Such an inquiry is "only right", said Vice-Chancellor Stephen ToopeLouis ashworth

Content Note: This article contains references to slavery and coerced labour

In a landmark step, the University of Cambridge is set to evaluate its financial, intellectual, and material ties to the Atlantic slave trade through an official inquiry, it has today been announced.

The findings of the inquiry are expected to be delivered in autumn 2021, from which point it will be assessed how the University should publicly acknowledge these ties and their impact today.

The two-year inquiry will take the form of an academic study undertaken by two post-doctoral researchers in the University’s Centre of African Studies and overseen by a specially commissioned advisory group.

Financial and material gifts and bequests to the University will be examined to uncover how the University might have supported and benefitted from the slave trade.

Research will also be conducted to determine whether scholarship at the University contributed to the legitimation of racist thinking which purported to validate slavery and coerced labour.

The advisory group, commissioned by Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope, is chaired by Professor Martin Millet, the Laurence Professor of Classical Archaeology. It comprises six academics from relevant University departments, alongside a student representative from Cambridge’s African Caribbean Society (ACS) and a member of the University Library’s senior leadership team.

Professor Millett noted that the benefits likely reaped by the University “may have been financial or through other gifts. But the panel is just as invested 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.”

A spokesperson for the CUSU BME Campaign told Varsity that they “welcome” the news. They continued: “while the University’s prior engagements with its ties to slavery have largely focused on its own contributions to abolitionism, we hope that this inquiry will highlight the ways in which it has been complicit in legitimising slavery and has profited from the slave trade”. 

They stated that the inquiry "must work closely with existing efforts to decolonise the University" in order to be "genuinely impactful".

Adding that they "have concerns about how this inquiry is being framed", the spokesperson stated that "the University should not consider its complicity in racial oppression merely a thing of the past".


Mountain View

Decolonisation efforts branch out across faculties

“It is insufficient to treat this inquiry merely as a way to ‘acknowledge’ the University’s ties to the slave trade. This is not a chance for the university to accept its involvement in the slavery, apologise and then draw a line under the issue. The history of racial injustice is inescapable and this inquiry must be followed up with concrete actions to push back against structures of privilege in Cambridge”, they continued.

The influence of scholarship concerning race at the University remains a prevalent topic today. In December 2018, 280 academics across the University condemned the appointment of Dr Noah Carl to a research fellowship at St Edmund’s College on the grounds of the “racist pseudoscience” of his eugenics work being “legitimised through association with the University of Cambridge”.

Responding to the news of the inquiry, a student activist at St Edmund's College told Varsity: “These initiatives cannot only be about the past if racist researchers like Noah Carl are still affiliated to Cambridge, shaping public perceptions of race and normalising racism using the symbolic power of this University. Justice and repatriation has to begin with the present.”

The decision to launch the inquiry marks the continued momentum of student and staff efforts to decolonise the University. Following an open letter which in 2017 called upon the Faculty of English to “decolonise its reading lists and incorporate postcolonial thought alongside its existing curriculum”, the University has since seen the creation of various faculty-specific decolonisation working groups. Earlier this year, around 270 students took part in a rally which called upon the University to “divest, disarm, decolonise”.

Last September, Glasgow University announced that it would launch a “reparative justice programme” following an inquiry which revealed that the University had benefited from the slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Writing on Twitter, Labour MP David Lammy praised the move, stating that “to whom much is given much is expected.

“Contrition and atonement for a grievous wrong is the only way to face the future.”

Professor Toope stated that “it is 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. I hope this process will help the University understand and acknowledge its role during that dark phase of human history.”

  • Updated, 30th April 2019: This article was updated to include comment from a student activist at St Edmund's College
  • Updated, 30th April 2019: This article was updated to include comment from the CUSU BME Campaign