Anna Whitelock: Confronting slavery’s legacy

An announcement that Cambridge University will investigate its historical links with slavery has prompted a wealth of discussion. Anna Whitelock examines the reaction on social media

St Catharine's College, Cambridge has already removed a bell from view after concluding it came from a slave plantation. (Image by Alamy)

Britain’s uneasy relationship with its colonial past continues to create headlines, with universities now sharply in focus. Following the announcement of a two-year investigation to determine the extent to which the university “contributed to, benefited from or challenged” slavery and the slave trade, Cambridge has been in the eye of the storm.

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Many took news that the inquiry will be chaired by a white man, classics professor Martin Millett, as evidence of disingenuous tokenism. Kehinde Andrews (@kehinde_andrews) tweeted to say that the fact the investigation is to be run by “an almost exclusively white centre for ‘African’ studies” means the initiative is “at best, a publicity stunt”. He added that: “The worst outcome of ‘decolonising’ is that the university is recreating inequalities by giving white scholars more topics to publish and promote on.”

Cecily Jones (@CessjJones) went further, tweeting: “Just wondering why so many ‘modern slavery/anti-slavery projects’ are either solely or primarily staffed by white academics? Or why senior academics on these projects tend to be white, while black academics are mainly research assistants?”

The news was evidence to many of disingenuous tokenism

Based at Cambridge University, academic Priyamvada Gopal (@PriyamvadaGopal) called on the university “to co-opt” leading black British scholars to the committee, to “stop tokenising and begin reparations on representation”.

Writing for The Guardian, David Olusoga (@DavidOlusoga) suggested that by “curing itself of amnesia”, Cambridge “might help Britain understand its past”. The article, headlined, “Why are so many afraid to confront Britain’s historical links with the slave trade?” also prompted others to reflect on the nation’s attitude to its colonial legacy.

Among them was Tom Holland (@holland_tom), who pointed out that: “Part of the problem is that the moral well-springs of abolitionism have been forgotten, and so it becomes very difficult to make sense of why and how slavery came to be abolished by any standards save those of the present day.” In a similar vein, Dame Averil Cameron (@19Averil) said: “There was no call for abolition in the New Testament or in many centuries of Christianity, so it was all the more remarkable when it came.” Holland also noted: “To us, it seems so clear that slavery is iniquitous that we forget just how recent, radical and contingent an opinion it is.”

Anna Whitelock is director of the London Centre for Public History and Heritage at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Join the debate at twitter.com/historyextra

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This article was first published in the July 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine