The inquiry was announced this AprilLOUIS ASHWORTH

Amid increasing calls for college involvement in the University’s formal inquiry into its historic links to the slave trade, fifteen colleges have confirmed that they will be cooperating with the inquiry, either through granting researchers archival access or facilitating college-based research.

Of the University’s thirty-one colleges, eighteen colleges responded to Varsity’s request for confirmation of their involvement in the two-year academic inquiry which seeks to evaluate the University’s material and intellectual histories in relation to its contribution to, and the benefit it drew from, the Atlantic slave trade.

Sixteen colleges have confirmed that they will be opening their archives to the two post-doctoral researchers appointed to conduct the inquiry over the next two years. These were Clare Hall, Churchill, Downing, Jesus, King’s, Magdalene, Murray Edwards, Newnham, Pembroke, Queens’, Selwyn, Sidney Sussex, St. Catharine's, Trinity, Trinity Hall and Wolfson.

Further to this, King’s, St Catharine’s, Downing and Queens’ have announced plans for college-based research into their ties to the slave trade.

King’s was the first to announce this, stating that it will “specifically encourage research by the College’s own students into the College’s past connections, financial and intellectual, with slave trading, slavery, and abolition, using our archives and all other accessible sources.”

The College also plans to encourage student-led research on “contemporary forms of labour coercion”, encompassing undergraduate and graduate dissertation research as well as “short summer projects of original research by students from across the college”.

A report summarising these findings will be produced in October 2021, in light of which the College will decide whether further steps should be taken.

A spokesperson for St. Catharine’s told Varsity that the College plans to launch a project, including funding research bursaries for students, who will work in collaboration with library staff and the College’s archivist. This research will be compiled in the form of a report, which will be presented to the College in Michaelmas term.

Queens’ will also be undertaking its own research, but a spokesperson told Varsity that they plan to share any findings from this research with the University-wide project. Downing similarly stated that they will share any findings from their own inquiry with the University, adding that they are “keen to discover and acknowledge” any possible links to slavery.

Despite not launching their own inquiries, five other colleges have carried out forms of independent research in response to the main University inquiry.

Pembroke clarified that, although they are not undertaking a full inquiry of their own, a new archivist has been appointed, “thereby facilitating research into possible links with the slave trade”. The archivist will “communicate relevant material” to the University’s Legacies of Slavery inquiry.

Sidney Sussex, Churchill and Homerton all indicated that they had already undertaken some initial research into their links to slavery, but had found no links so far, and do not plan to launch full college inquiries.

A spokesperson for Homerton told Varsity that this initial research gave the College reason to assume that it “has had no association with the slave trade”. They further highlighted the College's historic involvement in the abolition movement through its connections to the prominent abolitionists John Pye-Smith, Robert Halley and Samuel Morley.

Along similar lines, Magdalene informed Varsity that the College have begun work on an independent research project focusing on the abolitionist Peter Peckard, who was Master of Magdalene from 1781 until his death in 1797.

Magdalene have yet to make a formal decision about whether to get involved with the University inquiry, but its Master, Rowan Williams, told Varsity that initial discussions are “sympathetic” to a full collaboration and it is likely that their archives will be opened to researchers.

Fitzwilliam, where the chair of the Legacies of Slavery Inquiry, Professor Martin Millett, is a fellow, similarly stated that it is currently looking into how best to cooperate with the inquiry, but, as it was founded in 1966, is not sure what form this will take.

Lucy Cavendish said they were “happy to open our archives if requested, but having been established in 1965, we don’t expect to contribute significantly”.

Despite opening their archives to the inquiry, Selwyn, Murray Edwards, Churchill, Clare Hall and Wolfson all stated that they considered it unlikely they would play a major role, as they were established after the legal abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1833.


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Neither Darwin nor St. Edmund’s stated that they would be cooperating in any way with the inquiry, similarly citing the timeframe in which they were established. Homerton also told Varsity that it had no current plans to cooperate with the inquiry as it had not been “approached” by the University.

A spokesperson from Murray Edwards College expressed concern about the methodology of the inquiry, although the College will be opening its archives. In particular, they argued that the “parameters of the inquiry and the scope of ‘coerced labour’” needed to be more firmly established, and without this “the impact of its findings will be limited”.

Eleven colleges did not respond to multiple Varsity requests for comment on their cooperation with the inquiry. These were St John’s, Gonville & Caius, Peterhouse, King's, Christ’s, Clare, Corpus Christi, Emmanuel, Robinson, Girton and Hughes Hall although King's have independently announced their own inquiry.

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