University of Cambridge to look into how it benefited from slavery

Academics at the University of Cambridge will spend two years investigating its links to slavery during Britain’s colonial era, and how it may have benefited.

The inquiry will focus on university archives and other records, digging for evidence of how the institution may have gained from slavery and the exploitation of labor, either financially or through bequests, according to a press release.

“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 labor during the colonial period,” said Professor Stephen J. Toope, vice-chancellor at the University of Cambridge, in the release.

Toope has appointed an eight-member advisory group headed by Professor Martin Millett, the Laurence Professor of Classical Archaeology, and research will be carried out by two full-time researchers based at the Center of African Studies.

“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,” said Millett in the press release.

The inquiry will also look at how scholars from the university may have shaped opinions on race from the 18th to the early 20th century, supporting, reinforcing and sometimes contesting racial attitudes which are repugnant today, according to Millett.

The results of the study will be presented in fall 2021, alongside recommendations as to how the university should publicly acknowledge any links to slavery.

“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,” said Toope in the press release.

The inquiry was announced as universities in the UK and the US are coming under increase pressure to acknowledge any connections to slavery.

In September 2018 the University of Glasgow, Scotland, published its own report into its links with racial slavery, which found that it had received significant financial support from people involved in the slave trade.

And in 2017, Harvard University hosted a national academic conference to explore the historical role of US colleges in propagating slavery. Georgetown University students also recently voted to pay reparations to the descendants of the 272 slaves who were sold to pay off institutional debts in 1838.