Response to Cambridge's Legacies on Enslavement

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At the start of Michaelmas term, Cambridge University published a Report on the Legacies on Enslavement. After months of research and writing, delayed by the pandemic and rigorous editing; it has been incredibly shocking, but not surprising to read the result. 


In this report, Cambridge academics have concluded that Cambridge has a history of both promoting and opposing slavery. Proposed to the reader as something surprising, Cambridge University has attempted to highlight that despite our fascination with the likes of William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and other abolitionists; Cambridge was also complicit in the enslavement of thousands of people. This report recognises the role that Cambridge colleges and educational institutions were responsible for financially supporting and producing intellectual justification for the barbaric enslavement of Black African people for profit. Despite Cambridge not directly owning slaves, this report lists a number of alumni, Masters and their children who did own plantations, enslaved people and trading companies. As well as noting that number of colleges “directly purchased… Company shares and annuities''. 


Many of us know that Cambridge University, as well as Oxford and other traditional and historical universities essentially functioned as finishing schools for the most prominent colonisers and owners of slave trading companies. So, while it did produce some instrumental ,and at the time, radical, empire abolitionists, these spaces were fundamentally built upon the backs of thousands of enslaved Black people and continue to exploit and benefit disproportionately from the suffering of people of colour. Credit where it is due, this report does highlight the ways in which teaching and research at the time did significantly contribute to the imperial episteme. That is to say, teaching heirs of plantations that their acts were justified; that slavery saved Africans from backwards culture and that Black and other people of colour were less human thus absolving guilt. It even goes so far as to acknowledge the benefit of a Cambridge education was for these up and coming enslavers- providing them social status and network to strengthen their colonial whips over the backs of millions of Africans and Indigenous American people.


One thing this report falls significantly short on, however, is the ways in which Cmabridge is still complicit in pushing a white imperial narrative. Time and time again, Cambridge institutionally fails to recognise and support its students of colour. For example, in my second year of studying Human Social and Political Sciences, in a paper on the history of political thought I was asked to comment, without criticism on colonial leaders like Seeley, Carlyle and Mill, who emphasised not only the benefits of the colonial empire, but also the opinion that Black people and people of colour are deserving of submission and domination as we are supposedly less civilised or progressive. Posing it as a question on the idea of progress and civilisation within political thought, the course administrators and teachers had clearly given no thought to the impact that reading these texts could have on Black and Caribbean students. This supervision question demonstrates their inability to consider the emotional and psychological toll of continuing to celebrate these racist people has on students of colour, particularly Black and Caribbean. We have fought to demonstrate that Cambridge is a place for people like us, that we are intelligent and have great academic potential, but upon crossing those quote-on-quote golden gates, racist ideology is continually discussed, shared and celebrated as “classics” without a second thought as to how it impacts us. 


Moreover, this report does nothing to change the pompous nature of this University and its obsession with honouring damning and racist traditional or “classic” thinkers. In order for this report to have any real impact within the University and the world, Cambridge University needs to put its money where its mouth is and challenge colonial and euro-centric dominance narrative every day now and forever. As suggested in Appendix 9 of the Terms of Reference for the group, this Report triggers a discussion on Cambridge’s continual role in “knowledge production, levels of attainment and retention”. This is particularly poignant considering that Black Caribbean pupils are the lowest achieving group of people from primary school onwards. Ultimately, this is what determines the level of effectiveness in reparations. Access, financial support and greater understanding of the situation means nothing if it does not uplift or help Black cantabs of today once within the system. Attainment levels, particularly among Caribbean students should be a specific goal for the university and I hope to see special initiatives and expensive resources devoted to righting this wrong. 


What’s most shocking about this report is what is left unseen. Noting the names of those involved in this report, it is apparent that Black students and Black people on the whole have been significantly underrepresented in this work. The chair of this working group is a white man, contributing towards the majority of the advisory group being Caucasian, and only 3 of 12 members actively working with this advisory group being as Black. As the first Black BME Officer of Cambridge SU, thus, the elected student representative for the BME student body, it's deeply concerning that I had only been consulted to promote the press release of this report, and not to provide any meaningful student- focused contribution to the report. I don’t say this out of self-pity and acknowledge that a couple Black undergraduate students had been consulted in the initial stages of research for this report. I say this more to highlight the issue with how this issue has been approached. Although Black people should not be burdened with the responsibility of solving or researching racism and legacies of slavery, we should be given the loudest amps on this topic. Moreover, students as a whole have been largely left out of this conversation since the very beginning. It is likely that the recommendations could have significantly benefited from the creative and diverse suggestions that students bring, rather than limited into financial support. To correct this, we hope to receive greater student and Black voice in the implementation of the recommendations of the report, including those of Cambridge SU representatives. Another shocking memento from the report is the effort to “stay away from the numbers”, taking a step back from specific numerical data in evaluating and understanding the Universities links with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Considering that this report takes considerable note of the economic benefits of slavery for the university, it is only right that the public should know how much was invested and received from this engagement. Many reparations scholars choose to focus entirely on the numbers, calculating the modern-day value of money gained from the trading of enslaved people and cost of harm compensation in order to understand how much is owed to the descendants of enslaved people. Staying away from the numbers is a tactic to remove responsibility for reparations. We know that Cambridge is one of the richest institutions in the world, and that a significant proportion of this wealth was gathered on the backs of enslaved Africans. So, knowing exact numbers means that we as a Black population could demand the modern-value of money the university obtained is funnelled into reparations work; rather than relying on alumni donations. 


Furthermore, as demonstrated by the lack of reflection in Toope’s statement. A particularly shocking sentence within his statement is that “The University of Cambridge is not responsible for the atrocities of slavery… it is not in our gift to right historic wrongs”. For much of recent history, Brits and British institutions have squirmed under the spotlight of responsibility. More than silent bystanders of racism, the University of Cambridge was indeed responsible for providing a meeting ground for a number of top enslavers and their children. It was responsible for contributing to the racist science of eugenics and social theories of civilisational progress. It was responsible for funding and holding shares in some of the most prolific companies enslaving African people. Toope’s comment that this university is absolved of responsibility is completely unfounded and demonstrates a deep lack of empathy or understanding of the findings of this report. 


Ultimately, we must hope that the university takes this information seriously to enact real and genuine change. A research centre and increased financial support for Black students is a promising start but I would argue that it only contributes to the centralisation of knowledge in Anglo-European spaces. A more useful way to support active research on Legacies of Enslavement could be to fund specific fellowships for students moving from Cambridge to the University of the West Indies (which has a pre-existing Centre for Reparations Research). And to other Caribbean and West African academic institutions. This would demonstrate an active interest in empowering the descendants of enslaved people, providing them a space to explore these topics in a less alienating environment. Fundamentally, any work responding to the immense trauma of Trans-Atlantic chattel slavery must be lead by the hands of the harmed; this means that Cambridge University needs to release its sense of elite entitlement (which created this problem in the first place) and instead financially, intellectually and socially empower Black people in the Caribbean, UK and modern overseas colonies.


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