The study will explore the financial gain Cambridge might have accrued from the slave trade and also investigate the extent to which scholarship might have reinforced race-based thinking between the 18th and early 20th Century.
Cambridge university to study how it profited from colonial slavery
Estimates vary widely, but somewhere between 10 million and 28 million Africans are believed to have been shipped across the Atlantic between the 15th and 19th centuries. Many died on the way.
Cambridge staff are to carry out a two-year probe into universitys links with slave trade
Those who survived endured a life of subjugation on sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations. Britain abolished the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1807 although the full abolition of slavery did not follow for another generation.
Martin Millett, the chairman of the eight-member advisory group overseeing the Cambridge study, said it was unclear what the investigation might turn up but that it was reasonable to assume that Cambridge had benefited from the slave trade.
“It is reasonable to assume that, like many large British institutions during the colonial era, the University will have benefited directly or indirectly from, and contributed to, the practices of the time,” said Millett, a professor of archaeology.
“The benefits may have been financial or through other gifts. But the panel is just as interested 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.”
The inquiry will be conducted by two full-time post-doctoral researchers based in the Centre of African Studies. The research will examine specific gifts, bequests and historical connections with the slave trade.
It is unclear what action Cambridge will take if it does find that it benefited from slavery or validated it.
Oxford students ran a campaign in 2015 to tear down a statue of the 19th century imperialist Cecil Rhodes. They claimed the statue, at Oriel College, was offensive to ethnic minority students, but the university resisted their demands.
Some of the Wests top universities have been examining their past and the provenance of some of their wealth. In the United States, southern campuses have been rocked by arguments over the confederate flag.
But the panel is just as interested 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.
In 2017, Yale renamed its Calhoun College after protesters said the Ivy League school should drop the honor it gave to an alumnus who was a prominent advocate of U.S. slavery. It is now called Grace Hopper College after the computer scientist.
In Britain, Oxford has been ensnared in a debate over whether to remove a statue of 19th century colonialist Cecil Rhodes from one of the universitys colleges.
Last year, Glasgow University said it would launch a program of reparative justice after discovering it gained up to 200 million pounds ($260 million) in todays money from historical slavery.
“We cannot change the past, but nor should we seek to hide from it,” said Stephen Toope, vice chancellor of Cambridge. “I hope this process will help the University understand and acknowledge its role during that dark phase of human history.”
The inquiry will explore university archives and records elsewhere to uncover how Cambridge may have gained from slavery and the exploitation of labour.
But opponents say such inquiries are driven by a modern fashion for picking over historical injustices, often lack nuance and, if applied broadly, would place under question almost every aspect of the early history of such ancient institutions.
Gill Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at Cambridge University, said that given the current climate of anti-colonialism, examining historic links with colonialism is one of the things every university now feels they have to do.
“Given the norms of the day, what they thought they were doing is not what it looks like,” Evans told the Daily Telegraph.
The views expressed in the contents above are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of MailOnline.
“Before you start taking blame, the first task is to understand the period, look at what the people who acted at the time actually thought they were doing. Culpability isnt transferable from age to age without some nuancing.”
Cambridge, one of the worlds oldest universities, traces its history through more than 800 years of history to 1209 when scholars from Oxford, which traces its history back to 1096, took refuge in the city.
Two full-time post-doctoral researchers based in the universitys Centre of African Studies will conduct the inquiry to uncover the universitys historical links with the slave trade.
Their brief is to find out how the university gained from slavery, through specific financial bequests and gifts. They will also investigate the extent to which scholarship at Cambridge might have reinforced, validated or perhaps challenged race-based thinking at the time.
Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope has appointed an eight-member advisory panel to oversee the research and ultimately recommend ways to publicly acknowledge the institutions past links to slavery and address its modern impact.
The way universities and museums deal with the legacy of slave-owning benefactors has become a key area of debate within academia, highlighted in recent years by protests from students such as the Rhodes must fall campaign at the University of Oxford.
Last month St Johns College, Oxford, advertised a new academic post looking for a researcher to examine the universitys contribution to creating and maintaining Britains colonial empire. Last year Oxfords All Souls College added a memorial plaque commemorating the slaves who worked on plantations in Barbados. The funds from the plantation were left to the college by a former fellow and were used to build the colleges library.
The University of Glasgow last year announced a programme of reparative justice after a year-long study discovered that the university benefited from the equivalent of tens of millions of pounds donated from the profits of slavery. It pledged to create a centre for the study of slavery and include a memorial in the name of the enslaved.
Announcing the inquiry at Cambridge, Toope said: There is growing public and academic interest in the links between the older British universities and the slave trade, and 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.
The inquiry, announced on Tuesday, follows a round table debate in the universitys Centre of African Studies in February on the subject, Slavery and its Legacies at Cambridge.
The resulting advisory panel, which includes the president of the universitys African Caribbean Society, Toni Fola-Alade, and reader in world history Dr Sujit Sivasundaram, will be chaired by Prof Martin Millett, the Laurence professor of classical archaeology.
This will be an evidence-led and thorough piece of research into the University of Cambridges historical relationship with the slave trade and other forms of coerced labour, said Millett.
Read more We cannot know at this stage what exactly it will find but it is reasonable to assume that, like many large British institutions during the colonial era, the university will have benefited directly or indirectly from, and contributed to, the practices of the time.
The benefits may have been financial or through other gifts. But the panel is just as interested 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.
The advisory group will deliver its report to the vice-chancellor in 2021. The current research will focus on the central university rather than individual colleges.