Cambridge University is right to explore links with slave trade | Letters

Graham Gosling highlights the achievements of former students in ending the slave trade, Eric Banks says the historic plight of the working classes should also be studied, Michael Cross has a plan for profits, while Angela Sherlock takes issue with the ‘pilgrim fathers’ story

It may well turn out that in the past Cambridge University profited from colonial slavery (Cambridge University investigates its historical links with slave trade, 30 April), but it can also be argued that the university was in fact instrumental in ending the slave trade.

Thomas Clarkson, a student at St John’s College in the late 18th century, dedicated his whole adult life to ending the slave trade and slavery itself. He was moved in that direction when, in 1784, the university presented him with a topic for a Latin essay competition: “Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?” Clarkson was so appalled by what he discovered when researching this essay that he then spent most of his life tirelessly working to end slavery.

William Wilberforce steered the campaign to abolish the slave trade through parliament, but it was Clarkson who produced vital evidence, and the British slave trade was finally ended in 1807 (with British colonial slaves being eventually emancipated in 1833).

As it happens, Wilberforce was also educated at St John’s College. So whatever the outcome of the proposed inquiry into its historic involvement in the slave trade, the university has a lot to be proud of in helping to end that trade.
Graham Gosling
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

• It is surely right that an institution that feels it may have benefited from the slave trade should investigate if, how and to what extent that benefit was gained. It is interesting that the remit of the research is limited to the slave trade and “other forms of coerced labour during the colonial period”. I am guessing that this includes the fruits of the labour of the ordinary working class in Britain, and elsewhere, who – if they were not to starve – had to work in hellish conditions under which they were barely able to subsist. Of course, from the mid-19th century, if their conditions deteriorated they were able to enjoy the comforts of the workhouses.

This state of affairs lasted until the early 20th century. This is not to suggest that these people were, in any way, in a comparable position to the slaves; but the ordinary people of this country were oppressed and coerced through circumstances into appalling conditions of work that continued for over 100 years after slavery was made illegal in 1807.

Many of the organisations and individuals who profited from slavery continued to profit from the conditions of the working classes. Efforts by progressives to try to change the condition of the poor were met by prophecies of economic collapse and other horrors (does that have a contemporary ring to it?). It would be interesting to conduct a wider study that was inclusive of the contribution of the working classes, and which could possibly identify the benefits to some of our present-day upstanding and noble corporations and institutions.
Eric Banks
Huntsham, Devon

• As Cambridge University seeks to understand how it might have benefited directly from the profits of slavery, perhaps it should make the commitment now to invest any such profits identified in the funding of scholarships for talented, disadvantaged students.
Michael Cross
Richmond, London

• Gaby Hinsliff is right (If Cambridge can’t probe its past, who can?, Journal, 1 May). The glory of the British empire must be balanced against the shame of slavery, upon which our nation’s prosperity was built. A failure to acknowledge this results in the sanitisation of history.

The Mayflower 400th anniversary commemorations, for which Plymouth is the lead city, will begin this November, and it looks as if the same mythologising of the “pilgrim fathers” will be perpetuated. In none of the materials produced so far has the truth of that colonial venture been discussed – the theft of land, the massacre of the indigenous peoples, and the success of the New England economy that was built on the slave trade.

Instead, we will be offered the tale of a group of valiant religious refugees (they weren’t), who first set foot on Plymouth Rock (they didn’t), invented Thanksgiving (they didn’t) and became the creation story of the United States. Surely, after 400 years, we can bear to contemplate the truth of our history.
Angela Sherlock
Plymouth, Devon

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