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A university cancel culture row is to be heard in court for the first time, as a Cambridge college attempts to remove a memorial to a benefactor linked to slavery. 

Jesus College, Cambridge wrote to the Church of England to propose that the memorial of Tobias Rustat should be stripped out of its chapel following research which revealed he was a “major investor” in a seventeenth century slave trading company.

When the college submitted its petition to the Diocese of Ely it may have been waved through – were it not for the staunch and organised opposition it faced from its own alumni.

Historians will look back on ‘significant’ moment 

Now the question of whether the Rustat memorial can stay or go will be subject to a full consistory court hearing, which will take place next month.

“Hitherto colleges have decided themselves about this sort of thing, but here you actually have a judicial proceeding,” a source familiar with the process said.

“Historians in the future will probably look back on this moment and say ‘ah, this is significant’ – there will be court papers, a judgement and official records.”

Rustat donated £2,000 to Jesus College – his father’s alma mater – in 1671 for scholarships for orphan sons of Anglican clergymen.

Jesus College Chapel and Cloister, University of Cambridge Jesus College Chapel and Cloister, University of Cambridge Credit: Neil Grant / Alamy Stock Photo

While much of his wealth was derived from his career as a courtier to King Charles II, he was also an investor in The Royal African Company and also took a role in running the organisation.

The historian William Pettigrew said that the Royal African Company “shipped more enslaved African women, men and children to the Americas than any other single institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade.”

Jesus College said that investors were “fully aware of the Company’s activities and intended to profit from this exploitation”.

Some 65 alumni lodge formal objection 

When the college’s alumni first heard about the desire to remove Rustat’s memorial from the chapel, and install it in a permanent exhibition space elsewhere in the College, some of them started writing to the Master to raise their concerns.

However, when the College launched a formal petition to the Diocese of Ely in December 2020, they realised they had to move more quickly.

“The registry of the court said we had to reply to this within three weeks,” one of the group’s members explained. “We suddenly realised we had to do something rather more formal than just write letters.”

Some 65 alumni – who call themselves the Rustat Memorial Group – lodged a formal objection to the petition, and then raised funds to instruct an ecclesiastical barrister to represent them at the hearing.

“We felt that it was going slightly under the radar, the college didn’t expect any resistance,” a spokesman for the group said.

“We are beating the drum making sure Rustat gets a fair hearing. We feel this is over the top. 

“He gave away £10,000 during his lifetime which is worth millions now. He did all this good stuff – and yet he is being pulled apart for something that wasn’t illegal or even disapproved of at the time .

“Obviously slavery is abhorrent, no one diasagrees with that now. He wasn’t running a slave company, he was a courtier to Charles II sitting in London. Do we really drag him through the mire for this?”

The alumni group – who are listed by the court as a “party opponent” to Jesus College – will call on a number of expert witnesses including Oxford University’s Prof Nigel Biggar, an expert in moral and pastoral theology and Dr Roger Bowdler, who specialises in architectural history.

Meanwhile the College will call on the Bishop of Ely, the dean of the chapel and the Master of Jesus to give evidence in support of their petition.

‘Stripping away at the history’ of church buildings is a ‘risky business’ 

Prof David Abulafia, an emeritus professor of history at Cambridge, said there is a “virtue signalling side to all this”. He added that removing memorials and “stripping away at the history” or church buildings is a “risky business”.

“This is a potentially very rich source of material for those who want to demolish monuments,” he said.

“There is no end to it. It takes us back to the sixteenth and seventeenth century puritan demolition of church buildings.”

The hearing will take place in Jesus Chapel itself, and will be heard before His Honour Judge David Hodge QC.

In addition to his donations to Jesus College, Rustat also donated to Cambridge University’s library its first endowment of £1,000 to spend on books.

The university has made “preliminary enquiries” about whether Rustat’s statue, which is erected at the library’s original site, can be removed.

Referring to the Rustat memorial, a Jesus College spokesman said: “It comes down to whether it’s in the best interests of our current and future students and fellows for this celebratory memorial to be in our Chapel, a place of worship at the heart of our diverse community.”

Latest in a string of institutions embroiled in culture rows 

Jesus College is the latest institution to become embroiled in a row over an early benefactor and their links to the slave trade.

At Oxford, students have been campaigning for the removal of Cecil Rhodes’ statue from Oriel College’s main facade since 2015.

Rhodes, a British imperialist who founded Rhodesia and served as prime minister of the Cape Colony in the 1890s, donated a huge sum to Oriel in his will. He was not a slave trader but supported apartheid-style measures in southern Africa.

In summer 2020, when protests were reignited in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, Oriel’s governing body said it was their “wish” to remove the statue. But they decided last year that it should stay for the time being on the basis that it would take too long and cost too much to remove it.

Placeholder image for youtube video: m5RgcXseNdA

Meanwhile Bristol University has been under pressure from students over its links to Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave merchant and philanthropist.

The university has already removed his name from one of its accommodation blocks, changing it from “Colston Street” to “Accommodation at Thirty-Three” and it has launched a review of its logo which features his crest.

University College London has “denamed” buildings which honour eugenicists after coming under criticism for its historic links with the movement.

Lecture theatres and a building named after prominent eugenicists Francis Galton and Karl Pearson were renamed in June 2020.

Imperial College London is considering whether to rename a building and remove a bust of slavery abolitionist Thomas Henry Huxley after a review it commissioned concluded that he “might now be called racist” owing to his views on a hierarchy of racial intelligence.

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