Questions are raised about colonial links at Jesus, Goncille and Caius and TrinityLouis Ashworth

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

The worldwide eruption of anti-racism protests which followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, has led to a resurgence in the questioning of statues, eponymous links and financial ties. Notably, this has included the tearing down of a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol and protests in Oxford against the statue of Cecil Rhodes.

Cambridge has been drawn into the recent re-evaluation of historical figures, with Jesus, Gonville and Caius and the Sedgwick Club being the focus of current debates.

The legacy of Tobias Rustat (1608-1694), a significant benefactor of Jesus College, is again being debated. Rustat was an investor in the Royal African Company, the trading company through which Edward Colston transported over 80,000 men, women and children from Africa to the Caribbean. Rustat has a large memorial in the Jesus College Chapel, a prominent position on the College’s benefactor’s board and, for some time, was previously eponymous for the College’s series of roundtable ’Rustat Conferences’.

His high status in the college derives from a series of donations he made during the 1660-70s, the largest of which was £2,000, when he was receiving dividends from his investment in the Royal African Company. The Jesus College website states: ‘the College’s trajectory from a sleepy, rural College to a bastion of academic excellence was undeniably shaped by Rustat’s financial support’.

Rustat’s position within the College has been questioned in the Legacy of Slavery Working Party which was established in early May 2019.

In relation to Rustat, Chair of the Legacy of Slavery Working Party at Jesus College, Dr Véronique Mottier said: “Critically rethinking the way we remember figures such as Rustat is important because they have become symbols of our links to slavery. However, critically addressing historic figures can only ever be a step in a wider process of institutional change.”

Recommendations regarding Rustat are expected to be published by the Legacies of Slavery Working Party for the College Council’s meeting in July. Asked what recommendations might be suggested, a member of the Working Party said: “we have not ruled anything out”.

The continued position of Rustat in the college has been under consideration for several years. In November 2019 Rustat’s name was removed from the Rustat Conferences, ‘a series of high-level roundtables’ held at the College, in accordance with recommendations from the College’s Working Party.

Questions over Rustat also redirected attention to the Okukor, one of the Benin Bronzes which formally agreed to repatriate last November. However, the Okukor it is still in the College.

Mottier clarified that: “We are committed to returning the Benin bronze, but as a registered charity there are various procedures that we must follow. We have been working on these since our announcement last November, until the outbreak of Covid-19 meant that we needed to pause to focus on the immediate needs of our students, Fellows and staff. We are in correspondence with the current Oba in Benin and will announce further details as soon as possible”.

In an interview with Channel 4 News this week, Sonita Alleyne, Master of Jesus College, emphasised that “statues play a very, very important part in our lexicon in how, as a nation, we remember”.

The Fisher window in Gonville and Caius Hall is another target for anti-racism campaigners. The window, which commemorates Ronald Fisher, a 20th Century statistician, is the only memorial in Cambridge that features on the ‘hit list’ of Black Lives Matter. Fisher, who, according to the statistician Anders Hald, ‘almost single-handedly created the foundations for modern statistical science’, is also accused of being a eugenicist.

This growing concern around Fisher was reflected in Extinction Rebellion Youth Cambridge’s decision to spray paint Caius’ Gate of Honour with the image of Fisher and the message ‘Fisher Must Fall’ on 11th June.

A petition was launched this week calling for the removal of the Fisher window has received over 1,000 signatures. It states: “The panel makes no mention of Fisher’s significant contributions to the Eugenicist movement. Nor is it accompanied with a college programme to educate students about Fisher’s racism. Caius students and Fellows eat, converse and celebrate in space that also acts as a commemoration of our racist history”.

In a statement released on June 11th, Gonville and Caius said: “we are aware of the growing concern and anger towards it. College Officers have discussed this important but complex question with student representatives, and the College is taking the matter forward for debate and decision. It should also be noted that the window is not currently visible to students and visitors”.

Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873) is another problematic figure in Cambridge’s history. The geologist, who was a fellow at Trinity College between 1818-73 and also Vice-Master between 1844-62, inherited half of a £3,783 sum claimed in 1836 for 174 emancipated slaves who had been owned by his friend Ann Sill.

The Sedgwick Club, the Earth Sciences society in Cambridge, and the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences are named after the geologist, who is also commemorated in Trinity College Chapel, where he is buried.


Mountain View

XR Youth Cambridge spray-paint Caius Gate of Honour with ‘Fisher Must Fall’ message

Trinity College told Varsity that in conducting research as part of the University’s Legacies of Enslavement Inquiry “the College could find no way in which Trinity was a financial beneficiary of Sedgwick.”

They added that they recognise the “depth of feeling around the Black Lives Matter movement” and are “actively discussing how to make a significant impact on issues affecting black students and staff and the College community as a whole”.

The Sedgwick Club told Varsity that it “does not tolerate racism or other forms of discrimination” and that members are “actively educating ourselves both on how colonialism formed part of our history and also how it affects our present”, including in relation to Sedgwick’s links to slavery and his views on women, whose admission into Cambridge he opposed vigorously.

The Club plans to take actions including “collating resources on Sedgwick’s views for members to learn from and organising a talk on the decolonisation of geology”.

Varsity has contacted the Sedgwick Museum for comment.