An unusual event will soon be taking place in Cambridge: a hearing in the beautiful chapel of Jesus College by the Consistory Court of the Diocese of Ely. The College has petitioned for a “faculty” (an authorisation) to remove from the chapel a prominent and artistically important memorial to one of its major benefactors, Tobias Rustat. He was also a significant benefactor of the University, and has a Cambridge street named after him.
I hope to be able to attend as an interested observer. Partly, I admit, because of the picturesque nature of the event – an archaic procedure in which the 17th century will be colliding with the 21st. More seriously, because matters of ethics and politics that have become increasingly contentious will be discussed calmly and thoroughly by qualified people. Among them will be the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford, and a former Director of the Institute of Historical Research in London.
There could not be a sharper contrast with the anarchic wrecking of the Colston statue in Bristol, or the shrill demands that “Rhodes must Fall” in Oxford. But the issues raised will be similar. Rustat invested in the 17th-century Royal Africa Company, which traded in slaves. Central here is the question of what, if anything, 17th century slavery has to do with us today, and why a long extinct trade in people is being promoted as a defining symbol of our – and Western – society. Also at issue is our relationship with the past. Can we honestly judge the dead by our own sometimes very recent standards? Who are those who claim to sit in judgment, and why?
Then there are utilitarian questions, which for some are far more important: public image above all, and the sometimes contrary concern not to alienate present and future benefactors. I believe the main opposition to quietly removing the Rustat memorial does indeed come from former students of Jesus College who are or might become donors. Why should they give money to an institution that can brusquely decide to “cancel” those who fund it?
Colleges always tell their first-year students (at least mine does) that they will be valued members of the college for the rest of their lives. Here is a test of that promise. But what if present students and past students see things differently? Calm debate might, if we are lucky, help resolve tensions and guide public opinion.
The piquant aspect here is that it concerns a chapel memorial, which raises the moral stakes. The College, and seemingly the Bishop of Ely, regard it as wrong to “venerate” in a place of worship a man guilty, by our standards, of complicity in a heinous crime – a weighty consideration. The memorial, they suggest, makes chapel-goers feel excluded or unsafe.
On the other hand, it might be thought to teach valuable moral lessons. About the possibility of redemption. About how moral standards change, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. About the paradox that human beings often manage to be both good and evil. Perhaps above all about hypocrisy: a slave-trader boasts of gifts to charity; students indignant about historical slavery buy mobile phones containing minerals mined by African children; a college scrupulous about past misdeeds has taken money from a genocidal regime. If that makes worshippers feel “unsafe”, so much the better.
Robert Tombs is a Cambridge historian, and co-editor of the website History Reclaimed