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Forgive Us Our Trespasses, All of Them: Oxbridge colleges, slavery, and their other sins

Cmglee Cambridge Trinity College Great Court
Written by Lawrence Goldman

Trinity College, Cambridge has just announced an inquiry into its historic links with slavery. Here, Lawrence Goldman asks why, if this investigation into past sins is thought necessary, the college is not widening the research to consider all its moral failings: its exploitation of the land and the labourers on it; its investments in petrochemicals and in other things that have harmed the environment; its historic prohibitions on religious minorities which prevented them from studying at the college for two centuries; and the delays in admitting women students?

Trinity College, Cambridge has just announced a project to investigate its historic links with slavery and forced labour. It joins other Oxbridge colleges that have also launched investigations, such as St. John’s College, Oxford. It is also following the example of the University of Cambridge itself, which published an initial report on its links to slavery in 2022. The Cambridge report admitted in its opening paragraph that it could find no direct relationship between the University or its colleges, and the holding or trading in slaves. It was forced, instead, to list and criticise a variety of its alumni who were associated, in often tangential ways, with ‘colonialism’, though the term was not defined. The report’s scholarship was weak and thin. In the history of a college as large and as wealthy as Trinity there are likely to have been investments made, or benefactions received, with at least some association to slavery in the period between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. If the research is undertaken properly, something will almost certainly be found.

It is easy enough to understand why, at this moment in time, Trinity and other colleges believe they should focus on this aspect of their histories. My question to Trinity’s Dean of Chapel, the Rev. Dr. Michael Banner, who is leading the initiative, and to all those dons involved in similar exercises, is why stop at slavery? Why focus on this alone when the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge could be held responsible for a whole series of moral failings, among them the degradation of the environment, religious intolerance, and the economic exploitation of whole classes of the English poor for several centuries?

Let us start with the last of these. Until the late 19th century, college wealth in both universities depended overwhelmingly on landholding, specifically the rents extracted from tenant farmers who cultivated the land leased to them by the colleges, and who employed landless labourers to do the work. Generations of humble agricultural workers laboured for a few shillings a week in abject conditions, their work funding the expenses of the colleges and the lifestyle of the fellows and students. Is this not worthy of remembrance and even research? Where was the land held? Who farmed it? How much were they paid? In what conditions did they live? Were the colleges responsible landlords? There are hundreds of thousands of descendants of these exploited agricultural labourers alive now. Many of them are likely to be among the white working class, the truly under-privileged social group when it comes to university admission in Britain today, and hardly represented in Oxbridge. If apologies are thought to be in order, might they be owed an apology also?

A research project on the exploitation by colleges of the rural poor in England would also have to delve into the theft of common lands known by the term ‘enclosure’. In the sixteenth century, landholders replaced small-scale arable farmers with sheep to benefit from the high price of wool. Between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries more than four thousand Acts of Parliament turned pieces of common land used by households for the grazing of animals into private land which could be ‘improved’ for the benefit of the new landholder. [1] About a sixth of the land in England was enclosed in this way. How many of these enclosures involved Oxbridge colleges? Some, without doubt, since the colleges collectively owned so much land. Might that not form a subject for research? Perhaps also the fate of those turned off the land by new owners intent on maximising rural profits – should that not be studied? A century ago historians and the reading public were greatly exercised by this historic injustice. Why are the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, which are surely implicated in the theft of these lands and their resources, not as interested today?

Over recent decades there has been intense public scrutiny of admissions procedures in Oxbridge and of the social and ethnic origins of undergraduates in the two universities. Yet no one considers today the historic barriers to studying at Oxford and Cambridge in the form of religious tests, as they were called. For two centuries, from the Restoration until the mid-nineteenth century, it was effectively impossible for a Roman Catholic, a Protestant Dissenter, a Quaker, a Jew, or anyone from any religious minority at all to enter either university. Oxford demanded assent to the doctrines of the Church of England before admission; Cambridge demanded such assent before the taking of degrees. Generations were deprived of an education because of their identity and faith. The two universities compounded the deep social and cultural division between a religious establishment and religious ‘dissenters’, as they were known. Do today’s Anglican Deans of Chapel across Oxford and Cambridge not consider that worthy of some research, and also some contrition? Undergraduates were freed from the Tests by parliamentary intervention and legislation in the 1850s. It took until 1871 for the final Tests on the holding of college fellowships by persons who were not Anglican to be removed. Ironically, it was the resignation of his fellowship at Trinity by the great moral philosopher, Henry Sidgwick, at the end of the 1860s, in protest at this continued proscription and discrimination, that hastened the end of two centuries of religious exclusion.

Or consider the treatment of women in Oxbridge. The first women’s college, Girton in Cambridge, was founded in 1869, but it took more than a century after that for most Oxbridge colleges to ‘go mixed’ and admit women as fellows and students. In so doing they immediately raised the academic level of both universities, as clever women replaced less able men. Women had the vote in Britain from 1918, and Oxford made some effort to keep up with the times, allowing them to take degrees from 1920. Remarkably, the University of Cambridge waited until 1948 before it granted women this mark of their abilities and achievement. Trinity in Cambridge had a number of distinguished fellows who supported higher education for women and taught undergraduates from the women’s colleges in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. However, Trinity itself did not admit women until 1978.

We might also ask if the colleges have examined the history of their share portfolios to consider how much they have invested in hydrocarbons, or in other industries that degraded the environment, or in enterprises which exploited their workers? College endowments have been heavily dependent on the regular dividends paid by petroleum companies. Some colleges, whether knowingly or not, invested in apartheid South Africa (and I marched as an undergraduate to try to end that). Most college fellows, who are busy academics but also trustees of a charity, have no idea at all where their college’s funds are located and how they generate profit. Jesus College, Cambridge is only the most notorious example of an Oxbridge college with links to the Chinese state.

Economic exploitation, religious intolerance, sexism: there is material here for many research projects and much atonement. The Lord’s prayer is quite specific: we are sinners who ask for forgiveness for ‘our trespasses’ in the plural. Why is only one historic sin being investigated, therefore?

Lest there be any doubt, I do not favour any of these college investigations, though I would certainly support – and I am engaged in – the properly contextualised writing of college history, which is different. Investigations of the type currently underway are anachronistic, set up specifically to facilitate a judgment on the past that will be made on our terms, through our eyes and our sensibilities, reflecting our values and priorities. If their findings could be put to those now being judged, they would make little or no sense. College fellows in the past found good reason, in their eyes, for the exclusion of religious dissenters, the slow progress in women’s education, even the expulsion of commoners from land that could then be ‘improved’ in private ownership and feed the growing cities of the Industrial Revolution. The slave trade and slavery were vicious, brutal, inhumane and abhorrent, but – though we may lament this and wish it had been different ­– they were legal until as late as 1807 and 1833 respectively. It was only in 1787 that an organised antislavery movement emerged in Britain – though in half a century that movement had ended both trading and owning slaves in the British empire, and turned Britain into an antislavery nation that led the world in extirpating practices that had been intrinsic to almost every society and civilisation up to that time.

Rather than pick a fight with their history and with former fellows of their colleges who cannot explain themselves or answer back, it would be far more constructive if those leading these investigations were to focus on the present and future. They should analyse college endowments, investments, and policies now to ensure that they are not perpetuating exploitation, environmental harm, and forms of forced labour today, rather than cast back to decry the sins of the past. Condemning history is easy and also cheap, in several senses of that word. Reforming college investments would come at a much higher price and cause considerable pain. But it would show if those keen to investigate their colleges are really in earnest in their virtue, or just signalling.

[1] G. Slater, ‘Historical Outlines of Land Ownership in England’, in The Land. Report of the Land Enquiry Committee (Hodder and Stoughton, 1913) in Simon Fairlie, ‘A Short History of Enclosure’, The Land Magazine,

Lawrence Goldman was a postgraduate and Junior Research Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge in the 1980s. He is the author of the chapter on Trinity’s historians since Macaulay in the forthcoming official history of the college. For 25 years he taught the Oxford History Faculty undergraduate Special Subject on ‘Slavery, Race and the Crisis of the American Union, 1854-1875’. He was Vice-Master of his Oxford college, St. Peters.

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Lawrence Goldman