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Centre of African Studies


Report of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery

Check out the report of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery here.


Initial Report - May 2020

Below is the Initial Report released by the Vice-Chancellor's Advisory Group, in May 15, 2020, you can review the initial report on the Vice-Chancellors webpage as well.

The Group has been asked to produce its final report in 2022. It has also agreed to present an initial report by Easter 2020. This, the present report, is designed to explain the background to the Inquiry, to outline our plan of action, and to make some initial recommendations. Our work is at an early stage, so we are not yet able to provide information on the findings of our research.



First, we recognize that enslavement and its legacies are not reducible to an object of academic study, nor are they issues that lend themselves to simple institutional solutions. Rather, enslavement and its legacies carry a whole history of racial violence, terror, exploitation, and long-term harm inflicted on specific parts of the world and communities of people, in particular on the global South and on communities of African descent. We recognize that no academic initiative can do justice to this legacy, and so we begin by humbly proposing our effort as one provisional, inevitably imperfect attempt to try to shed light on and help address the part of this history of violence that is closest to ourselves here at Cambridge. Our starting point is that Cambridge, like many other major UK and North American institutions, benefited both directly and indirectly from enslavement, the slave trade, and imperialism more broadly, so an understanding of that involvement should be central to the University’s efforts to address some of the structural inequalities that are a legacy of enslavement, in particular around the continued impact of racism in our own community. Our inquiry joins in the work of other British Universities such as Glasgow and UCL and of many North American Universities.

Cambridge University and the Colleges

Our inquiry was established to advise the Vice-Chancellor, and as such its remit is de facto limited to the University. Nevertheless, our research is necessarily entwined with, and of relevance to, the thirty-one independent Colleges that comprise the Collegiate University. We are very pleased to note that a number of Colleges have already taken the decision to explore their own historical links to enslavement, whilst students across the Collegiate University have been very active in promoting such work. The chair of the Advisory Group has written to all Heads of Colleges inviting them to liaise with the work of the Group and to send representatives to its events. The Group also seeks to support the development of a research network that includes those active in such research in Colleges.

The first announcement of this inquiry in the Spring of 2019 became part of a flourishing of independent research efforts across the Collegiate University. Dozens of graduate students, undergraduates, postdoctoral scholars, faculty members, archivists, librarians, and museum staff have already begun to explore the history of Cambridge’s many institutions in search of financial and other legacies of colonial enslavement.

Jesus College convoked its own Legacy of Slavery Working Party including student representatives and scholarly external advisers. That group has published its interim report detailing its initial work and findings. During the summer of 2019, both King’s and Saint Catharine’s Colleges funded student-led research. The methods and findings of initial student researchers have already begun to shape the University’s own effort. The preliminary report highlighting selected findings of student researchers at St Catharine’s has been published online. Many other colleges have launched or have begun planning parallel research efforts. Pembroke College has announced bursaries for students to conduct research into the ‘nature and extent’ of the College’s connections to enslavement. Queens’ College has convoked a meeting on the topic, and scholars there have begun to coordinate with the University inquiry. Corpus Christi has sent interested undergraduates to participate in the University legacies of enslavement student working group. The archivist at Downing College has been investigating the institution’s connections to enslavement and is currently preparing a report. Newnham College is considering a student-led research effort.

The advisory committee welcomes collaboration with colleges, faculties, institutions, researchers, and students throughout the university who choose to engage with this effort. We anticipate that, alongside the efforts of the Advisory Group and the postdoctoral researchers, 2020–21 will witness even more extensive student-led exploration of the University’s historic relationship to Britain’s colonial enslavement enterprise.

Building on existing research

The Inquiry builds upon a strong history of scholarship and engagement around enslavement and its legacies at Cambridge. It also seeks to follow in the path of the extensive work by students and staff, especially students and staff of colour, around issues of decolonisation, race and racism, and diversity, inclusion and access. The Group hopes that that its work can complement and support this existing intellectual and institutional activity around the University and Colleges, as we recognize that, long before this specific research effort, Cambridge has been the site of a wealth of student-led initiatives, department-based discussions, and scholarly debates on these issues.


The Vice-Chancellor’s Endowment Fund has provided a grant to allow the Advisory Group to employ two post-doctoral Research Fellows for two years and to cover their research costs. Their research, as outlined below, will contribute importantly to the Group’s final report.


Report of work to date


Following the establishment of the Group early in 2019, the Advisory Group has met regularly to define our terms of reference and our working methods, to consider the research required, to define the budget required, to draw up job descriptions for the Research Fellows, and to respond to various internal and external enquiries. Now that the initial phase of set-up is complete, the group will increasingly turn its attention to the scope of its final report, whilst guiding and monitoring the work of the Research Fellows.

Media relations

The announcement of the Group’s establishment in April 2019 led to considerable media interest. The Chair sought to respond quickly and comprehensively to external media enquiries, greatly assisted by the Secretary and the University Communications team. Some of the pieces in the media have been very helpful in providing constructive criticism and in focusing the Group’s attention on key matters of public concern. Since the early summer, there has been less external media interest, although we have dealt with a number of requests for information.


The establishment of the Group was also followed by intense debate within the University, in which members of the Advisory Group were heavily engaged. A wide range of views of the value of the project were expressed, including significant concerns, especially from University students and staff, about a lack of consultation prior to the public announcement, the limitation of the Inquiry’s scope to the University excluding the Colleges, and the composition of the Advisory Group. An independent student-led working group on the Legacies of Slavery was established, which put on a series of events and provided crucial, and often critical, feedback to the Advisory Group. Indeed, the flourishing of conversations and debates at the University have been of upmost importance in helping us to shape our work. Responding to the concerns over a lack of consultation, during Easter Term 2019 the Advisory Group held two public consultative meetings to explain its approach and to encourage input from as wide a variety of staff and students as possible. These generated very useful ideas and perspectives on the scope of our work, and have been extremely helpful in informing our discussion on the research project, in particular around ways in which our final report can address issues of reparative justice.

These open consultative meetings have been complemented by various other encounters, both formal and informal. Members of the Advisory Group have attended meetings arranged by students and staff in several colleges and faculties, as well as meeting individuals across the University. These meetings include the Panel Discussion on Slavery and its Legacies at Cambridge held in the Centre of African Studies Public Lecture series on Race and African Studies on 28 February 2019, very soon after our group was convened and a broad meeting convened by the Faculty of History on 19 June 2019 in which students, members of the faculty, and members of the Advisory Group discussed the Legacies of Enslavement Project and ways in which the Faculty might participate in the research. A forthcoming undergraduate research course on the history of the Cambridge abolitionists represents just one example of a formal pedagogical synergy with the work of the Inquiry.

The Group enthusiastically welcomes these discussions, and we wish to encourage the development of a network for linking different researchers so that the subject gains momentum that will carry on beyond the work of the Advisory Group. To this end, the Group agreed with the Director of CRASSH that they should host twice-termly meetings from Lent Term 2020 to facilitate the development of a research network in this area, whilst the Centre for African Studies plans to host a weekly seminar related to the Inquiry in Lent Term 2021, led by our post-doctoral researchers. It is also intended to hold a conference towards the end of our project. In all these events, we seek 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.

Research Fellows

The Group decided early on that, in order for the Inquiry’s findings and recommendations to have the widest legitimacy, they would need to draw upon rigorous empirical research. To this end, the Group has appointed two Research Fellows to be based in the Centre for African Studies, but working in an interdisciplinary context across the University and developing relationships with staff and students active in similar research. They will be developing and delivering their own research projects under the aegis of the Advisory Group and under the supervision of a small group of academics. Each will be expected produce academic work of the highest standard, to take part in academic meetings and seminars, and to publish their research as part of their career progression. The scope of their research will encompass both a) 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 labour connected to colonialism; as well as b) 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.

These posts were advertised in the early autumn of 2019 and an appointment committee (which included an external specialist) held on 18 November agreed to appoint Dr Sabine Cadeau and Nicolas Bell-Romero. Dr Cadeau started work in January 2020, whilst Mr Bell-Romero submitted his PhD and started work in March 2020.

Recruiting external advisors

Following feedback from discussions across the University, it was agreed that it would be beneficial to establish a small external panel to provide help and advice to the Group, and especially to the Post-Doctoral fellows. The external panel would be willing to offer occasional guidance on matters arising, intellectual and otherwise, thus helping to complement the expertise available within the University. Following discussions, we are delighted that the following external experts have agreed to join this panel:

Dr Toby Green (King’s College London)

Dr Meleisa Ono-George (Warwick University)

Prof Olivette Otele (University of Bristol)

Prof Diana Paton (University of Edinburgh)


Plan of action


The principal drive of our work from Lent Term 2020 will be research, comprising both the work of our own Research Fellows and gathering information from related work across the Collegiate University. In this context we are delighted to welcome some of the first results of college initiatives noted above. We will endeavour to share information across the University so that all those working in the subject benefit both from knowledge of the outcomes, and from seeing complementary approaches.

In support of this, we will use our website and an email list to provide current information about the project and related activities across the Collegiate University and to serve as a hub for research and engagement around the theme.

Public presentations

Our other priority over the next two years will be presenting the inquiry and seeking input on it from a broad audience, both within the University and beyond. In addition to the ongoing series of public forums and seminars, we are seeking to support research and public-facing engagement on Enslavement and its Legacies by students, staff, and organizations and institutions throughout the University. Discussions are progressing with the University of Cambridge Museums about an exhibition in 2022 that will explore aspects of the subject. We plan for the work to culminate in a major international conference in 2022. Other ideas include involvement in the University’s annual Festival of Ideas and other University outreach events and programmes. In all this, we welcome proposals and ideas for collaboration from across the Collegiate University.

First recommendations

The Advisory Group will, in its final report, recommend specific ways for the University to acknowledge publicly its historical links to enslavement and to address their intergenerational impact. Discussions concerning reparative justice, some of which have already been driven forward by students and staff throughout the University, will be especially important in informing our recommendations. Indeed, if such institutional and intellectual measures are to be meaningful, they must be developed through dialogue with those communities who continue to be disadvantaged by the legacies of enslavement today, including those within Cambridge, within the UK, and beyond.

One of the most important principles that came up in the discussions following the announcement of the Inquiry, and one that the Group subscribes to entirely, is that the two-year Inquiry must be only the beginning of a long-term endeavour of research into enslavement and its legacies and of addressing those legacies through institutional and intellectual measures. This long-term initiative will require major institutional support, and we are actively investigating a number of options and possible frameworks, with partners across the University, for how to best ensure the flourishing of this important work well into the future.

Most of the Group’s recommendations, to be presented in the final report, will focus on the period after the end of this initial Inquiry. However, while the Inquiry is in progress over the next two years, we have several specific recommendations that can ensure that the Inquiry is as successful and has as broad a reach as possible.

  1. That active support be provided for a series of events – including forums, talks, seminars, workshops, exhibits – within the Collegiate University during the academic years 2020–21 and 2021–22. These events would have two objectives. First, to provide spaces and opportunities for students and staff to explore, challenge, and debate courses of action that can follow from the Inquiry. This should include a review and discussion of the types of actions that have been taken by other Universities. Second, to provide a means by which communities from beyond the University that have been damaged by enslavement and its legacies could be brought in and their voices heard within the University setting. We see themes of acknowledgement and reparative justice as being central to both of these objectives. We would foresee these events as being organized by organizations, institutions, and groups within the University, receiving support through the Advisory Group. Helping to support this broad ecosystem of research and engagement will also help ensure the long-term sustainability of the initiatives coming out of the initial Inquiry.
  2. That active support is given to the plan from the University of Cambridge Museums to include the theme of legacies of enslavement in its Fitzwilliam Museum Exhibition planned for the summer of 2022. We believe that this would be an appropriate and helpful way of emphasizing the University’s commitment to publicly acknowledging the issues that we are investigating.
  3. That active support is given to the organization and delivery of an international conference in Cambridge to explore broadly the legacies of enslavement in the Cambridge context, to coincide with the completion of our inquiry towards the end of 2022.

In developing our final report and recommendations, we will also draw upon the broad range of experiences with similar initiatives at other universities, where a wide set of changes, large and small, have been instituted. We will also extend our relations with universities in those parts of the world beyond the UK where the legacies of enslavement are most present, in particular in the Global South.


Appendix:Terms of Reference for the Advisory Group on the Legacies of Enslavement

The Advisory Group was created at the request of the Vice-Chancellor, in light of the growing public interest in the issue of British universities’ historical links to the slave trade. The Advisory Group is not a decision-making body but is constituted to advise the Vice-Chancellor on how the University might acknowledge and respond to the historical links between the university and the slave trade.
The Advisory Group, which will report its findings to the Vice-Chancellor, is chaired by Professor Martin Millett. Membership of the Advisory Group is listed on its website, but may be amended to accommodate members’ availability and specific expertise requirements. The Advisory Group will, if required, consult others including external specialists.

The Advisory Group will commission and direct research into the University of Cambridge’s involvement in, or links to, the Atlantic slave trade and other historical forms of coerced labour, including indentured labour.

The commissioned research will include, but is not limited to, instances in which the University may have gained financially and otherwise from the slave trade or other historical forms of coerced labour connected to colonialism. This extends to the acquisition of artefacts and collections currently in University’s libraries, museums and other collections.

One strand of the commissioned research will specifically address the University’s contribution to scholarship that may have supported the validation and dissemination of racialized forms of knowledge. The commissioned research may consider the abolitionist movement in that context.

Pending a formal application (including costings), the commissioned research will be underwritten, in the first instance, by the Vice-Chancellor’s Endowment Fund.

The Advisory Group recognises that the issues arising from the University’s historical links to the slave trade or other historical forms of coerced labour connected to colonialism, and from their contemporary legacies, are of relevance to the Collegiate University as a whole.

The Advisory Group will produce an interim paper setting out its objectives early in 2020. It will aim to report back to the Vice-Chancellor by the end of Easter Term, 2022.

Alongside its findings on historical University links to the slave trade, the Advisory Group will recommend appropriate ways for the University to publicly acknowledge such historical links, and their intergenerational impact – including their effect on university access, knowledge production, levels of attainment and retention.

Award winning author and former MPhil in African Studies student Mary Ononokpono talks about how her work has been inspired by our MPhil programme


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