The University of Cambridge gained “significant benefits” from the transatlantic slave trade, although there is no evidence the university owned enslaved people or slave plantations, according to new research investigating its historical links to slavery.
The research, commissioned in 2019 by Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, Stephen Toope, highlighted the considerable investments made by Cambridge colleges in companies heavily involved in slave trading, such as the East India Company and the South Sea Company, as well as the wealth derived from slavery by the university’s graduates, fellows and benefactors as recently as the 1850s.
“The research found no evidence that the university directly owned slave plantations or slaves. However, it identified significant benefits to the university and its colleges arising from investments in companies that were participants in the trade, from individual benefactors, and from fees derived from the families of plantation owners,” the university said in its announcement of the publication.
In response, Cambridge will create and fund a “legacies of enslavement” research centre to continue investigations, as well as increasing financial support for black students, with dedicated scholarships for postgraduate students from Africa and the Caribbean, alongside greater efforts to recruit and promote black members of staff.
The university also plans to commission works of art to celebrate its black graduates, and commemorate staff and students who campaigned for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade, often against what Toope described as “deep-rooted attitudes and practices” within the university community that “underpinned the practice of enslavement”.
“It is not in our gift to right historic wrongs but we can begin by acknowledging them,” Toope said. “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.”
The report detailed investments made by individual colleges such as Gonville & Caius, Trinity and King’s, with several investing in companies directly involved at the height of the Atlantic slave trade. In other cases colleges received donations from big investors in colonial companies such as the Royal African Company, the South Sea Company, and East India Company.
“Such financial involvement both helped to facilitate the slave trade and brought very significant financial benefits to Cambridge,” the researchers noted.
The university’s famous Fitzwilliam Museum was “founded on money inherited from a governor of the slave-trading South Sea Company”, the report notes. The museum will hold an exhibition on slavery and power next year using objects from the university’s collection.
But the links were not merely financial: the report said that the slave-owning brother of an 18th-century master of Gonville & Caius “named one enslaved person ‘Caius’ in honour of his brother’s college”.
The report’s authors said Cambridge’s “participation in imperialism and slavery is extremely complex” and defied easy analysis. It noted that “persuasive voices have called for financial reparations”, but recommended the university consider how it can “make a difference to the communities affected by the legacies of enslavement”.
Cambridge’s report is the latest of a string of investigations into university investments and donations from wealth acquired through slavery and colonial-era exploitation. The University of Oxford continues to struggle with controversy over the legacy of Cecil Rhodes, whose bequest established the Rhodes scholarship fund and supported Oriel college, which maintains a statue of Rhodes overlooking Oxford’s High Street.