The recent announcement by the Centre of African Studies of a two-year academic study examining the extent to which the University of Cambridge has benefited from the institution’s traditional links to the colonial slave trade and other forms of coerced labour has caused considerable controversy.
The study, which will deliver its final report to the Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope in 2021, aims to uncover the ways in which the University profited from slavery, but also to critically investigate the ways in which teaching and learning in Cambridge in that period may have propagated views that supported the enforcement of racial inequality. The inquiry was launched after a round-table debate on ‘Slavery and Its Legacies’ at the Centre early in February this year.
The official statement from the University Communications Office, available in full here, suggests that “the two-year inquiry will explore University archives and a wide range of records elsewhere to uncover how the institution may have gained from slavery and the exploitation of labour, through financial and other bequests to departments, libraries and museums. It will also investigate the extent to which scholarship at the University of Cambridge, an established and flourishing seat of learning before and during the period of Empire, might have reinforced and validated race-based thinking between the 18th and early 20th Century.”
“It will also investigate the extent to which scholarship at the University of Cambridge, an established and flourishing seat of learning before and during the period of Empire, might have reinforced and validated race-based thinking between the 18th and early 20th Century.”
“The eight-member Advisory Group”, including African Caribbean Society President, Toni Fola-Alade, and reader in world history Dr Sujit Sivasundaram, “is being chaired by Professor Martin Millett, the Laurence Professor of Classical Archaeology, and draws its membership from relevant academic departments across the University.” The ACS were contacted by TCS at the time of the announcement but declined to comment.
TCS also contacted the CUSU Black and Minority Ethnic Liberation Campaign President this week, to learn more about the student union’s response to this significant announcement. President of the BME Campaign, Rianna Davis, gave an official press statement, saying that the Campaign “welcomes the news that the University will be launching an inquiry into its ties to the Atlantic slave trade. This is an opportunity to interrogate the selective ways in which histories of prestigious institutions such as Cambridge have often been discussed. While the University’s prior engagements with its ties to slavery have largely focused on its own contributions to abolitionism, we hope that this inquiry will highlight the ways in which it has been complicit in legitimising slavery and has profited from the slave trade.”
However, Ms Davis’s statement was also keen to point out the foundation that has been laid by “years of work done by students and staff to initiate conversations about race and colonialism in Cambridge.” Crucially, the statement declares that the study “cannot be treated as an isolated endeavour and must work closely with existing efforts to decolonise the University. In this regard, the inquiry should be conducted as openly as possible, with regular efforts to incorporate staff and student engagements. We also believe it is crucial for colleges to be actively involved in the work of the inquiry.” The study’s aim is work across the whole of the University, not with specific colleges, but the statement warned of a fear that “given that many of the university’s ties with slavery likely implicate colleges, it is important that they do not exercise their autonomy in ways that obscure records and histories.”
“Given that many of the university’s ties with slavery likely implicate colleges, it is important that they do not exercise their autonomy in ways that obscure records and histories.”
Most importantly, Ms Davis’ statement drew a strong line at the aims and outcomes expected of the study. It asserts “concerns about how this inquiry is being framed”, and makes clear that “the University should not consider its complicity in racial oppression merely a thing of the past” simply by way of acknowledging it. “Uncovering Cambridge’s entanglement in the legacies of slavery should help us understand and correct the racial inequalities and racist discourses that continue to be actively perpetuated today. As the appointment of Noah Carl to a prestigious fellowship despite his explicitly voiced racist ideology and the failure to rescind his fellowship strikingly demonstrate, Cambridge has a long way to go in making itself a place where BME students and academics can feel welcome.” TCS notes that as of the 30th April, Noah Carl’s fellowship has been terminated.
The CUSU statement ends: “Likewise, it is insufficient to treat this inquiry merely as a way to ‘acknowledge’ the University’s ties to the slave trade. This is not a chance for the university to accept its involvement in the slavery, apologise and then draw a line under the issue. The history of racial injustice is inescapable and this inquiry must be followed up with concrete actions to push back against structures of privilege in Cambridge. We hope to see further efforts on the University’s part to confront its complex history with race; corresponding changes to curriculums that currently obscure colonial legacies; as well as greater steps to diversify its student and faculty bodies.”
CUSU BME Campaign’s concerns underline the issues that this study seems set to raise, and it is unclear from the official University statement what the University intends to do with the results of the two year investigation. It also says little that addresses the potential tensions created for BME students and staff by it’s aims, nor does it outline any intended follow-up work to balance the findings of the study with the reality of the impact this history has had on the lived experience of BME people in Cambridge.