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 investigation into the ways that Cambridge has benefited from the slave trade.

It will also consider whether the university should make any reparations. These could give financial help to those who need it most.

It is not the first university to go through this process. Glasgow University is setting up a centre for studying slavery after it found it had received around £200 million worth of donations from slave traders.

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. Goods were brought back from plantations to be sold in Britain. This was known as the triangular trade.

In 1833, Britain banned slavery. The Government then made £20 million worth of payouts to slave owners for the loss of their “property”.

Five years ago, University College London found that this money helped to fund museums, banks, art collections, railways and individual families.

In short, the “fruits of slavery” became “part of the basis of modern Britain”, according to Professor Catherine Hall.

Making amends?

Do we have a duty to atone for historical mistakes? If so, what does that look like? Is it about removing any legacies of the slave trade, such as statues? Or giving out compensation to help fight the racial inequalities that still exist today?

Professor Gill Evans, an historian at Cambridge, worries that the inquiry risks “messing with history”. She told The Telegraph that we must “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?


  1. Design a statue or monument which acknowledges Britain’s role in the slave trade.

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 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.
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.

Word Watch

Making amends through payments. In the US, some Democratic candidates for president have proposed giving reparations to the descendants of slaves.
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, goods (like cotton or sugar) would be taken back to Britain to trade.
£20 million
According to The Guardian, this was around £16.5 billion in 2013 money, or half the budget of the Treasury.

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