The University of Cambridge’s announcement that it will investigate the ways in which it profited from the slave trade has raised more questions than it has answered.
The two-year inquiry, which will look into the role of the elite institution in slavery and forced labour during the colonial era through donations, gifts and bequests, was widely welcomed.
It follows an overwhelming vote by students at Washington DC’s Georgetown University, to create a fund to pay reparations to descendants of 272 people who were sold by the university to pay off its debts in 1838.
So what might the inquiry bring up, and why was it announced now? What does it mean for broader conversations about British institutions involved in the slave trade? And could other universities follow suit?
HuffPost UK spoke to historians Dr Andrea Livesey and Dr Manuel Barcia, to attempt to answer some of these questions.
How Far Reaching Is This Inquiry?
In addition to any direct role it may have played in the slave trade, the University of Cambridge says it will also examine the extent to which its scholars promoted race-based attitudes which helped shape public and political opinion.
Universities and institutions with historical links will deal with the issue in different ways, but it will all come down to their motivation, says Dr Andrea Livesey, senior lecturer in US history at Liverpool John Moores University.
“Why is it that they want to research their links to slavery in the first place? Is it because they’re being pressurised, because they’ve named buildings and statues memorialising controversial figures and they’re being pressurised into this? Or is it because they see a legacy of racial injustice that’s playing out within their own institution?” Livesey asks.
“Even though the university might not state it, that might affect the way that they choose to go about reparative justice programmes.”
What Could It Lead To?
Livesey says that any reparative justice process should be held in conversation with the ancestors of people who were enslaved, or people of African descent who have been affected in some way by the legacy of slavery.
Bursaries for black and minority ethnic students could also be a path to consider, or launching a process of memorialisation which could lead to renaming buildings, or funding more research into slavery and its legacies.
In 2017, Yale University in the States renamed its Calhoun college which had been named after US vice president John Calhoun, a pro-slavery leader with white supremacist views.
It is now named after after Grace Hopper, a computer scientist.
The university of Glasgow has also established a partnership with the University of the West Indies, as well as launching a reparative justice programme last September after discovering it profited from the slave trade to the tune of anywhere up to £198 million in present day value.
“That is them acknowledging the privilege that’s come out of complicity with slavery, and trying the level the playing field in some way,” Livesey says.
Why The Announcement Now?
“It could be a result of both internal pressures and external developments. For example the University of Glasgow has led the way when it comes to finding out any possible involvement of their institution with the murky past of slave dealing or owning,” Dr Manuel Barcia, professor of Latin American studies at the University if Leeds, told HuffPost UK.
It could be influenced by developments in the US as well.
Livesey says there are a couple of reasons why institutions are looking into their link with the slave trade, including increasing awareness about institutional racism, which is “in the public eye more”, and where it stems from.
Institutional racism is defined in the Macpherson report – published after the racially-motivated killing of teenager Stephen Lawrence – as: “The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin.”
Livesey says: “This is something in the US that they’ve had to deal with for a long time, but in the UK context, it’s coming up in the news and on TV more and more, and it’s not just about the past.
“I think that we’re going to get more and more stories coming out like the one we’ve had todayDr Andrea Livesey
“If you have institutionalised racism, then you have to start thinking about where that racism comes from. We know that racist ideas originated under Atlantic slavery, it was through Atlantic slavery that racial ideas were first thought up, it’s where they were performed, but also when it became embedded in a western consciousness.”
Thinking about institutionalised racism, the legacies it stemmed from will lead us to think about questions such as: “How are we benefiting in our small local areas? How is it affecting our lives and and workplace?’,” Livesey says.
Livesey’s own institution is part of the Universities Studying Slavery Consortium, which also includes Glasgow university. Liverpool John Moores, despite being a 20th century institution, discovered that it has links to the slave trade through the small colleges which were united to create the newer one.
She says: “We do know that in 1825, we had link both to people who were benefiting from the slave economy, slave owners themselves, and also abolitionists. So it’s a really complex history.”
Interest in the consortium has accelerated of late, with scholars from British universities getting in touch with its organisers.
“I think that we’re going to get more and more stories coming out like the one we’ve had today.”
Are Other UK Universities Likely To Follow?
Not only should they do so, but this move should be a way for universities into examining a broader dark past, Barcia says.
“You would expect most universities founded before the end of the 19th century to do so.
“The issue here is that the slave trade is but one aspect of a potential dark past that could have also include any kind of involvement in colonial wars, drug trafficking.
“While the slave trade remains high on the agenda, colonialism and imperialism more broadly are aspects of this past that need to be addressed sooner or later.”
Livesey says that the profile of the University of Cambridge should prompt universities who may not think they have links to the Atlantic slave trade, to consider looking into their past as well.
Could This Open Up A Broader Conversation About How Other British Institutions Profited Off The Slave Trade?
“I think that there just needs to be a general acceptance that slavery is such a key part of British history that the question shouldn’t just be whether or not institutions benefited, but how they benefited, and in what various ways,” says Livesey.
This means looking beyond direct links to the slave trade, such as slave owners making a donation, to other ways that the university may have benefitted from it.
“We know that racism develops under slavery and universities may have ben teaching racist ideas. They may even have just had books in their library that were helping to circulate ideas related to slavery, race, or even eugenics.”
While the slave trade remains high on the agenda, colonialism and imperialism more broadly are aspects of this past that need to be addressed sooner or laterDr Manuel Barcia
Towards the end of last year, University College London launched an inquiry into its historical links with eugenics, which controversially believes that the human race can be advanced by excluding so-called ‘inferior’ groups of people.
The philosophy was founded by Victorian scientist Francis Galton, who left an endowment and personal collection to the London institution.
Barcia says the conversation is already happening, such as the discussion surrounding the University of Glasgow.
Livesey says: “My advice to Cambridge is that you can’t put a time limit on these projects because it’s far too complicated and far too big for that.
“It needs to be an ongoing process of confronting this history, because it’s too big to just deal with and just move on.”