UK college seeks permission to remove slavery-linked memorial

Cambridge University’s Jesus College wants to remove a plaque commemorating a slave-trade investor, Tobias Rustat.

A woman looks at a memorial to Tobias Rustat
An employee looks at a memorial to Tobias Rustat, hung inside Jesus College Chapel at the University of Cambridge [Chris Radburn/AFP]

A university college in the United Kingdom has asked a judge to allow the removal from its chapel of a memorial to a historical donor implicated in the slave trade.

The hearing that opened on Wednesday will be held for several days at the University of Cambridge.

The university’s Jesus College wants to take down an ornate marble plaque commemorating Tobias Rustat, a 17th-century slave-trade investor and significant donor to the college, which is fixed to the wall of its chapel.

Rustat, a courtier to King Charles II, was also an investor in the Royal African Company, which transported nearly 150,000 slaves, and took part in running the company.

The college said he “had financial and administrative involvement in the trading of enslaved human beings over a substantial period of time”.

Jesus College Chapel at Cambridge University in the UK
Jesus College Chapel is pictured at the University of Cambridge in the UK [Chris Radburn/AFP]

It wants to move the plaque, featuring a portrait of Rustat, and display it in an archive room with information giving historical context. Its academics have voted in favour.

Because the memorial is in a religious building, a church-appointed judge will rule on the fate of the plaque at an ecclesiastic court hearing held in the chapel itself.

The judge is overseeing the so-called “consistory court” session, independent civil proceedings that are to include the questioning of expert witnesses.

Such hearings are rare, and usually concern church buildings.

‘Cancelling’ a donor

The college argues the monument “represents a celebration” of Rustat, and its current location inside the chapel on its west wall may stop people worshipping there.

A group of graduate students stood outside the chapel on Wednesday, holding placards with slogans backing the college’s plan: “Moving not erasing” and “Churches are people not marble”.

“The Rustat memorial is an obstruction to the whole college community enjoying the use of the Chapel,” said one student, who declined to give his name.

The college chapel’s dean James Crockford said the college acted due to “heightened feelings” about the memorial, with some students “disturbed and upset by being faced with it”.

“The inscription on the memorial behind me focuses very much on the financial virtues of Tobias Rustat,” he said.

However, some alumni and descendants of Rustat have opposed its removal, arguing his donations were not money earned from slavery.

Lawyers representing the college are participating in the court hearing, as is a lawyer representing a group of alumni opposing the memorial’s removal.

After an introductory prayer, lawyer Mark Hill, representing the college, said it wants to display the plaque, featuring a portrait of Rustat, in another building with information on historical context.

Lawyer Justin Gau, representing a group of about 65 former students, whom he is not naming, attacked the college’s initial proposal to put the memorial in a wine cellar and questioned the need for the chapel to be a “safe space”.

“Why cannot Rustat’s whole life be put into context in this building?” he asked.

A memorial to Tobias Rustat
Grants from the Rustat Trust are still available [Chris Radburn/AFP]

Some preservationists have criticised the plan to remove the memorial, saying it is believed to be the work of Grinling Gibbons, a renowned sculptor and woodcarver.

Historic England, a public body defending the country’s heritage, has said removing the memorial would “harm the significance of Jesus College Chapel”.

It suggested instead adding a plaque about Rustat’s history or moving the memorial within the chapel.

Right-wing tabloid the Daily Mail has criticised the college’s proposal as a move to “cancel” a historical donor, a charge the college has denied.

The paper also accused the college of hypocrisy since it has accepted large donations from China.

Rustat gave about 3,230 British pounds (about 500,000 pounds or $675,000 in present value) to Jesus College, mostly to fund scholarships for children of clergy. Grants from the Rustat Trust are still available.

Protesters in June 2020 threw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into the harbour in Bristol in western England. Like Rustat, he was a leading figure in the Royal Africa Company in the 17th century.

The statue of Edward Colston falls into the water after protesters pulled it down in Bristol
The statue of Colston falls into the water of the docks in Bristol [File: Keir Gravil via Reuters]

Rustat commissioned his memorial years before his death aged 87 and kept it in his house.

It was carried in his funeral procession when he was buried in the college chapel.

The memorial’s inscription says Rustat gained a fortune “by God’s blessing, the King’s Valour and his industry”, making no mention of slavery, which Britain outlawed in 1833.

The hearings are expected to take three to four days this week. The judge may announce his decision at the final hearing or in writing afterwards.

Rustat is also commemorated with a statue in Cambridge, outside a historical library building.

Cambridge University Library says it has made “preliminary enquiries” about removing it.

Source: News Agencies