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Slavery and Antislavery in Cambridge

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Written by Lawrence Goldman

History Reclaimed has been established to counter ‘bad history’- history based on false information, inadequate knowledge, faulty logic, inappropriate comparisons, and ‘present-mindedness’, that ever-increasing habit of seeing the past through the present. It is required because contemporary historical writing and discussion is frequently the servant of ideology, deployed to make a case rather than to present the past as it was.

A Critique of the Final Report of the Legacies of Enslavement Advisory Group in the University of Cambridge

Legacies of Enslavement in Cambridge

The justification for the existence of History Reclaimed is all too evident in the final report of the ‘Legacies of Enslavement Advisory Group’ in the University of Cambridge, just published. The group was established in 2019 to investigate the university’s historic links with Afro-Caribbean slavery. Whether the university had any links with earlier, medieval forms of forced labour or with more recent forms of modern slavery does not appear to have been considered. It is perfectly in order for an institution to seek to understand its history and Cambridge should not be dismissed or criticised for setting up the project. Instead, criticism should be directed at the report itself, its approach, and its failure to give due weight to Cambridge’s historic links with the cause of antislavery.

We are told that a more detailed volume of findings will be published in 2023 and that several colleges are presently researching their separate histories relating to slavery. The latter projects may throw up precise details of investments and benefactions: numbers and amounts are conspicuously lacking in this ‘final report’ which is short, imprecise and impressionistic. The university’s alumni and everyone interested in these questions deserve better.

What and Who is under Investigation?

The Atlantic slave trade and West Indian slavery itself were integral to the British empire over roughly two and a half centuries between the late sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that a university designed for the education of the national elite should have developed links of varied types with those who owned slaves or benefited from slavery during this long period. In this sense, the findings of the advisory group were to be expected, indeed they were inevitable: ‘seek and ye shall find’. The unexpected outcome of the report, however, which is stated clearly at the outset, is that no ‘Cambridge institutions directly owned any plantations that exploited enslaved people’. Many British institutions did have a direct stake in slavery, but not Cambridge. The advisory group thus focused on ‘individuals closely associated with Cambridge and its colleges’ and this is where the problems begin, for it has led to a very elastic and imprecise definition of ‘Cambridge’ and its interests. No one today would hold Cambridge or any other university responsible for the actions, investments, crimes, and opinions in later life of the students it educated. But this new report proceeds exactly on this basis, what may be termed ‘guilt by association’. Much of the evidence adduced is not about Cambridge but about individuals associated in often tenuous ways with the university.

Guilt By Association

For example, Cambridge is held to be complicit in slavery because a number of those who established and led the Virginia Company in the first years of the seventeenth century were educated there. The university is apparently shamed not merely by the actions of its former students but even by ‘the parents of Cambridge students’ who invested in the Royal African Company which traded in slaves later in the seventeenth century, as if their actions could have been controlled by Cambridge, and now bring it into disrepute. Individuals who did nothing at all to further slavery are also shamed, such as Adam Sedgwick, professor of Geology and teacher of Charles Darwin, who gives his name to the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge. Sedgwick apparently received a legacy after the emancipation of slaves in the British empire in 1833 from a woman whose family had previously owned a plantation.

The complexities and intricacies of biography are ignored in the final report. Henry Coulthurst was a brilliant Cambridge mathematician, a fellow of Sidney Sussex College, and for most of his career the evangelical vicar of Halifax. An associate of Wilberforce, he was a prominent abolitionist in the 1780s. But Coulthurst’s father and brothers owned plantations in the West Indies, and he probably benefited from a legacy derived from slavery later in his life. The final report condemns him for the sins of his family members as slaveholders. He might more appropriately be praised for his opposition to the slave trade from which the rest of his family benefited so conspicuously. At the very least, the authors should recognise how difficult it is to to ascribe motives and pin blame on individuals, especially individuals who, as in this case, actually stood up for the cause of the enslaved. That Coulthurst opposed the slave trade while benefiting in some unspecified way from slavery itself was not uncommon in this period: many abolitionists made a clear differentiation between the human trade, which was intolerable, and slavery itself, which could be reformed. It is no more paradoxical than people advocating today an end to the use of hydrocarbons while continuing to use them in every aspect of their daily lives.

The case of Thomas Clarkson

But Coulthurst is not the only abolitionist who does not pass the authors’ tests. Even Thomas Clarkson himself, second only to Wilberforce in the campaign to abolish the slave trade, is fair game because of his ‘gradualism and elitism’ and his later realism in recognising, as so many emancipationists did, that slavery itself could only be ended by the offer of generous compensation to the slaveholders in 1833. Clarkson and all the other Cambridge abolitionists (see below) should be ‘interrogated’ because they held different views and supported different strategies from those advocated by the Cambridge Advisory Group two centuries later. Yes, with a spirit-deadening inevitability, we have reached ‘present-mindedness’, another of the failings of this ahistorical analysis. Because the past was different from the opinions and ideologies of the authors of this report and of the committee which retained them, past actors, even someone like Clarkson, are the subject of embarrassingly jejune criticism. Clarkson was the very hero of the movement, who rode through England over a period of twenty years, stopping at towns and villages to convene public meetings to raise awareness of the hated trade and holding aloft his famous image of the innards of a slave ship.

Cambridge and the American Civil War

With ‘present-mindedness’ comes two further features of bad history, intolerance of other views and ignorance of context. The authors are appalled that during the American Civil War in the 1860s, many Cambridge students supported the Confederacy, the southern states which had seceded from the Union in defence of slavery, and that Charles Kingsley, Regius Professor of History, gave lectures in which he endorsed the Confederacy’s right to secede and blamed the Civil War on American abolitionists. The authors seem not to know that these views were entirely commonplace in Britain at the time. The Union’s imposition of import tariffs to pay for the war; the struggles between Britain and the Union over ‘rights of search’ on the high seas which nearly led to armed conflict between them (The Trent affair); the blockade of Southern ports which deprived Lancashire of raw cotton; the slowness with which the Union made emancipation a war aim; and admiration for a new nation struggling to self-determine (a pattern which had long attracted British approbation), together led many Britons to favour the cause of the Confederacy. In America itself, many citizens, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, blamed the conflict on Northern abolitionists who had stoked sectional tension until the Union exploded. Those Cambridge students were merely reflecting a large section of public opinion, therefore. To damn past actors for views that were held so generally across British society runs counter to all the evidence. There is a large and sophisticated literature on British responses to the American Civil War which shows how divided we were as a nation. But more significantly, to argue like this, without contextualisation or respect for different opinions in the past is a signal that this report is not a work of history.

The case of John Donne, poet

Nor does it show much respect for literature, as in the case of John Donne. Donne was educated in Oxford at Hart Hall, later Hertford College. There is no evidence that he was ever at Cambridge, though later, for his efforts in church and state, he received an honorary degree from the university. Geographical references, images drawn from the age of exploration, and metaphors based on voyaging were frequently employed by Donne in poems that many consider among the very greatest literary works of the Renaissance. They have influenced many modern poets like T. S. Eliot, and also Cambridge literary critics like I. A. Richards and William Empson. But Donne is set down in a few words as a colonialist and white elitist, and written about as if the authors of the ‘final report’ have never read a line of his ‘Songs and Sonnets’. There is no mitigation in literary genius. We should expect better from the University of Cambridge than judgments this crude.

The omission of Antislavery in Cambridge

To write about the legacies of enslavement in Cambridge with only the most cursory treatment of the university’s associations with antislavery is almost shameful. The authors seem to suggest that this history is well-known and therefore not worthy of repetition, but it is not widely understood, and even if it were, a balanced account of Cambridge and slavery should surely include it. For no other British university was as involved to the same degree in organised opposition to the slave trade and slavery, and arguably, no other university, whether in Britain or the United States, is associated with as many leaders in these causes.

Cambridge and the Clapham Sect

The University of Cambridge was one of the communities, alongside whole cities like Birmingham, Bristol and Leeds, which had its own list of subscribers to the Society for the Purpose of Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, founded in 1787. Everyone has heard of William Wilberforce, the society’s leading spirit, and many will know the name of Clarkson: both were educated at St. John’s College in the early 1780s. But fewer will know of the Clapham Sect, those evangelical Christian families who gathered around Holy Trinity Church on Clapham Common in the 1780s and 1790s, and who led the campaign to abolish the hated trade; and fewer still will appreciate how many of the ‘Clapham Saints’, then and later, were Cambridge-educated and associated with the university. They include Wilberforce; Henry and John Venn, father and son, and William Dealtry, all of them successive pastors at Holy Trinity; Edward James Eliot, later an MP; Thomas Gisborne, Prebendary of Durham Cathedral and another of Wilberforce’s associates at St. John’s; John Owen, later the secretary of the British and Foreign [Missionary] Bible society; Charles Simeon, of King’s College, Cambridge and the minister at Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge for 54 years; and the eccentric Isaac Milner, President of Queen’s College, sometime holder of chairs in natural philosophy and mathematics, and Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge in 1793 and 1810 who was a ‘frequent visitor to Clapham’. As one historian has put it, Cambridge was a ‘significant focal point’ for the Clapham Sect.

Cambridge and Slave Emancipation

Later leading figures in the Anti-Slavery Society, active in the cause of emancipation between 1823 and 1833, included the lawyer Thomas Denman (St. John’s) and two sons of Claphamite leaders of the campaign against the slave trade, George Stephen (Magdalene) and Thomas Babington Macaulay (Trinity), the famous historian. Macaulay gave a great speech at the Society’s first mass meeting. Among the Society’s aristocratic patrons were Viscount Milton (3rd earl Fitzwilliam), radical MP for Yorkshire and Honorary Doctor of Laws in Cambridge in 1833, the year of slave emancipation, as well as the Society’s president, Prince William Frederick, second duke of Gloucester, whose portrait as a child, painted by Joshua Reynolds, hangs to this day in the Hall in Trinity College, Cambridge. The 2nd earl Grey, who was prime minister when slaves in the British empire were emancipated by statute, was educated at Trinity.

Peter Peckard, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge and abolitionist

In addition, the name of Peter Peckard, Master of Magdalene College, deserves more than a single passing reference in the final report. Committed as he was to civil and religious liberty, he preached a university sermon in Cambridge in 1784 in which he denounced the slave trade as a ‘sin against the light of nature, and the accumulated evidence of divine Revelation’. In the next year, now as Vice-Chancellor, Peckard set the question ‘Is it lawful to enslave the unconsenting?’ as the subject of the Latin essay prize. It was won by Thomas Clarkson for an essay on the Atlantic slave trade which was duly declaimed in the university’s Senate House. Clarkson then set out on his abolitionist career, publishing in the following year the first of his many pamphlets, An Essay of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African. Two years later, in 1788, Peckard published his famous pamphlet entitled Am I not a Man and a Brother?, a criticism of concepts of African inferiority. It was probably the origin of that most famous question which soon became the great slogan of the British antislavery movement. Peckard was also one of the supporters of Olaudah Equiano, the African-born abolitionist. There is no statue of Peter Peckard in Cambridge: there should be.

A Better History of Cambridge and Slavery

This can only be a partial list of those from Cambridge who took part in the great antislavery campaigns from the 1780s to the 1830s. Like some of those who are accused of complicity with slavery, among these abolitionists are those who had only limited contact with the university after they graduated. But Cambridge’s role, and the role of some of its former students, in ending slavery deserves to be remembered alongside any roll-call of its sins and those of its members who benefited from enslavement. If we are to damn those, educated in Cambridge, who were associated with slavery, we should praise those who pursued abolition and emancipation over several decades, often in the face of intense criticism and spite.

We shall learn more about Cambridge and slavery when the results of the collegiate research projects are finished. But it’s to be hoped that anything published from now on will be good history, which is to say history that is contextualised; written with a proper awareness of contemporary attitudes and ideas; sensitive to the inevitable inconsistencies and contradictions in any institution over time, and in any biography as well; and balanced in its presentation of a university that undoubtedly gained from slavery but also led in removing it from British history.

Professor Lawrence Goldman is Emeritus Fellow, St. Peter’s College, Oxford. He was an undergraduate, postgraduate and Junior Research Fellow in Cambridge, 1976-1985. Material included in this article is drawn from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography of which he was Editor between 2004-2014.

An abridged version of this essay was published on The Spectator website….

About the author


Lawrence Goldman