University of Cambridge announces investigation of its links with the slave trade

An open letter is being circulated petitioning the Colleges to join the investigation

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Amid calls to decolonise the Tripos, Cambridge has launched a two-year investigation – named the Legacies of Slavery Inquiry (LSI) – to assess how the University may have been complicit in, and benefitted from, the slave trade.

The advisory group, chaired by Professor Martin Millett, will examine the University's archives, libraries and museums to uncover its connections to slavery. Professor Millett explained that he expected these connections to be diverse, evident as much in donations, gifts and bequests as in the intangible role of the university in shaping "public and political opinion, supporting, reinforcing and sometimes contesting racial attitudes which are repugnant in the twenty-first century."

Explaining their motivations for the investigation, Vice Chancellor Professor Stephen Toope said: "There is growing public and academic interest in the links between the older British universities and the slave trade, and it is only right that Cambridge should look into its own exposure to the profits of coerced labour during the colonial period." Certainly, the debate over the statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Oxford – rumbling on since 2015 – demonstrates that this is not an issue exclusive to Cambridge.

Statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, which has been the source of much public controversy in recent years. Source: Christopher Hilton, copyright.

Based upon its findings, the advisory group will consider appropriate measures the University might take as reparation for its direct and indirect involvement in the slave trade; these may take the form of monuments and the re-naming of buildings, or in more pecuniary terms such as the funding of bursaries and foundations. Commenting on the potential findings of the committee, Professor Toope said: “We cannot change the past, but nor should we seek to hide from it. I hope this process will help the University understand and acknowledge its role during that dark phase of human history.”

Since the announcement of the investigation, an open letter has been circulated on platforms such as Twitter, petitioning the thirty-one colleges to join in the investigation. The authors of the letter called for the colleges to deliver "at a minimum, rigorous and transparent research into connections to slavery, formal acknowledgement and memorialization of benefits derived from slavery, and a reparative justice agenda."

Alongside the open letter, several Cambridge academics have publicly disparaged the University's failure to extend their investigations to the collegiate involvement in the slave trade. Churchill's Priyamvada Gopal, a specialist in postcolonial literature, called the investigation 'a terrible dodge on more than one front' in a highly critical Twitter thread.

Beyond Cambridge, the Legacies of Slavery Inquiry has provoked outcry from professors across UK universities. Jeremy Black, history professor at Exeter, has been a vocal critic of the investigation, saying: "Cambridge's proposal to devote resources neither to teaching nor to research but to virtue signally over slavery is not only questionable for a charity but also an endorsement of notions of hereditary guilt', calling the proposals for reparation payment 'absurd'.

Yet any sign of consensus continues to elude to LSI. Contrary to critics of the University for 'virtue signalling', sociology professor Manali Desai at Newnham stated that the investigation was "definitely a very effective way to tackle institutional racism, as it shows a commitment to exploring how the very set-up of the university…may have been enabled by slavery."

Whilst the advisory committee will not report until 2021 and debates over the appropriateness of its investigation will certainly rumble on until then, the University's reflection on its imperialist past is certainly a positive step towards decolonising the content of Cambridge degrees.

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Decolonising the history Tripos.

Cover image attribution: François-Auguste Biard [Public domain]. Source.