Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); }

'I think of this as a way of helping show that the institution is genuinely willing to grapple with its own history,' Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, says of a review he launched to investigate the school's ties to the transatlantic slave trade.

Francesca Jones/The Globe and Mail

When Canadian academic Stephen Toope became vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge two years ago, he promised to bring some new ideas to the 800-year-old institution. Few people expected that would include delving into the university’s ties to slavery and launching a divisive debate over reparations.

The furor started last spring, when Dr. Toope appointed an advisory committee to conduct a two-year inquiry into how Cambridge benefited from the slave trade and how it should make amends.

The review is one of the most comprehensive by any university – and it immediately sparked a backlash. Some historians called it a publicity stunt, while others chastised Dr. Toope for “virtue signalling” – professing moral outrage at something without actually doing anything about it. Even those who welcomed the inquiry expressed concern that it wouldn’t go far enough and address Cambridge’s chronic lack of diversity.

Story continues below advertisement

Graduates gather outside Senate House at Cambridge University.

Paul Hackett/Reuters

If Dr. Toope has been taken aback by the flak, he doesn’t show it. During a recent interview in a Cambridge conference room lined with portraits of King Henry VIII, King Charles I and Queen Elizabeth I, Dr. Toope smiled when asked about the criticism. “That’s life," he said casually. “Every subject is going to have people on one side or the other. Living in a university, there’s always robust debate.”

Given his background and outsider status at Cambridge – he’s the first non-British vice-chancellor of the university, putting him in charge of the administration (the chancellor plays a ceremonial role) – Dr. Toope said it shouldn’t have come as a shock that he would be interested in a topic such as slavery.

While he’s had a long career in academia, he’s also a lawyer who has worked with the United Nations on a variety of human-rights issues and served as a fact-finder during the inquiry into the imprisonment and torture of Canadian Maher Arar in Syria. “I am an international human-rights lawyer, so in that sense I don’t suppose anyone should be entirely surprised that I might find these issues of relevance,” he said. Still, his precipitous move came as a surprise.

Cambridge hasn’t had the same kind of student revolt that has shaken other universities, including Oxford, where students demanded the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, who funded the Rhodes Scholarship, but also exploited workers at his diamond mines in South Africa.

While several universities in the United States have also been grappling with their links to the slave trade, Cambridge has managed to stay largely above the fray and has pointed to alumni William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, the leaders of the abolitionist movement in Britain.

Rather than sit tight, Dr. Toope said he wanted to get ahead of the issue.

“You can sit there and wait until people force you to act. And I think we’ve seen a certain amount of that in various universities around the world where students have got frustrated and they start pulling down statues.”

Story continues below advertisement

Cape Town, 2015: University of Cape Town students cheer after the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a British mining magnate and former leader of the Cape Colony. Rhodes bequeathed the land on which the school was built, and founded the Rhodes Scholarship, but his exploitation of African diamond miners and belief in white Anglo-Saxon superiority make him a hated figure for many South Africans.

Charlie Shoemaker/Getty Images

Charlottesville, Va., 2017: Protesters cover a statue of former U.S. prseident Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia on the one-month anniversary of a 'Unite the Right' rally, which attracted a torch-wielding group of white nationalists outraged about discussions that statues of Confederate figures be torn down. One counter-protester was killed when a neo-Nazi rammed her with a car.

Zack Wajsgras/The Daily Progress via AP

He took inspiration from the University of Glasgow, which undertook a similar inquiry last year. That review found the university had benefited from Scottish slave traders to the tune of £16.7-million to £198-million ($29.2-million to $346-million) in today’s money. To help make amends, the university plans to spend £20-million on a new centre, together with the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, to study all forms of human trafficking. It will also erect a memorial in honour of the enslaved and, instead of changing the names of buildings, will put a plaque on its main landmark, the Gilbert Scott Building, to explain that it was built with the profits of slavery.

With the Glasgow example in mind, Dr. Toope announced Cambridge’s inquiry last April. He vowed it would examine not only the university’s financial gains from slavery, but also whether its scholarship “might have reinforced and validated race-based thinking between the 18th and early 20th [centuries].” A pair of full-time researchers began the work this fall, and their final report is due in 2022.

The inquiry got off to a rough start with the appointment of a white academic – Martin Millett, a professor of classical archeology – to head the advisory committee.

“It is bizarre that, if they are trying to send a signal about what they are like, they couldn’t find a black academic to lead this,” Trevor Phillips, a former chair of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, said at the time. “That would have sent a great signal to the world that Cambridge understands that black folks are not just great entertainers or sportspeople, but that we can also be brainy.”

Some historians also slammed Dr. Toope for trying to rewrite history. “I don’t like the idea of bits of history being selected especially to fit a certain agenda,” Robert Tombs, an emeritus professor of history at Cambridge, said in an interview. "I’m very skeptical about whether this is a serious historical research project or if it’s just a piece of PR, really.” Dr. Tombs said that instead of the inquiry, the university should give more scholarships to African students. “But not because this is a reparation – because it’s very unclear who reparations should be paid to – but because I think it would be the right thing to do.”

Jeremy Black, a history professor at the University of Exeter, went further. “I think it’s childish what the vice-chancellor is doing,” he said in an interview. “It’s ahistorical, and it’s rather as if in 200 years time we were going to be having a witch hunt because people in this generation eat meat and in 200 years time they know it is a bad thing. … Slavery we now know and understand ethically to be wrong, and we now disapprove of it. But it is absolutely absurd to go beating up a generation of the past.”

At the Wilberforce House Museum in Hull, Britain, a model of a slave ship dating from 1791 is shown on display in 2019. The model was commissioned by 18th-century abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, who presented it to William Wilberforce for use in his parliamentary speeches. Both men were Cambridge alumni.

Russell Boyce /Reuters

The Wilberforce House Museum also features an unattributed oil painting titled 'Am I not a Man and a Brother.' It was used in the 18th century as an abolitionist symbol, and is based on a widely reproduced 1787 design by British potter Josiah Wedgwood.

Russell Boyce/Reuters

Uncovering Cambridge’s ties to slavery also won’t be easy.

Given the university’s history and its global reach, its connections to the slave trade could be vast and may stretch over almost 300 years. The first slave ships sailed from England in the 1560s, and the trade didn’t formally end until 1833, when slavery was abolished throughout the British empire.

The University of Glasgow study found it almost impossible to quantify in monetary terms how much the university benefited from slavery. Researchers combed through records involving 200 bursaries and about 2,500 donations to various campus projects. Most of the records contained little more than the names of the donors, so the only way to find out if the money had been tainted by slavery was to trace the owners’ source of wealth, along with their family members and ancestors. The equivalent number of donations to Cambridge will be far larger, the ties more complex.

Dr. Toope said the final figure isn’t as important as getting to the truth behind Cambridge’s history.

“I don’t imagine at all that this is going to lead to massive reparations,” he said. “I just think we have to be honest with who we are, and there will be consequences – of course there will be. But I think they can be consequences that can be made a positive if we actually think creatively about what the past means for the future.”

Many people at the university and across the country agree. “I commend Cambridge [University’s] decision to examine its colonial past and slavery,” David Lammy, a prominent Labour MP, wrote on Twitter. “To whom much is given, much is expected. The wounds of that period still reverberate today. Contrition and atonement for a grievous wrong is the only way to face the future.”

Story continues below advertisement

People walk into the quadrant of Cambridge's Clare College.

Paul Hackett/Reuters

Arathi Sriprakash, a lecturer in Cambridge’s faculty of education, said the inquiry is an opportunity for the university to hold up a mirror to itself. She told a conference on slavery this year that Cambridge’s efforts to reach out to minority groups and diversify its student population often resembled “benevolent inclusion.”

“Once you’re here, the message is to fit in and be ever grateful, even though we know that universities are failing students of colour as well as staff of colour,” she said. “This project should not be used by the institution to pat itself on the back without doing the work of bringing meaningful change.”

There have been concerns that the inquiry won’t include Cambridge’s 31 colleges, which operate largely independently from the university. Dr. Toope said there is little he can do to compel them to participate. “My role is not like being a CEO of a corporation,” he said. “I think it’s more like being a combination of a creator of incentives, a cheerleader, one hopes sometimes maybe exercising a little moral authority.”

He noted that some colleges have begun their own inquiries. Jesus College recently announced it will return a bronze statue of a cockerel to Nigeria after discovering that the figure, which was donated in 1930 by a British army officer, was part of 1,000 bronzes taken from Benin City, in present-day Nigeria. Benin was occupied by imperial troops in 1897, according to the British Museum. St Catharine’s College has also removed a bell from its main entranceway after learning it had been used on a slave plantation.

As he awaits the results of the inquiry and braces for the fallout, Dr. Toope rejects suggestions that he has raised expectations too high. “I think of this as a way of helping show that the institution is genuinely willing to grapple with its own history,” he said. “If we believe in data and fact and truth and decision-making that’s based in reality … then we have to understand our history and then figure out what it means for the way we go forward.”


The slave trade by numbers

Number of African slaves transported in transatlantic slave trade, by origin and destination

In millions, 1501–1866

AMERICAS

EUROPE

0.01

0.16

AFRICA*

Mainland

orth America

0.39

Senegambia &

offshore Atlantic

0.76

Spanish

Americas

1.29

Sierra Leone

0.39

Windward Coast

0.34

Danish

West Indies

0.11

Gold Coast

1.21

British

Caribbean

2.32

Bight of Benin

2.00

French

Caribbean

1.12

Bight of Biafra

1.60

West Central

Africa &

St. Helena

5.70

Dutch

Americas

0.45

Southeast Africa &

Indian Ocean islands

0.54

Brazil

4.86

*Slaves recaptured and returned to Africa.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS

Number of African slaves transported in transatlantic slave trade, by origin and destination

In millions, 1501–1866

AMERICAS

EUROPE

0.01

0.16

AFRICA*

Mainland

orth America

0.39

Senegambia &

offshore Atlantic

0.76

Spanish

Americas

1.29

Sierra Leone

0.39

Windward Coast

0.34

Danish

West Indies

0.11

Gold Coast

1.21

British

Caribbean

2.32

Bight of Benin

2.00

French

Caribbean

1.12

Bight of Biafra

1.60

West Central

Africa &

St. Helena

5.70

Dutch

Americas

0.45

Southeast Africa &

Indian Ocean islands

0.54

Brazil

4.86

*Slaves recaptured and returned to Africa.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS

Number of African slaves transported in transatlantic slave trade, by origin and destination

In millions, 1501–1866

Europe

0.01

Mainland North America 0.39

Senegambia & offshore Atlantic 0.76

Spanish Americas 1.29

Africa

0.1*

Sierra Leone 0.39

Windward Coast 0.34

Danish West Indies 0.11

Gold Coast 1.21

British Caribbean 2.32

Bight of Benin 2.00

Bight of Biafra 1.60

French Caribbean 1.12

Dutch Americas 0.45

West Central Africa & St. Helena 5.70

Brazil 4.86

Southeast Africa & Indian Ocean islands 0.54

*Slaves recaptured and returned to Africa.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS

Number of African slaves shipped from Africa, by colonizer

1501–1866

Great Britain

Portugal / Brazil

France

Spain / Uruguay

Others

120,000

100,000

80,000

60,000

40,000

20,000

0

1550

1650

1750

1850

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: SLAVEVOYAGES.ORG

Number of African slaves shipped from Africa, by colonizer

1501–1866

Great Britain

Portugal / Brazil

France

Spain / Uruguay

Others

120,000

100,000

80,000

60,000

40,000

20,000

0

1501

1550

1600

1650

1700

1750

1800

1850

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: SLAVEVOYAGES.ORG

Number of African slaves shipped from Africa, by colonizer

1501–1866

Great Britain

Portugal / Brazil

France

Spain / Uruguay

Others

120,000

100,000

80,000

60,000

40,000

20,000

0

1501

1550

1600

1650

1700

1750

1800

1850

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: SLAVEVOYAGES.ORG

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the cockerel, which is a Benin bronze, had ties to slavery. It does not.
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies