By Guy Faulconbridge
LONDON (Reuters) – The University of Cambridge said on Tuesday it would conduct a two-year academic study of how it benefited from or validated the Atlantic slave trade and other forms of coerced labour during the colonial era.
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.
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.
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.
Some of the West’s 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.
In 2017, Yale renamed its Calhoun College after protesters said the Ivy League school should drop the honour 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 university’s colleges.
Last year, Glasgow University said it would launch a “programme of reparative justice” after discovering it gained up to 200 million pounds ($260 million) in today’s 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.”
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.
“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 transferable from age to age without some nuancing.”
Cambridge, one of the world’s 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.
(Editing by Andrew Heavens)