With a history stretching back 800 years Cambridge University could issue an apology for historic racism. The current Vice-Chancellor has instigated an enquiry into how the institution benefited from funds generated from the slave trade.
Hence researchers have begun assessing the extent to which the University gained from both the “Atlantic slave trade and other forms of coerced labour during the colonial era”. Expected to take two years the inquiry will assess whether bequests made to departments, museums or libraries where made from the profits of slavery. Additionally the review will also probe the extent to which academics, “reinforced and validated race-based thinking between the 18th and early 20th Century”.
Following Oxfords “Rhodes must fall” campaign other universities have sought to distance themselves from their imperial pasts. As such Jesus College removed a bronze cockerel statue from display after students claimed it had been looted during a 19th century expedition to Nigeria. It was subsequently repatriated.
Similarly, in 2016, the Queen Mary University of London removed a foundation stone laid by King Leopold II after complaints were made suggesting the former king was a “genocidal colonialist”. Harvard Law School altered its crest as the result of demonstrations by students who linked it to an 18th-century slave owner.
By contrast Gill Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at Cambridge University, suggested that any inquiry risked generating a “backhanded” approach that may lead to “messing with history”. She further commented that the “climate of anti-colonialism” and investigating historic links with colonialism now forms part of a process that, “every university now feels they have to do”.
Professor Evans further commented that, “When you look at the actual history it is not what it seems. Given the norms of the day, what they thought they were doing is not what it looks like. 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 isn’t transferrable from age to age without some nuancing”.
However an advisory group of eight academics will now recommend “appropriate ways to publicly acknowledge” historic links to slavery.