Statue of slave trade investor may be removed from Old Schools

A new report lays bare the links between one of the university’s benefactors and the slave trade

As part of the University of Cambridge’s ongoing research into its links and complicity with the transatlantic slave trade, a new report has established that prominent benefactor of Jesus College and the University Library, Tobias Rustat, held significant financial investments with the Royal African Company.

Established in 1660 after the Restoration, the Royal Africa Company was an English mercantile company by the royal family and City of London merchants to trade along the west coast of Africa. The company was led by the Duke of York, who later ascended the throne as James II. While its original purpose was to exploit the goldfields up the Gambia River, which were identified by Prince Rupert during the Interregnum, it soon developed and led a brutal and sustained slave trade. The report released by the university makes clear that the Royal Africa Company “was responsible for shipping more enslaved Africans to the Americas than any other institution during the period of the slave trade.”

Rustat gifted the University Library with its first endowment, a sum of £1,000 in 1667, to be spent on books of its choosing. Rustat was much later memorialised by a small late 19th-century stone statue overlooking West Court at The Old Schools, the original site of the Library.

The University’s Advisory Group on the Legacies of Enslavement has been asked by Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen J Toope to make recommendations on the future of the Rustat statue. In parallel, the University Library is giving consideration to the Rustat endowment, which generates an income of around £5,000 a year.

At present, no decision has been made regarding the statue, but the university’s press release has made clear that preliminary enquiries are being made about the process for removing the statue from the exterior of a Grade 1 listed building.

The University Library is currently determining how income from this Rustat Fund might be remodelled and renamed in order to support active research into the slave trade and its legacies. For the 2020-21 financial year, income from the fund will be spent on resources about the transatlantic slave trade and about the Black diaspora. Possible purchases will be identified collaboratively by library staff and researchers, and final decisions will be taken by the Library’s Decolonisation Working Group. Dr Jessica Gardner, Cambridge University Librarian, explained that in future the University Library hopes “to determine, with the critical help of our colleagues from the BAME community at Cambridge, how the income generated by this historic donation is best dispersed going forward.”

Jesus College has also announced that it has decided to make changes wherever Rustat is explicitly celebrated in College, following recommendations from the College’s own Legacy of Slavery Working Party.

The initial report from the University’s Advisory Group on Legacies of Enslavement was issued in May of this year. A final report is due in Easter Term 2022.

Featured image credit: Txllxt Txllxt, Creative Commons License