Cambridge University finds it gained ‘significant benefits’ from slave trade

Research finds no evidence of direct slave holdings but gains accrued from investments and individuals involved in slavery

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.


Richard Adams Education editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Justin Welby backs removal of slave trader memorial in Cambridge college
Archbishop of Canterbury says Church of England has long way to go on journey towards racial justice

Sally Weale Education correspondent

13, Apr, 2022 @6:47 AM

Article image
'Stormzy effect': record number of black Britons studying at Cambridge
Rise follows rapper’s high-profile backing of scholarships for black students at university

Richard Adams Education editor

10, Oct, 2019 @11:01 PM

Article image
Glasgow University to pay £20m in slave trade reparations
Institution believed to be first British university to set up restorative justice scheme

Severin Carrell Scotland editor

23, Aug, 2019 @12:41 PM

Article image
Cambridge University assigns white academic to look at slavery links
Campaigner criticises ‘bizarre’ choice and asks why black academic was not chosen

Will Neal

03, May, 2019 @11:31 AM

Article image
Are Soas students right to ‘decolonise’ their minds from western philosophers?
Outraged headlines erupted when students launched a campaign to challenge the great western philosophers. We went to the source of dissent – London’s School of Oriental and African Studies – to investigate

Kenan Malik

19, Feb, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
Oxford college to investigate its own role in colonialism
New academic post will enable St John’s to study the part it played in the British Empire

Richard Adams Education editor

21, Mar, 2019 @7:04 PM

Article image
Cambridge college to create fellowship to examine slavery links
Trinity academic to establish how college benefited from slave trade in move to achieve ‘reconciliation’

Tobi Thomas

18, Mar, 2023 @1:41 PM

Article image
Gladstone’s legacy is murky – my university shouldn't glorify it
Angry columnists want us to keep quiet, but it’s time to open the conversation about slavery’s legacy in Britain

Tinaye Mapako

24, Nov, 2017 @3:49 PM

Article image
Cambridge may drop BAME mentoring of white academics
University says scheme for BAME staff to ‘reverse mentor’ senior white peers may be scrapped after ‘mixed feelings’

David Batty

14, Mar, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Cambridge University receives £100m gift from former student
Donation by financier David Harding will primarily be used to assist PhD students

Richard Adams Education editor

05, Feb, 2019 @6:00 AM