Seldom have so many people taken to print and the airwaves to make the case for academic incuriosity. Rarely has the search for new knowledge, undertaken by a university of world renown, been so vocally condemned. That is what happened when Cambridge University announced a new academic research project to determine the extent to which the university (although not its wealthy colleges) “contributed to, benefited from or challenged” slavery and the slave trade.
Cambridge and its colleges are rich. Staggeringly rich. And – spoiler alert – some of the gifts and bequests buried deep within that mountain of wealth will have come from benefactors who were slave traders and slave owners. This is true of other universities, here and abroad. Yet the same commentators who endlessly accuse students of being closed to new ideas and unwilling to face uncomfortable facts have rushed to condemn the university’s investigation into its own past. Their argument, in essence, is that we’re better off not knowing.
Given that it was the right that began the culture wars, it is perhaps surprising that they failed to use the years leading up to their declaration of hostilities to build up a stockpile of rhetorical weaponry. One result of this oversight is that now, decades into the conflict, they are forced to field painfully antiquated arguments, many of them riddled with holes from previous engagements. Most of the old favourites were sent into action last week.
First came a real golden oldie, that paper-thin, disingenuous line that claims that any discussion of slavery or colonialism traps 21st-century black Britons in a culture of victimhood. It’s not that discussing how Britain trafficked millions of Africans into slavery makes us uncomfortable, it’s just that it’s bad for you guys. Then we had that ever-adaptable staple – the false dichotomy. Always useful for muddying the waters, this claims that the money being spent on an investigation into the university’s past would be better spent on increasing Bame access to top UK universities. Why dwell on the past?, they ask; we should look to the future.
It is of course perfectly possible for a university, or any institution, to carry out a rigorous investigation into the historical origins of its accumulated wealth, while at the same time putting in place systems to address modern inequalities of access and attainment. It’s not a case of either/or. Black students and would-be students are not being sacrificed in the name of what the new right like to call “grievance archaeology”. The dichotomy is false and the motivations for its fabrication equally phoney.
It is also difficult not to notice that the parts of the past that it seems unhealthy to dwell on tend to be those in which non-white people were exploited or exterminated. It’s always too long ago or not appropriate. Yet if Cambridge, the university from which the abolitionists William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson both graduated, had set up a project to explore its role in the ending of slavery, there would have been back-slaps all round. Everyone is happy for the history of slavery to be investigated so long as the investigation examines the parts in which we look good.
What has been started at Cambridge is not just about the money and not just about the slavery. It is also about ideas. Another aim of the investigation is to determine if previous generations of Cambridge academics “reinforced and validated race-based thinking”. What the architects of the project recognise is that universities did not just benefit financially from slavery and colonialism, they played a role in the creation of the racial theories that underwrote both of those grim projects.
Racism is a belief system. It was assembled over centuries from many component parts – bits of biblical scripture, the propaganda of the slave-owning lobby and the pseudo-science of academics working in universities in Europe and America. Theories, books and ideas created within ivory towers had real-world consequences.
Some universities have concluded that it is time to confront these realities. In the US, the Universities Studying Slavery project links a number of institutions currently examining their role in US slavery. Last year, Glasgow University announced that a considerable proportion of its historical funding had come from slavery, information generated by a research project very similar to that announced by Cambridge. That there was no comparable howl of derision at the news from Glasgow reveals part of the problem here. Cambridge, and therefore its links to slavery, is close to Britain’s elite – 54% of the UK’s top journalists, for instance, attended Oxbridge.
What Cambridge has announced is not about dredging up the past, self-flagellation or any of the other blithe dismissals we’ve heard. It is about breaking the historical silence and uncovering a past that was whitewashed. Cambridge never forgot its role in the lives of Wilberforce and Clarkson, the better angels of our history, but, like other universities across Britain, there was amnesia about the men who made their money from the slavery business. This research is needed because of that amnesia.
History will not be “rewritten”, no one is to be blamed for the past, the “standards of today” will not be misapplied to historical events and the sins of the fathers will not be visited upon the sons. All that will happen is that a couple of postdoctoral researchers will carry out some rigorous archival work that will enable us to know how one of the nation’s oldest and richest institutions benefited from the enslavement of Africans.
What actions that new knowledge inspires will be up to Cambridge University. That is the real question.
• David Olusoga is a historian and broadcaster