Cambridge University will offer more scholarships to black students after uncovering slavery links

·4-min read
Cambridge University - Jonathan McManus/Moment
Cambridge University - Jonathan McManus/Moment

The University of Cambridge has pledged to increase scholarships for black British students after its slavery inquiry uncovered links to an “appalling history of abuse”.

The university said it would create new postgraduate places for black British students and scholarships for postgraduate students from Africa and the Caribbean.

It will also fund more research into the legacies of slavery and commission a work of art to commemorate the achievements of black scholars and alumni of the university.

Prof Stephen Toope, the outgoing vice-chancellor of Cambridge, said: “It is not in our gift to right historical wrongs, but we can begin by acknowledging them.

"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.”

Benefited from slave trade

The university launched an inquiry more than three years ago into how the 800-year-old institution benefited from the slave trade in response to scrutiny from some students and academics. It followed the Rhodes Must Fall movement in 2015, when students demanded the removal of a statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College.

The final report of the inquiry, published on Thursday, found no evidence that the university directly owned slave plantations or slaves. However, it said that Cambridge had received “significant benefits”. They included funds from companies that participated in the trade, as well as from individual benefactors, and from fees derived from the families of plantations.

It also reported on ways in which individual scholars at the university presented ideas that were used to justify slavery, while others promoted its abolition.

The final report recommended that “open discussions” on financial reparations take place. However, it recommended that it would be “more constructive” to focus on deploying resources “to make a difference to the communities affected by the legacies of enslavement”.

The university has committed £1.5 million of seed funding to implement the report’s recommendations, which it plans to grow via donations from individuals and university colleges.

It pledged to build on the programme launched in 2018 with the grime artist Stormzy to offer scholarships to dozens of black students at Cambridge. The new scholarships will target masters and PhD black British students, a cohort that is “very much under-represented”, the university said.

In 2019-20 the black British postgraduate cohort was 1.7 per cent of the total compared with 2.7 per cent for undergraduates.

Additional funding for five years will be allocated to the university’s black advisory hub, which was launched last year to support black students and run initiatives for a more inclusive environment.

The university has also pledged to “significantly enhance” its recruitment activity among African and Caribbean students, working with colleges to create dedicated scholarships.

A Cambridge Legacies of Enslavement Research Centre will be established to continue the investigations initiated by the inquiry. Separate funding from a donor will be used to commission a black British artist to create a work of art memorialising black Cambridge scholars or graduates.

'Process of reflection'

Prof Toope said the inquiry was part of the university's "wider process of reflection about its role in a changing society".

"This process includes considerations about how black and minority ethnic communities are represented and truly included within Cambridge; about what and how we teach; about how best to manage, curate and display collections in our museums; about how we engage most productively with academic institutions in other countries, and with black and minority ethnic communities across the United Kingdom."

The investigation was overseen by an advisory group of nine professors supported by two post-doctoral researchers.

Other British universities such as Glasgow and UCL also commissioned slavery inquiries.

The examination of links between universities and slavery and colonialism increased following the death of George Floyd by a police officer in the US in May 2020.

In Cambridge, there was a failed attempt to remove the memorial to Tobias Rustat, the 17th century benefactor with links to the slave trade, from the chapel of Jesus College.

Last year, a group of students launched a campaign to rename the Seeley Library, named after Sir John Seeley, a historian who contributed to justifying the British Empire.

Responding to the report, Prof David Abulafia, a fellow of Gonville and Caius College, told The Telegraph: “It’s vital to remember that the slave trade was conducted by people in the past, long dead. Their values are not our values. Their sins are not our sins. We need to be wary before we take responsibility for our remote ancestors’ actions.”