Cambridge's Slave Trade Inquiry Should Make Us All Reflect On Britain's Colonial Crimes

This investigation is a vital opportunity to show how and why colonialism and slavery colours our nation and our institutions – something we need if we want a more tolerant, cohesive, and progressive society

The University of Cambridge is often seen as one of Great Britain’s crown jewels. Alongside Oxford, it is held up as one of the greatest and most illustrious academic institutions in the world. On the world stage, Oxbridge is seen to embody what it means to be stereotypically and quintessentially “British”. In the national consciousness, it is frequently revered as the apex of academia, romanticised, and constantly churning out much-loved Prime Minsters, comedians, celebrities, or scientists like Stephen Hawking, Isaac Newton, or Charles Darwin. Frequently, it feels as though that public have a vested interest in the university, which is why Cambridge stating their intention to “acknowledge its role during a dark phase of human history” , namely slavery and colonialism, is so significant.

For many current, or recent, Cambridge students, suggesting the university has ties with colonialism and slavery is no surprise. On a personal level, as an undergraduate I was part of a campaign to repatriate a Benin Bronze from Jesus College. The Bronze was stolen in a violent, bloody, and “punitive” British colonial expedition in 1897, and Benin City was destroyed in the process. Colonial echoes can be found elsewhere - one only need look across the road to nearby Christ’s College where a portrait of the proud colonialist Jan Smuts is hung in the college’s dining hall. Smuts was a vocal supporter of apartheid, and said African people did not have “the inner toughness and persistence of the European, not the social moral incentives to progress which have built up European civilisation in a comparatively short period”. Cambridge can feel confusing at times in the same vein: whilst some colleges don these symbols of colonialism openly, other colleges, such as St John’s, have plaques or statues for individuals like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson. The incredibly explosive and controversial Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford further illustrates the growing momentum for decolonisation among the student bodies of Oxbridge, and also demonstrates the scope of public interest.

Of course, the British complicity in slavery and colonialism go well beyond a university or institution; the consequences of colonialism impacts every aspect of British society – from the economy, to the food we eat, and what we are taught in school. To be British is to be part of a nation that grew richer by violently exploiting other nations. Great Britain economically benefitted from the 5.5million African slaves were taken across the Atlantic to Caribbean colonies - its legacy fuelling a lot of the pain felt in the contemporary Windrush scandal.

Despite this, it seems the severity of British colonial crimes are somewhat absent from the national consciousness, where it is not offered much attention - even though the prosperity we enjoy as a nation at present is largely a result of those before us. Indeed, one need only look at former British colonies today, like Jamaica, Barbados, or Antigua, who still find themselves “dangling precariously between life and debt” in the aftermath of British colonisation.

Of course, the British weren’t alone in their exploitation: one of the biggest tragedies is Haiti. A slave nation in 1804, Haiti declared independence from France, one of the world’s biggest colonisers, who then subsequently forced Haiti to pay the modern-day equivalent of $21billion dollars for their independence in “reparations”. After finishing payments in 1947, Haiti still continues to struggle with the severe economic consequences of French colonialism today. As is clear, the repercussions of colonialism and slavery do not just end upon emancipation or independence; the have a lasting effect and actively affect contemporary societies.

Respected and prestigious institutions, like Cambridge, actively participating in decolonisation is vital for its success; rightly or wrongly, there is great public interest in what Cambridge does. In a country which is becoming increasingly intolerant, and a potential future Prime Minster who celebrates colonialism, acknowledging diverse voices, histories, and perspectives play a huge part in shaping our society – something we need if we want a more tolerant, cohesive, and progressive society. Cambridge have a real opportunity here to show why, and how, British colonialism and slavery colours our nation and our institutions. They have an opportunity to illuminate the past so, as a nation, we can acknowledge it, discuss it, and learn from it. Cambridge has a platform that occupies a unique place in the British the consciousness with great influence, and is therefore a key player in getting Great Britain to square with its not so “great” history, and look the truth in the face.

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