Behind the cowardice and hypocrisy which many institutions are showing as they give obeisance to Black Lives Matter about any connection with the slave trade lies a dread word — reparations. Activists seek to claim actual financial liabilities payable to existing human beings for alleged, centuries-old wrongs. The institutions — Oxbridge colleges, for example — are terrified. They hope to deflect attention by babbling about ‘decolonising’ the curriculum and by ‘taking the knee’. Glasgow University promised last year to pay £20 million. It won’t work. Those who grovel will be made to grovel much, much more.
Jesus College, Cambridge, has tried to handle these matters quietly. One of its greatest benefactors was Tobias Rustat, a royalist who bravely assisted the escape of the future King Charles II. He remained a courtier to the restored king and made a great deal of money out of the Royal African Company (the slavery link). A devout bachelor philanthropist, he gave money to St John’s College, Oxford, Chelsea Hospital (for which he commissioned Grinling Gibbons’s statue of the king), St Paul’s Cathedral and above all to Jesus, his father’s college.
Until recently, Rustat had a portrait by Kneller in the Senior Combination Room, and a series of lectures and a great summer feast in his name. Now these have been despatched down the Cantabridgian equivalent of Orwell’s memory hole. The chapel’s fine Rustat monument, probably by Gibbons, might be harder to jettison, unless our heritage laws are purified to remove protection from anyone we now decide was wicked. I notice, however, that the college website’s detailed account of the chapel’s art works omits the Rustat memorial. His name is still on Jesus’s ‘donor wall’, along with such luminaries as Jessica Sainsbury and Peter Frankopan, but I bet he won’t stay there much longer. Some will approve the college’s persecution of a long-dead benefactor who cannot answer back. Others might feel its attention would be better directed at the money it takes from totalitarian China today and the power that China exerts in return.
This is an extract from Charles Moore's Spectator Notes, found in this week's magazine