Emancipation Badge (1787), commissioned by the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade from Josiah Wedgewood (c) Fitzwilliam Museum

Inquiry to probe links between Cambridge museums and slave trade

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 02.05.2019
University launches investigation into its role in transatlantic slavery
Cambridge museums are to be included in an in-depth academic study into ways in which the University of Cambridge “contributed to, benefited from or challenged” the transatlantic slave trade and other forms of coerced labour during the colonial era.

The inquiry will last for two years and explore university archives and records to examine how the university’s departments, museums and libraries may have benefited from slavery or exploitation of labour through financial and other bequests, as well exploring any other historical connections they may have had to the slave trade.

The project, which will be overseen by an eight-member advisory group, will also investigate how scholarship at the university might have “reinforced and validated race-based thinking” during the period of empire. 

The inquiry will be conducted by two full-time postdoctoral researchers based in the Centre of African Studies, which is part of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Martin Millett, the university’s Laurence professor of classical archaeology, is chairing the advisory group. He said: “We cannot know at this stage what exactly [the inquiry] will find but it is reasonable to assume that, like many large British institutions during the colonial era, the university will have benefited directly or indirectly from, and contributed to, the practices of the time.”

The university’s vice-chancellor, Stephen Toope, said: “We cannot change the past, but nor should we seek to hide from it. I hope this process will help the university understand and acknowledge its role during that dark phase of human history.”

The inquiry has been criticised for not being broad enough in its scope, however. Cambridge lecturer Priyamvada Gopal wrote on Twitter: “I do not think it is good enough for Cambridge to pose publicly as though a wide-ranging inquiry on links to slavery is happening when, in fact, it is only happening in one relatively small sector – the central university.

“This means that the vast majority of the collegiate university – 31 colleges – are out of the purview of the inquiry. This is like saying there will be an inquiry into parliament's affairs and then following up on two MPs only.”

Gopal said the fact that the university’s colleges have only been requested to participate in the research on a voluntary basis was "not good enough". She also criticised the make-up of the advisory panel, which includes four white men and just one woman.

The university has eight museums, including the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the Museum of Zoology and the Fitzwilliam. 

The inquiry is expected to report its findings in 2021.