Two full-time post-doctoral researchers based in the university’s Centre of African Studies will conduct the inquiry to uncover the university’s 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 institution’s 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 John’s College, Oxford, advertised a new academic post looking for a researcher to examine the university’s contribution to creating and maintaining Britain’s colonial empire. Last year Oxford’s 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 college’s 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 university’s 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 university’s 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 Cambridge’s historical relationship with the slave trade and other forms of coerced labour,” said Millett.
“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.