Cambridge to investigate its links to slavery

Chained: Slaves are shackled and taken down into the hold of a ship in this 1835 illustration.

The University of Cambridge is opening a two-year inquiry into its links to the slave trade. How much have you personally benefited from slavery? The answer could be more than you think...

“We cannot change the past, but nor should we seek to hide from it,” said Professor Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge. He was announcing a two-year inquiry into the ways that Cambridge has benefited from the slave trade.

It will look into financial donations made using money from the slave trade, collections in the university’s Fitzwilliam Museum, and the ways that its scholars may have shaped public opinion around slavery and racism.

It will also consider whether the university should make any reparations — such as renaming buildings, taking down monuments, or offering financial aid.

It is not the first university to go through this process. Glasgow University is setting up a centre for studying slavery after it discovered it had received around £200 million worth of donations from slave traders. In America, Georgetown University set up funds to support the descendants of 200 slaves that it sold in the 19th century.

However, debate around colonial legacies can also fall the other way. When Oxford students demanded the removal of a statue of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes, the university refused.

Britain played a key part in the slave trade. For around 300 years, it helped to transport slaves from Africa to its colonies in the Caribbean and America. Goods were brought back from plantations to be sold in Britain and Europe. This was known as the triangular trade.

In 1833, Britain became one of the first countries in the world to abolish slavery. However, the Government made £20 million worth of payouts to slave owners for the loss of their “property”.

Five years ago, University College London investigated what happened to that money. It found that it helped to fund museums, banks, art collections, railways and individual families. (At the time, this included former Prime Minister David Cameron’s family.)

In short, the “fruits of slavery” became “part of the basis of modern Britain”, according to Professor Catherine Hall. Meanwhile, slavery left “terrible marks and legacies” on people’s lives. “They aren't just over. They carry on.”

Making amends?

Do we have a duty to atone for historical mistakes? Cambridge seems to think so, but what does that look like? Is it about removing any legacies of the slave trade, such as statues or stolen museum artefacts? Or giving compensation to help undo the inequality that still lingers?

Professor Gill Evans, an historian at Cambridge, worries that the inquiry risks “messing with history”. She told The Telegraph that “before you start taking blame, the first task is to understand the period, look at what the people who acted at the time actually thought they were doing”. Are we responsible for their actions?

You Decide

  1. Should governments give money to the families of former slaves as an apology?
  2. Is modern Britain still shaped by the slave trade?


  1. Design a statue or monument which acknowledges Britain’s role in the slave trade.
  2. Use the “Legacies of British slave-ownership” database, found under Become an Expert. Did your ancestors benefit from slavery? What about your school, a bank that you or your family use, or a museum you have visited?

Some People Say...

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.”

Abraham Lincoln

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The University of Cambridge was founded in 1209, making it one of the world’s oldest universities. The two-year inquiry into the slave trade will only look at the central university. Rather confusingly, this does not include its colleges, which are independent institutions. However, the report will be “made available as a model to colleges” if they want to do their own investigations.
What do we not know?
What the report will find, or what Cambridge will decide to do about it. We also do not know how much the legacy of the slave trade is still shaping Britain and its people today. How much have attitudes to racism changed? How far back can inequality be traced?

Word Watch

Fitzwilliam Museum
The University of Cambridge’s arts and antiquities museum. In recent years, many European museums have found themselves at the centre of debates about artefacts which were taken without permission during colonial times.
Making amends through payments. For example, West Germany made reparations to Jewish people whose families were killed in the Holocaust. In the US, some Democratic candidates for president have proposed giving reparations to the descendants of slaves.
Cecil Rhodes
A British businessman and a supporter of colonialism in Africa. He was a prominent politician in South Africa, and founded the colony Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia).
Triangular trade
Named after a triangle spanning the Atlantic ocean. Britain would take goods to Africa to exchange for slaves. The slaves would be transported to the Americas and sold. From there, plantation goods (like cotton or sugar) would be taken back to Britain to trade.
£20 million
According to The Guardian, this equated to around £16.5 billion in 2013 money, or half the budget of the Treasury.

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