British Universities are Researching Ties to Slavery. Conservative Alumni Say "Enough"Historians in the News
tags: slavery, historiography, British history, British Empire
When the historian Nicolas Bell-Romero started a job researching Cambridge University’s past links to transatlantic slavery three years ago, he did not expect to be pilloried in the national press by anonymous dons as “a ‘woke activist’ with an agenda”. Before his work was even published, it would spark a bitter conflict at the university – with accusations of bullying and censorship that were quickly picked up by rightwing papers as a warning about “fanatical” scholars tarnishing Britain’s history.
Bell-Romero, originally from Australia, had recently finished a PhD at Cambridge. He was at the start of his academic career and eager to prove himself. This was the ideal post-doctoral position: a chance to dig into the university’s archives to explore faculty and alumni links to slavery, and whether these links had translated into profit for Cambridge. It was the kind of work that, Bell-Romero said, “seems boring to the layperson” – spending days immersed in dusty archives and logbooks, exploring 18th- and 19th-century financial records. But as a historian, it was thrilling. It offered a chance to make a genuinely fresh contribution to burgeoning research about Britain’s relationship to slavery.
In the spring of 2020, Bell-Romero and another post-doctoral researcher, Sabine Cadeau, began work on the legacies of enslavement inquiry. Cadeau and Bell-Romero had a wide-ranging brief: to examine how the university gained from slavery, through specific financial bequests and gifts, but also to investigate how its scholarship might have reinforced, validated or challenged race-based thinking.
Cambridge was never a centre of industry like Manchester, Liverpool or Bristol, cities in which historic links to slavery are deep and obviously apparent – but as one of the oldest and wealthiest institutions in the country, the university makes an interesting case study for how intimately profits from slavery were entwined with British life. Given how many wealthy people in Britain in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were slaveholders, or invested in the slave economy, it was a reasonable expectation that both faculty and alumni may have benefited financially, and that this may have translated into donations to the university.
In the past decade, universities in the UK and US have commissioned similar research. Top US universities such as Harvard and Georgetown found they had enslaved people and benefited from donations connected to slavery. The first major research effort in the UK, at the University of Glasgow, began in 2018, but soon similar projects launched at Bristol, Edinburgh, Oxford, Manchester and Nottingham. Stephen Mullen, co-author of the Glasgow report, told me that he was surprised not only by the extent of the university’s financial ties to slavery, but by how much that wealth is still funding these institutions.
In their report, Mullen and his co-author Simon Newman established a methodology for working out the difficult question of how the financial value of historic donations and investments might translate into modern money, which produces a range of estimates rather than a single number: in the case of Glasgow, between £16.7m and £198m. In response to the research, the University of Glasgow initiated a “reparative justice” programme, including a £20m partnership with the University of the West Indies and a new centre for slavery studies.
All of this marks a dramatic change in how Britain thinks about slavery, and especially the idea of reparations. For the most part, when Britain has engaged with this history, the tendency has been to focus on the successful campaign for abolition; historians of slavery like to repeat the famous quip that Britain invented the slave trade solely to abolish it.
This wider trend is reflected in Cambridge. As far as the story of slavery and the University of Cambridge goes, perhaps the most well-known fact is that some of Britain’s key abolitionists – William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson – were educated there. But British celebration of the abolition of slavery in the 1800s has tended to elide the awkward question of who the abolitionists were fighting against, and the point that the wealth and economic power generated by slavery did not disappear when the Abolition Act was passed.
“It was interesting to me that there weren’t so many questions about the other side – were slaveholders educated here? Did slaveholders give benefactions? Did students invest in the different slave-trading companies?” Bell-Romero said. “It’s not about smashing what came before, it’s about contributing and building on histories.”
Cambridge consists of the central university and 31 constituent colleges, each of which has its own administration, decision-making powers and budgets. Most of the university’s wealth is situated within colleges, and from the outset, the legacies of enslavement inquiry relied to an extent on colleges granting Bell-Romero and Cadeau access to their archives. This wasn’t always easy. “The entire research experience, even now, remains a constant struggle for archival access, an ongoing political tug of war,” Cadeau told me in late 2022. “There was financial support for the research from the central university, but mixed feelings and outright opposition were both widespread.”
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