University of Cambridge Will Examine Its Relationship to Slavery

The University of Cambridge in the UK is launching a two-year study to identify how the university contributed and benefitted from the slave trade during the colonial era. The study will be conducted by two full-time post-doctoral researchers at Cambridge’s Centre of African Studies. It will explore how the prestigious university may have reinforced race-based thinking between the 18th and early 20th centuries.

Cambridge Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope announced that an eight-member advisory board would oversee the research. Toope said it was “only right” that Cambridge should delve into its history and expose any profits made from coerced labor.

“We cannot change the past, but nor should we seek to hide from it,” Toope said, according to The Guardian. “I hope this process will help the university understand and acknowledge its role during that dark phase of human history.” Professor Martin Millet, chairman of the inquiry’s advisory group, told CBS News that faculty felt the university should step up and attempt to play “an active role in this in a constructive way.” The professor of archaeology told NBC News that it was unclear what the inquiry will find, but said it was reasonable to believe that the University of Cambridge “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,” Millet said. “But the panel is just as interested in the ways scholars at the University helped shape public and political opinion, supporting, reinforcing and sometimes contesting racial attitudes which are repugnant in the 21st century.” Cambridge staff were reportedly inspired by recent work at the University of Glasgow. The Scottish institution released an in-depth report on the financial gains it made from the slave trade in the Caribbean and Africa during the colonial era.

The University of Glasgow’s report found that the institution gained an estimated $260 million in today’s currency from the slave trade. The university announced a program of “reparative justice” following the study and vowed to create a center for the study of slavery, as well as a memorial in the name of enslaved people, The Guardian reported. It is unclear what Cambridge will do if it finds that it profited or validated slavery. Millet told CBS News that reparative justice for the university may include changing memorials around the university which are found to have ties to slavery or setting up scholarships for students in countries affected by the slave trade.

Dr. Nicholas Guyatt, reader in North American History at the University of Cambridge, told The North Star that the study cannot be solely addressed as a matter of money or dry calculations. “It’s an emotional and psychological scar, and different communities will want to be heard in the debate over how we can address it,” Guyatt, who is not part of the advisory board, said when asked about what the university should do if it finds it benefitted from the slave trade. “So it would be a good idea to facilitate this broader conversation sooner rather than later, and I hope the university will run this parallel with the establishment of the research project in the coming months.”

In 2018, Oxford University’s All Souls College added a memorial plaque to commemorate the enslaved people who were forced to work on plantations in Barbados. According to The Guardian, funds from the plantation were donated to the college by a former fellow and used to build a library.

Universities and other institutions in the US have also been forced to reckon with their roles in the slave trade. In April, Georgetown University students voted in favor of establishing a semesterly fee that would directly benefit the descendants of the 272 enslaved people who were sold by the Jesuits who ran the university. The $27.20 per semester fee would go toward supporting education and health care programs in Louisiana and Maryland, where many of the 4,000 descendants of the “GU272” now live.

Georgetown University has not committed to approving the fee.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.