LONDON (Reuters) - The University of Cambridge will conduct a two-year academic study of how much it benefited from the Atlantic slave trade and whether its scholarship reinforced race-based thinking during Britain’s colonial era.
In the biggest deportation in known history, weapons and gunpowder from Europe were swapped for millions of African slaves who were then shipped across the Atlantic to the Americas. Ships returned to Europe with sugar, cotton and tobacco.
Around 17 million African men, women and children were torn from their homes and shackled into one of the world’s most brutal globalised trades between the 15th and 19th centuries. Many died in merciless conditions.
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 who specialises in Roman Britain.
“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.
“We cannot change the past, but nor should we seek to hide from it,” said Stephen Toope, vice chancellor of Cambridge.
Some of Europe and America’s top seats of learning have been grappling with their pasts and the provenance of some of their wealth, sometimes uncovering links to slave traders or to empire builders who were feted in a different age.
Joanna Burch-Brown, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Bristol, said it was fantastic that Cambridge was delving into its past and looking at its intellectual contribution to slavery.
“We can’t understand where we are today unless we understand this history,” said Burch-Brown, who works on issues of contested heritage and public memory of slavery and colonialism. “Equally important is for the university to follow up with concrete measures.”
“Reparative measures should address root causes of contemporary inequalities, and shouldn’t only benefit the most well-off,” she said.
An American who did her PhD at Cambridge, Burch-Brown said voices from African heritage communities should be central in the debate. The University of Bristol estimates about 85 percent of the wealth used to found it depended on the labour of slaves.
In the United States, southern campuses have been rocked by arguments over the confederate flag.
Yale in 2017 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.
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.
“Culpability isn’t transferable from age to age without some nuancing,” Evans told the Daily Telegraph.
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.
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Editing by Andrew Heavens