24 November 2020
What is Talking Point?
Cambridge News asks a representative of each local political party to answer a question on a local issue in just 300 words. The answers are then published in the physical copy of the Cambridge News every fortnight. Here, we share our response to the question.
Today's Question: Do you think campaigns to remove statues and plaques dedicated to Tobias Rustat are an interesting opportunity for an increasingly multicultural society to re-examine its heritage? Or do you think otherwise? Do you think Cambridge should be sending Demerara bells to the Rijksmuseum and bronze cockerels back to Benin? Or should they stay at St Catharine’s and Jesus and be reinterpreted somehow? When the study into how the University of Cambridge profited from the slave trade is published, how do you think this study should be used to inform discussion around this issue?
The uncomfortable truth is that the British economy, and hence also British society, was deeply implicated in the slave trade. A significant part of the prosperity of this country in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was based on slavery. Even after slavery had been abolished in the British Empire, industries such as cotton continued to depend on the products of slave labour in the American south.
Enquiries into the legacies of slavery in Cambridge University and the colleges need to take this as their starting point. It is not just about identifying the individual villains, such as Tobias Rustat. It is about examining the wider picture of how colonialism disfigured the lives of countless communities across the world, and how our ancestors profited from that. Using the proceeds to fund scholarships for the descendants of those whose lives were blighted by slavery is a clear way of showing that we are facing up to this legacy.
The plunder of the African city of Benin is merely one example of the cynical brutality of the methods used to enforce British domination. There is absolutely no excuse for the British Museum to hold on to the famous bronzes which were the result of this plunder. It is reassuring, though, that Jesus College decided last year to return the cockerel they were given.
In his recently published book Brutish Museums, Dan Hicks from the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford calls for the return of everything currently in our museums as the starting point for beginning really to come to terms with our colonial heritage.
Oppression disfigures everyone involved. Bringing it to an end liberates the oppressors as well as their victims. We will be more at ease with ourselves and with our place in the world if we face up honestly to our past.
Our response was written Jeremy Caddick. Jeremy was the MP Candidate for Cambridge in the 2019 General Election. He has lived in Cambridge for more than 25 years and is the Dean and Chaplain at one of the Colleges in Cambridge University. He campaigns for the University to cut its links with fossil fuel companies.