he studied in Bristol.  He matriculated at Trinity as a law student in 1912, where he rowed in Lent Bumps.

He rowed in the "Trin Rugger" boat.

He rowed in the “Trin Rugger” boat. Credit: Trinity archives.

In 1914, he broke off his studies to fight. His willingness to fight made him unique; while there were a large number of black soldiers fighting in the armies of British colonies and dominions, there were few black men in the British Army itself.

In spite of official restrictions on black soldiers in the army from taking leadership roles, he managed to gain commissions.  Even more impressive, he refused to lie about his race.

When asked whether he was of “pure European descent”, Clemetson, whose grandfather had been a slave in Jamaica, replied, “no”.

Shortly before the end of the war, he was killed in action on the Western Front. His name is yet to be added to the 618 names on Trinity’s War Memorial.

Mutesa II of Buganda: The King who may have been assassinated in London

Mutesa II held an impressive list of accomplishments to his name: King of Buganda, member of the Officers’ Training Corps, captain in the Grenadier Guards, President of Uganda – and 21 children.

He studied at Magdalene College from 1945 to 1947. While there, he took part in the college’s shooting team and almost received a blue in football – all while at the same time trying to keep on top of politics in his kingdom on another continent.

Coming back home to Uganda, he opposed attempts by the British to unite Uganda into a federation with Kenya and Tanyanika.  Eventually, he was deposed by the Governor and exiled – leading to massive protests. After being reinstated, he returned to Kampala in 1955. Mutesa eventually became the first President of the Republic of Uganda. But in 1966 his palace was assaulted by a political rival – and he was forced into exile in the UK.

He died three years later in London of alcohol poisoning, but, according to the BBC, his friends still suspect assassination.

Adetokunbo Ademola: Nigeria’s first local Chief Justice

Sir Adetokunbo Adegboyega Ademola, a Nigerian, was born into royalty – like many of the first and most influential black students to arrive in Cambridge.  He was educated at Catholic schools in Abeokuta, then in Lagos.

He later went to study Law at Selwyn from 1928 to 1931 – contrary to the wishes of his parents, who wished for him to study Medicine.

In 1958, he was appointed Chief Justice of Nigeria. Four years later, he founded Nigeria’s first law school. In 1963, he was the first African to be appointed to the Privy Council of the United Kingdom. One of the most difficult periods in his life was attempting to conduct a census of Nigeria in 1973, made impossible because of the refusal of the Hausa-Fulani, the Ibo and the Yoruba to accept that they might not be the largest group.

Ademola was also President of the Reformed Ogboni Fraternity, a society with extensive religious and political links.

Next week, The Tab will publish a follow-up piece focusing on the first black women to attend Cambridge.