The Universities Studying Slavery consortium, which launched in early 2016 when Georgetown University joined what had been an informal gathering of Virginia Schools (Virginia Colleges and Universities Studying Slavery-VCUSS) has grown by nearly a factor of ten since then. It first crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 2017 when the University of Glasgow joined. The University of Bristol, the first school in England to join, followed soon thereafter in the same year. In the next three years, Bristol was followed first by Liverpool John Moores University (2019), the University of Manchester (2019), and the University of Nottingham (2020). Today, we share wonderful news that the University of Cambridge, the fifth institution in England to sign on, has joined our movement.
The University of Cambridge Advisory Group on Legacies of Enslavement was created in early 2019 at the request of Vice-Chancellor & Professor Stephen J Toope in response to the growing public interest in the issue of British universities’ historical links to the slave trade. The group was charged with advising him on the University of Cambridge’s historical links with the slave trade and to propose future actions.
The Advisory Group has commissioned research into the University of Cambridge’s involvement in, or links to, the Atlantic slave trade and other historical forms of coerced labor, including indentured labor. It seeks to work in collaboration with those already engaged in such research in Cambridge and in the UK and elsewhere, and to encourage and support the development of further strands of research. Alongside its findings on historical University links to the slave trade, the Advisory Group will recommend specific ways for the University to publicly acknowledge such historical links and to address their intergenerational impact. It produced an interim report early in 2020 and plans a final report in 2022.
To assist in its work, the Advisory Group has appointed two post-doctoral Research Fellows for two years from Autumn 2019. They are based in the Centre for African Studies and will work in an interdisciplinary context across the University, developing relationships with other staff and students who are active in similar research. They will deliver their own research projects, under the aegis of the Advisory Group and under the supervision of a small group of academics. One is undertaking historical and archival research into the ways in which the University may have been involved financially and otherwise in the slave trade or other historical forms of coerced labor connected to colonialism. The other is undertaking research into the University’s contribution to knowledge that may have supported the validation and dissemination of racialized and racist social structures and beliefs, including how those may continue into the present.
To this end, the Group envisages this inquiry as the beginning of a long-term research and institutional commitment to these issues. One aim is to join with others in developing a cross-university research network that will continue after the Advisory Group’s work is completed. They also hope to draw on expertise and perspectives from outside Cambridge to benefit from other experiences and to contribute to broader discussion on these issues globally.
Our collective engagement continues as the number of schools committing to this important work of research, acknowledgement, and atonement grows. We look forward to hearing from the University of Cambridge and the growing contingent of schools in the United Kingdom and Ireland.