Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope claims it was ‘inevitable’ that a university ‘as long-established as Cambridge’ would have links to slavery. Now that faculties gorge on racial guilt as Cambridge dons once famously feasted on roasted swans, what was really inevitable is that a body christened ‘The Advisory Group on the Legacies of Enslavement’ would find links to slavery.
Why, it must have frustrated the authors of the report released last week that their three-year inquiry didn’t manage to dredge up any evidence that the university ever directly owned slaves or plantations. Rather, it’s the money that was tainted; lucre having always passed through dirty hands somewhere along the line, there’s no such thing as clean money. Thus the ‘significant benefit’ Cambridge enjoyed from this discreditable practice came down to donations from companies and individual benefactors involved with slavery, as well as fees from students whose families ran plantations.
As Cambridge is not the only academic institution undergoing this handwringing self-examination, maybe it’s worth asking exactly what good the posturing exercise has accomplished. The same number of Africans were sold into forced labour as ever. The same suffering and injustice simply sit there in the past, as irretrievably and immutably as before.
The primary benefit of discovering the university has a smudge in its drawers is that its administrators get to feel better about themselves. That is, they get to feel better about themselves for feeling worse about themselves. But given that their predecessors spent that blood money long ago, we might sensibly question whether reports like this ever make the modern-day staff and faculty genuinely feel bad. I’ve never thought the whole concept of ‘liberal guilt’ quite stands up to scrutiny. Guilt is an unpleasant sensation. When I went too long without checking in with my elderly father, the feeling was sludgy and soiling.