Inquiry to examine how Cambridge University profited from slave trade

The University of Cambridge has said it will investigate how it benefited from and contributed to the slave trade in a bid to “acknowledge its role during that dark phase of human history”.

A rigorous two-year inquiry will seek to uncover the ways the prestigious institution profited from slavery and forced labour during the colonial era through donations, gifts and bequests.

It will also examine the extent to which Cambridge scholars promoted race-based attitudes which helped shape public and political opinion.

Two post-doctoral researchers are to conduct the investigation, poring over both university archives and wider records.

It comes amid a wider “decolonise” movement sweeping universities in both Britain and the US in recent years.

Oriel College at Oxford University decided to keep its statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes in 2016 despite widespread student demands to remove it.

UK student campaigners from the Rhodes Must Fall group argued the row illustrated Britain’s “imperial blind spot”.

Professor Stephen Toope, University of Cambridge vice-chancellor, said: “There is growing public and academic interest in the links between the older British universities and the slave trade, and it is only right that Cambridge should look into its own exposure to the profits of coerced labour during the colonial period.

“We cannot change the past, but nor should we seek to hide from it. I hope this process will help the University understand and acknowledge its role during that dark phase of human history.”

Cecil Rhodes statue
Cecil Rhodes statue

The final report is expected to “recommend appropriate ways for the university to publicly acknowledge such links and their modern impact”, the university said.

Professor Martin Millett, chairing the advisory group overseeing the work, added: “We cannot know at this stage what exactly it will find but it is reasonable to assume that, like many large British institutions during the colonial era, the University will have benefited directly or indirectly from, and contributed to, the practices of the time.”

The findings are expected to be submitted in 2021.