DOMINIC SANDBROOK: Cambridge dons are being cowards

DOMINIC SANDBROOK: Of course slavery was abhorrent. But Cambridge dons who now feel guilty about our Empire are narcissistic cowards

To most people, the mention of Cambridge conjures up images of magnificent colleges, black-gowned students, winding lanes and long, lazy afternoons punting down the river.

The second-oldest university in the English-speaking world, it remains one of the greatest educational establishments, and can reasonably claim to be one of the few British institutions still admired across the planet.

It is 20 years since I was a Cambridge postgraduate student, but I remember my time there with immense fondness. It gives me no pleasure, then, to see that it has utterly shamed itself.

Researchers at Cambridge University (pictured) are to carry out a two-year probe into its links with the slave trade

Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, a Canadian expert on human rights, has announced a ‘two-year inquiry’ to find out whether it benefited from the Atlantic slave trade ‘through financial and other bequests to departments, libraries and museums’.


Almost incredibly, Professor Toope and his fellow apparatchiks propose to pay two full-time researchers to scour the university’s records for dirt, supervised by an eight-man advisory board.

What is more, they are proposing to investigate the work of generations of Cambridge dons, now long dead, to see if they ‘might have reinforced and validated race-based thinking’ between the 18th and early 20th centuries.

When I first saw this story, I hoped it might be some belated April Fool. In reality, alas, it is merely the latest symptom of the narcissistic, cringing self-flagellation to which our universities have fallen victim.

Why Cambridge has decided to launch its own little Cultural Revolution is no mystery.

For the past few years, a tiny band of noisy, intolerant bullies have been whipping themselves into a lather about our imperial history, above all at Oxford. There, they tried to pressure Oriel College into tearing down a statue of the late-Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes and howled down the Regius professor of moral theology, Nigel Biggar, when he dared to say that the British Empire wasn’t all bad.

The Rhodes statue is still there, but the activists tend to win most of their battles.

The pattern is almost always the same. Student activists and their hard-Left academic supporters kick up a fuss. And the university authorities, showing the moral gutlessness for which they are justly infamous, promptly give them what they want.

Dons at my old Cambridge college, Jesus, have removed a splendid bronze cockerel, which was originally taken from Nigeria by British soldiers in the 1890s. And at my old Oxford college, Balliol (I was an undergraduate there), a portrait of George Curzon, former Viceroy of India, has been removed from the dining hall.

Jesus College, Cambridge (pictured), removed a bronze cockerel, which was originally taken from Nigeria by British soldiers in the 1890s

The portrait of former Viceroy of India George Curzon (pictured) was replaced with art by a female graduate at Balliol, Oxford

I thought all this was bad enough. But Cambridge’s latest initiative not only plumbs new depths of intellectual cowardice, it is a betrayal of generations of scholars.

No sane person, by the way, would dispute that slavery was abhorrent. But the British did not invent it. Slavery is as old as history itself.

Amid all the hysteria about our involvement in the Atlantic trade, it is often forgotten that most of us have slave ancestry. At the time of the Norman Conquest, between 10 and 30 per cent of England’s population were slaves.

It is perfectly true, of course, that, in the 18th century, British merchants grew rich on the profits from shipping African slaves to the Americas. But, it was not a uniquely British enterprise. Almost all European colonial nations took part.

The most enthusiastic traders were the Portuguese, who transported five million Africans to Brazil. And, as the first nation to abolish slavery, Britain was instrumental in bringing it to an end. Did Cambridge benefit from it? Of course it did. Almost every major British institution benefited, either directly or indirectly. That was the whole point of the slave trade — disgusting as it was, it made a lot of people very rich.

Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope (pictured), a Canadian expert on human rights, has announced a ‘two-year inquiry’ to find out whether the university benefited from the Atlantic slave trade

Since all this is well known, the university’s new project is an utter waste of time. After all, it is obvious that modern Britain rests on the foundations of the past, from the Tate art galleries, funded by profits from the Caribbean sugar plantations, to the traditional cup of tea, a habit imported from China and India.

Some people might find this uncomfortable. But that’s life.

For good and ill — generally good — our history happened, and there’s no point apologising for or trying to rewrite it.

Of course, Professor Toope knows this. But, like academic appeasers everywhere, he is desperate to advertise his own right-on credentials.

And if that means dragging his institution’s name through the mud, so be it.


At a time when the headlines are full of the plight of the seas, the menace of discarded plastic and the global emergency of climate change, Cambridge’s vice-chancellor wants to plough precious research money into . . . flagellating his own institution about a trade abolished here in 1807. You’d do well to find a better example of petty parochialism, navel-gazing and sheer irresponsibility.

Yet the most shocking thing is the threat to unmask long-dead scholars who supposedly ‘validated race-based thinking’. Professor Toope plans a historical witch-hunt, in which Victorian dons guilty of offending modern sensibilities will be named and shamed.

What’s the point? Is Cambridge’s vice-chancellor so dim-witted, so cocooned in the smugness of his second-hand moral convictions, that he doesn’t realise almost everyone in the past held views that might make us shudder now?

Is he really too stupid to understand that our ancestors were not like us? Is he going to take down all the portraits of Victorian dons? Is he going to remove their books from the library? Is he going to hold a mass book-burning?

And what does this say to today’s scholars? Will they, too, have to stand before Toope’s tribunal and prove that they are innocent of ‘race-based thinking’? Or will they get a few centuries’ grace before their reputations are incinerated for not meeting the moral standards of the far future?


Saner dons must find the whole business a grotesque embarrassment. But it is not only Cambridge’s increasingly battered reputation that is at stake. When the cowards at Oriel College, Oxford, promised to consider removing Cecil Rhodes’s statue, their alumni reacted with unbridled fury.

According to a leaked report, the college lost donations worth £200,000 almost overnight, while a potential donor withdrew a £500,000 gift.

There is only one thing universities care about more than sucking up to the strident Left, and that is the state of their bank balance. So Oriel frantically reversed course and promised to keep the statue.

I wonder whether Cambridge will soon be facing a similar dilemma. Like all universities, it is experiencing a period of immense financial uncertainty. And, if its donors take against Professor Toope’s little exercise in cringing masochism, the financial impact could be catastrophic.

It is Cambridge’s job to promote free speech, encourage intellectual scepticism and stand against the intolerant self-righteousness creeping into our national culture. It is not Cambridge’s job to grovel in the gutter before a ragtag army of hard-Left activists and professional victims.

And if Professor Toope really cannot bring himself to stand up for its proud history and record of scholarship, then he should book himself a one-way ticket back to Canada.

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