University of Cambridge’s wealth ‘significantly’ linked to slave trade

A new research report reveals that the infamous British institution was built on investments derived from the sweat and blood of enslaved Africans.

  • University of Cambridge in the UK (Viator)
    University of Cambridge in the UK (Viator)

According to new research looking into its historical connection with slavery, it was shown that the University of Cambridge received “significant benefits” as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. Even though no evidence demonstrates enslaved people or slave plantations were owned by the university, the institution did benefit from the investors’ wealth that came from owning slaves.

The research conducted in 2019 and commissioned by Cambridge’s vice-chancellor Stephen Toope, underlined the involvement of the Cambridge institution alongside its partners and colleagues in companies that took part in slave trading, such as the East India Company and the South Sea Company, which in turn contributed to the university wealth dating back as recently as the 1850s.

In a statement announcing the results of the research, the university disclosed: “The research found no evidence that the university directly owned slave plantations or slaves. However, it identified significant benefits to the university and its colleges arising from investments in companies that were participants in the trade, from individual benefactors, and from fees derived from the families of plantation owners”.

Hefty contributions were provided by individual colleges such as Gonville & Caius, Trinity and King’s, with several of them investing in companies directly involved in the Atlantic slave trade, which marked the transportation of approximately 10 to 12 million enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the America from the 16th to the 19th century. The researchers commented: “Such financial involvement both helped to facilitate the slave trade and brought very significant financial benefits to Cambridge”.

As found in the research outcomes, the Fitzwilliam Museum pertaining to the university was “founded on money inherited from a governor of the slave-trading South Sea Company”, and ironically, the museum is due to carry out an exhibition on slavery and power next year using artifacts from the university’s collection.

In light of this report, the University of Cambridge announced its intention to found a “legacies of enslavement” research center to pursue investigations alongside increased financial support and advocacy for its black students and initiate dedicated scholarships for postgraduate students from the regions of Africa and the Caribbean, in addition to encouraging and recruiting black staff at its institution.

Speaking of promoting its black staff, the university announced plans to exhibit works of art in an attempt to highlight and celebrate its graduates, students, and staff who strived to eliminate slavery and its trade, often against what Toope labeled as “deep-rooted attitudes and practices” within the university that “underpinned the practice of enslavement”.

Toope said: “It is not in our gift to right historic wrongs but we can begin by acknowledging them”, adding: “Having unearthed our university’s links to an appalling history of abuse, the report encourages us to work even harder to address current inequalities – particularly those related to the experiences of black communities.”

Cambridge’s “participation in imperialism and slavery is extremely complex”, per the report’s researchers, pointing out that “persuasive voices have called for financial reparations”, but suggested that the university contemplates ways through which it can “make a difference to the communities affected by the legacies of enslavement”.

This report comes as part of a chain of recent investigations into university and institutional investments and donations from riches obtained through slavery and colonial-era exploitation throughout the UK such as the University of Oxford, which still struggles with its controversy over the legacy of Cecil Rhodes , known for his racist past and who established the Rhodes scholarship fund, whom Oriel college sports a statue of, overlooking Oxford’s High Street.

Last month, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, also known as LSHTM, was found to be deeply entrenched in a colonial past and propagated ideologies in its research and teaching methods that were rooted in white supremacy and pseudoscience to advance its racist agenda.

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