The bell is inscribed with the name of the former slave plantation ‘De Catharina’Louis Ashworth/VARSITY

A ‘slave plantation’ bell formerly displayed in St. Catharine’s College has been transfered to the the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, as part of an exhibit on slavery.

The Demerara Bell was gifted to the college in 1960 by former student Edward Goodland. He acquired it whilst working for Bookers Sugar Estate in the 1930s, in what was then the British colony of British Guiana.

The bell was hung outside St Catharine’s porters’ lodge. After its former usage was uncovered, the College removed the bell from its position in 2019. The College also funded four bursaries to enable research into the origins of the bell.

The bell is believed to have been found in the Demerara River in Guyana, in close vicinity to the location of the De Catharina slave plantation. The bell is inscribed ‘De Catharina 1772’.

The displacement of the bell from its display occured amid the launch of a University-led investigation on Cambridge’s ties with the atlantic slave trade. 

The College has said that “conversations are ongoing” between the College and representatives from the Guyana National Museum, who have expressed interest in returning the bell to Guyana.

The exhbition on slavery at the Rijksmusuem is currently exhibiting 140 obects relating to the Dutch slave trade, which went on until 1863 when the practice was made illegal in the country.

The bell is positioned at the entrance to the exhibit alongside four other bells from around the world. It is on display with tools that were used on plantations, as well as items that were cherished by enslaved people.

King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands officially opened the exhibition last Tuesday (18/05), and it will run until 29th August. The exhibit also features “oral sources, poems, music and objects from museums, archives and collections from across the world”, including two Rembrandt portraits of wealthy owners of enslaved people.


Mountain View

Catz to move ‘slave plantation’ bell from entrance

Professor Sir Mark Welland, Master of St Catharine’s, commented: “On behalf of St Catharine’s, I want to congratulate the Rijksmuseum on the opening of this important exhibition and thank them for giving us the opportunity to contribute to the collection of plantation bells on display.”

He continued: “Objects from the lives of enslaved people and slaveowners make us confront the injustice that was perpetuated by the UK, the Netherlands and other countries over many centuries, and how the legacies of enslavement continue to affect institutions and communities today.”

The exhibit was originally scheduled to open in 2020, but was postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Dr Colin Higgins, Librarian at St Catharine’s, added: “I have been impressed by the creativity and care shown by team at the Rijksmuseum, who have ensured that the bell is displayed in a way that will encourage modern day audiences to engage meaningfully with slavery and its legacies.”