Can the past hold the present to ransom? Can we be culpable for our predecessors’ actions? Knotty questions of this kind have long been debated in British universities. But now these abstractions are finding new and controversial expression.
Yesterday, the University of Cambridge made headlines by launching an academic investigation into its historical relationship – direct or otherwise – with the slave trade. The panel will spend two years scrutinising whether Cambridge profited from ‘the Atlantic slave trade and other forms of coerced labour during the colonial era’.
For academics, the enquiry will certainly be interesting. But serious problems inevitably arise when historical discoveries are deemed to have moral consequence for the present.
First things first: there’s no need for suspense here. Cambridge will certainly have profited indirectly from exploitative labour, not only through the slave trade but all manner of indentured and convict labour. This profit will be unearthed in the considerable donations from those benefactors who made their fortune exploiting others. What's more, an 800-year-old university will be found to parallel the moral failings of the nation with which it has been so intimately connected, as a conduit and bastion of institutional power.
Cambridge is not alone in asking these questions. Last year, the University of Glasgow concluded its own enquiry on the same grim topic. While it had not directly participated in slavery, philanthropic gifts of an incalculable value had originated from donors engaged in the slave trade. Faced with this evidence, the university published its own ‘programme of reparative justice’, which involved the founding of a centre for slavery studies, the renaming of buildings and a commitment to diversifying the racial profile of students and staff. The Vice Chancellor of Cambridge, Stephen Toope, has said he is ‘very struck’ by these approaches.
As a university, Cambridge has long condemned the evil of treating humans as a commodity for enslavement and sale, whether practised by European, African, Arab or anyone. In the late eighteenth century it was instrumental in securing change: William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, two driving forces of the abolition movement, were contemporaries at St John’s College. Sixty years later, in 1849, Queens’ College hosted Alexander Crummell, the University’s first black undergraduate, while slavery still blighted his native America.
My colleagues undertaking this investigation will be well aware of all this. But their work may simply prompt the University to survey its other past injustices, which extend far beyond slavery. For much of its history, entrance for foreign-born students was difficult and for those who renounced Anglicanism, effectively impossible. Those researching female undergraduates will come up entirely empty-handed before the year 1869; and for the subsequent eighty years, no woman was allowed to take a degree.
Perhaps some will even feel moved to lament that the university’s complex history is writ large in ‘problematic’ college names – whether venerating religious zealotry (Jesus, Christ’s, Emmanuel, Corpus Christi), monarchical autocracy (King’s, Queens’), aristocratic feudalism (Clare, Pembroke), colonial evangelism (Selwyn) and imperial bravado (Churchill).
But to consider the university in ivory-tower isolation is to miss the crucial fact of its history: its million and more students over eight centuries continually shaped it, while it symbiotically shaped the nation. Any moral conclusions therefore become impossibly tricky. What to do when the whole nation’s history – and economy – is implicated in the same ancient crime? Do only the institutions still standing shoulder the blame? If so, for how long after the fact can they be culpable? Five years, presumably; fifty years, questionably; five hundred years, absurdly. More pressingly, can any individual be guilty when born into circumstances beyond their control? The notion of inherited culpability seems utterly repugnant.
The racism of our institutional forebears is a stain on our collective past but that does not obviously taint the present. What comes from leapfrogging centuries of steady progress to lambast an original iniquity? What role should reparations play when history has found ways to repair itself?
Across the Atlantic, talk of reparations for slavery is particularly charged, not just on American campuses but in the race of Democratic presidential candidates. But, each time rebalancing programmes are talked through, a fundamental worry emerges: how could any such scheme operate without reinvoking the explicitly race-based genealogical obsessions of the very system that motivated reparation?
In its mission statement, Cambridge sees the investigation as one of several ‘race equality initiatives’. But it’s already facing charges of tokenism. While some see the enterprise as self-flagellating guilt-letting, or even virtue-signalling wokery, others think it half-baked to leave unexplored the 31 colleges that form the lifeblood of the University. Others perhaps may prefer to see greater energy from Cambridge in working to help end modern-day slavery, still supported by states and private institutions worldwide.
Cambridge's contribution in science, the arts, economics, politics, technology and the law remains unfathomably and undeniably rich. And reassuringly, intellectual excellence from fresh quarters has often exposed the university's unjust behaviour. In 1869, Numa Hartog, a Jewish undergraduate, topped the Mathematics Tripos as Senior Wrangler, forcing Cambridge to abolish its religious restrictions two years later. In 1887, when Agnata Ramsay took the top First in Classics, the shock that shook the nation helped advance women’s education.
As a member of the University for the last fifteen years, I see this process of evolution is still in evidence. In 2019, Cambridge is rightly striving harder than ever to accept students of the highest intellectual potential, regardless of background and circumstances. While this activity has no regard for the injustices of centuries past, it properly acknowledges the iniquities of the present, factoring into its decisions all the challenges’ raised by educational and socioeconomic disadvantage. There’s a passionately-held conviction that this will secure an appropriately representative student body.
And – for the time being, thankfully – no concern is given to a time when the question will doubtless arise: what reparations should be made to society for the University’s unashamed elitism in privileging intellectual excellence above all else?
Dr David Butterfield is director of studies for Classics at Queens’ College