The Church of England promised to tackle racial injustice. Why is it defending a slave trader’s memory? | Sonita Alleyne

Show caption ‘From a moral point of view, Tobias Rustat’s activities helped finance slave factories along the African coast.’ The memorial in Jesus College chapel. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

Opinion

At Jesus College, our student body is more diverse than ever – a memorial to Tobias Rustat has no place in our chapel

Thu 14 Apr 2022 13.36 BST

I believe we are, in Britain, on a continual walk towards a fairer society. Each new generation questions where fairness lies for them. The resulting conversations can be uncomfortable. Sometimes progress stalls. However, as an optimist, I believe this underlying thirst for fairness leads to a deeper understanding of one another and a more inclusive society.

Back in 2019 – before I was elected master – Jesus College, Cambridge, set up a legacy of slavery working party (LSWP). We were not alone in this – many institutions are now re-examining their roles in the past and present and shining a spotlight on their histories.

Our rigorous investigation uncovered much about individuals and objects historically linked to the college. And as a community we asked: what should we do with this knowledge, with this truth, in relation to wider issues of fairness today?

In November 2021, we returned a looted Benin bronze to Nigeria. It was the right thing to do. Now, across Britain, Europe and the US, other institutions are following suit. However, an estimated 90% of sub-Saharan Africa’s cultural artefacts are still held outside its continent. The walk towards fairness still has a long way to go.

Another strand of the LSWP’s work concerned our 17th-century benefactor Tobias Rustat. Its research exposed the extent of his 30-year involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. We used our website to inform people about Rustat. When presented with the evidence, the college’s council decided that his name should remain on the donor wall as a matter of historical fact. It was concluded that his crest should remain in an old hall window. Last, an overwhelming majority of fellows voted to apply for permission to relocate a memorial to Rustat from its prominent place of veneration in Jesus College chapel.

This felt straightforward. From a moral point of view, Rustat’s activities helped finance the slave factories along the west African coast. This enabled ships to transport tens of thousands of enslaved women, children and men across the Middle Passage. And it led to these people being worked to death in the killing fields of the Caribbean and Americas.

It also felt straightforward from a practical standpoint. The 2.65-metre high, 3.5-tonne memorial consists of eight pieces and has been moved on a number of occasions. The chapel has 500 years of history prior to the memorial being installed. Indeed, it hides an older architectural truth: a late-15th-century interior window through which masters looked into the chapel. Our intention was to relocate the memorial from a spiritual place to a permanent educational exhibition space in the college. Here, Rustat’s legacy could be properly considered, away from the heart of religious worship.

The Church of England, however, has disagreed. After a small group of alumni objected to the plan, and after delays and a number of hearings, our formal application was considered at a contested hearing in the college chapel, with barristers representing each party and a single judge sitting in judgment. Last spring, the Church of England published its From Lament to Action document for tackling racial injustice. The church should have tested the moral case for relocating the memorial against the ethos of that document, which is urgent and ambitious. What should have been a simple decision turned into a convoluted consistory court process.

The presence of the memorial is deeply offensive to many in the college community. Teaching them more about Rustat’s benevolence, as the consistory court judgment suggests, will not bring them back into the chapel. Rustat’s personal generosity pales against the mass rapes, torture and murders that occurred as a result of the transatlantic slave trade.

An increasing number of students refuse to enter the chapel to pray, reflect, hear our wonderful choir, or take part in social and cultural events due to the presence of the memorial. For us it is vital that every student feels welcome throughout the college. In recent years, Cambridge has made great strides in opening up to students from a wider range of backgrounds. In Jesus’s most recent cohort, more than 80% of undergraduates are state school-educated, about a third identify as people of colour and a fifth are from areas of the lowest progression to higher education. Our community is changing.

After the church’s decision to hold a consistory court hearing, Jesus College was in an impossible situation. There was no question: we had to fight this case. In doing so, the college will have spent about £120,000 on an antiquated process that it had little choice but to follow, dominated by lawyers, and which is ill-designed for resolving sensitive matters of racial justice and contested heritage. The church must develop something better than this.

Throughout I felt that Rustat’s memorial was given more weight than the 150,000 African people he helped traffic into slavery. Having considered the judgment, I believe that this process is incapable of accounting for the lived experience of people of colour in Britain today. Encouragingly, we have received much support from across the country and the world. The open letter signed by more than 160 clergy in a recent Church Times article shows the extent to which many Christians disagree with the judgment, effectively saying, “not in our name”.

As a college, we’ve been here before and managed change successfully. Just two generations ago, female students were admitted for the first time. Opponents cited 483 years of male-only access among other vehement criticisms. Their arguments were proved to be untenable. Buildings were repurposed and new arrangements and traditions created. As a consequence, the college is fairer and far more academically exciting today.

I am proud to be master of an establishment like Jesus College. The quiet deliberation and conversation started by the fellows in May 2019 has not shied away from difficult subjects or this course of action. It is part of our walk towards fairness. It matters to Jesus College, and it ought to matter to the Church of England.

  • Sonita Alleyne OBE is master of Jesus College, Cambridge

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