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Vice-Chancellor's Office


We read the future by the past

Alexander Crummell

History is inescapable in Cambridge. It is inconceivable that a British institution as old as our University would not have been touched by colonial practices of enslavement and enforced labour – whether benefiting from, helping to shape, or indeed challenging them.

A society’s historical baggage and its modern-day challenges are inextricable. Understanding our past and shaping our future are not separate projects. The University of Cambridge is exceptionally well placed to undertake both of them.

The legacies of enslavement form a part of who we are today, and inform what we wish to achieve. We can never rewrite history, or do away with our heritage, but we can try to address prevailing inequalities. This process begins through greater self-knowledge and self-reflection.

Professor Stephen J Toope


University of Cambridge Advisory Group on Legacies of Enslavement

The Advisory Group was created in early 2019 at the request of the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen J Toope, in light of the growing public interest in the issue of British universities’ historical links to the slave trade. It has been asked to advise him on the University of Cambridge’s historical links with the slave trade and to propose future action in the light of this.

The Advisory Group has agreed to commission research into the University of Cambridge’s involvement in, or links to, the Atlantic slave trade and other historical forms of coerced labour, including indentured labour. The Advisory Group recognises that its work is of relevance to the Collegiate University as a whole. It seeks to work in collaboration with those already engaged in such research in Cambridge and in the UK and elsewhere, and to encourage and support the development of further strands of research. Alongside its findings on historical University links to the slave trade, the Advisory Group will recommend specific ways for the University to publicly acknowledge such historical links and to address their intergenerational impact. It intends to produce an interim report early in 2020 and a final report in 2022.

To assist in its work, the Advisory Group plan to appoint two post-doctoral Research Fellows for two years from Autumn 2019. They will be based in the Centre for African Studies, but will be expected to work in an interdisciplinary context across the University, developing relationships with other staff and students who are active in similar research. They will develop and deliver their own research projects as set out below, under the aegis of the Advisory Group and under the supervision of a small group of academics. Each will be expected to take part in academic meetings and seminars, and to have time to publish their academic work. One will undertake historical and archival research into the ways in which the University may have been involved financially and otherwise in the slave trade or other historical forms of coerced labour connected to colonialism. The other, with expertise in institutional and intellectual history, will undertake research into the University’s contribution to knowledge that may have supported the validation and dissemination of racialized and racist social structures and beliefs, including how those may continue into the present.

The group’s initial thinking is that Cambridge, like many other major UK institutions, benefited both directly and indirectly from the slave trade and imperialism more broadly. While it may be impossible to definitively establish the full extent of the university's involvement, a growing understanding of that involvement should be central to the University’s efforts to address some of the structural inequalities that are a legacy of enslavement. To this end, the Group envisages this Inquiry as the beginning of a long-term research and institutional commitment to these issues. It is for this reason too that the programme of research includes both the university’s financial history as well as its scholarly productions around the idea of race and its relation to enslavement.

The Advisory Group has already held two consultative meetings with University staff and students and plans to continue these through the course of its work down to 2022. It also aspires to work with others across the whole university, including the colleges, to support existing research and to stimulate new research in this area. To this end, one aim is to join with others in developing a cross-university Research Network that will continue after the Advisory Group’s work is completed. We also hope to draw on expertise and perspectives from outside Cambridge in order to benefit from other experiences and to contribute to broader discussion on these issues globally.


15 May 2020Initial report of the Advisory Group on Legacies of Enslavement



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