‘We can’t believe it’: Cambridge college master aghast as slave trader plaque stays

The master of a Cambridge University college at the centre of a dispute over a memorial to a benefactor who was involved in the slave trade has described a recent judgment by a church court that it should remain in the college chapel as “astonishing”.

Jesus College applied to the Diocese of Ely to remove the memorial to its 17th-century benefactor, Tobias Rustat, whose links with slavery are universally accepted, and put it on display in another site in the college. They argued that its presence was having a negative impact on the mission and ministry of the church.

Speaking to the Guardian after losing the case, Sonita Alleyne, the master of Jesus College, said the decision was a profound moment for the Church of England, which has apologised for its own links to the transatlantic slave trade. “It’s the first test for the church," ella dijo, “a church which in the 17th century owned slaves.”

It is a test the church appears to have failed. “It’s a church which is saying to black people: you’ve got to put up and shut up and pray under a memorial to a slave trader,” said Alleyne. “It’s very, very disappointing. How could they get to that decision?"

Alleyne, who was the first black master of an Oxbridge college and is the first woman to lead Jesus College since its foundation in 1496, was born in Bridgetown, barbados, and brought up in Leytonstone, El este de Londres, a Seventh Day Adventist. Her sense of disbelief at the ruling is audible. “There is such a thing as racial dignity in worship. That’s a thing that has been ignored.

“The memorial to someone who invested in wholesale murder, muerte, esclavitud, torture – that’s more important than that feeling of being able to be in a church in a comfortable way? And if we don’t like it we just have to suck it up or don’t come in?

“The Church of Inglaterra sits at the heart of the Anglican communion across the world. The average Anglican is a 30-year-old African woman. What are we really saying with this judgment?"

Since Alleyne took up her role as the 41st master of Jesus College in October 2019, she has led the college not only through a pandemic but also during a process of critical self-reflection as it examines the long-term legacies of slavery and colonial violence. Her personal message about the killing of George Floyd received widespread attention, as did the return of a looted Benin bronze cockerel to delegates from Nigeria.

Her tenure has also coincided with growing diversity at Cambridge University. los 2020 cohort at Jesus College was described as “the most diverse in history” with more than four in five students from state schools and colleges, and one in three students of colour.

She is also keen to highlight her work developing better career support for students, so it’s not just about getting into Cambridge and leaving with a good degree, but also about finding a rewarding career and improving social mobility, especially for the most disadvantaged. To that end she has encouraged entrepreneurship, mentoring, speed networking, career talks, internships and work experience opportunities, particularly in the creative industries where she made her name, founding the production company Somethin’ Else, which she led until 2009.

Alleyne also wants to encourage members of the college to make a difference in the wider Cambridge community, particularly the neighbouring Abbey ward, which scores highly on all indices of social deprivation, and she is a patron of Red Hen, a charity that supports local primary schoolchildren and their families.

sin embargo, para bien o para mal, the disagreement surrounding the Rustat memorial has gained her the most column inches.

los ruling on Wednesday that the Rustat memorial should remain in the chapel followed resistance from a group of 70 college alumni, who opposed the plan for its removal, arguing that the one-time courtier to Charles II had been misrepresented.

The judgment agreed with them that the opposition to the ornate memorial stone, designed by Grinling Gibbons, was based on “a false narrative” about the scale of the financial rewards Rustat gained from slavery. It found that Rustat’s investments in the slave trading Royal Adventurers brought him no financial returns at all, while his investments in the Royal African Company were not realised until 20 years after he had made his gifts to the college.

Alleyne argued that meticulous research had revealed Rustat was “heavily involved”, to the same level as Edward Colston, whose statue was toppled in Bristol in 2020, and she was shocked that the fact that he was less successful as a slave trader was used in the judgment to help justify leaving the memorial in place.

“He didn’t get any dividends, but he was sat in meetings. He knew how many people had been lost at sea, how much cargo had been lost. That is a real investor in the transatlantic slave trade, in one of the most successful companies. People died. People were branded. People were raped. People were worked to death.”

The judgment came as a surprise to many, after the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, came out in support of removing the memorial, urging the church to change its practices. Alleyne expressed anger that having contested and lost the case, the increasingly diverse community at Jesus were now expected to go back into the chapel and get on with it, in the shadow of a slave-trader’s memorial.

“This is quite a monumental moment – this was the church’s moment of reparation for its past involvement in the slave trade," ella dijo. “This is not acceptable. It’s offensive. It’s like saying to Rosa Parks: you’ve had your fun. Now you get to the back of the bus. It’s nonsense.

“This is people not in the community now making judgments over what the community is about now and what young people are about now. We can’t believe this has been the outcome.”

The college is considering whether to seek leave to appeal. mientras tanto, Alleyne, a graduate of Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge, finds herself reluctant to enter the chapel at all and will consider staging official events that would normally be in the chapel – such as the awarding of scholarships – elsewhere.

“It’s the church. The church is meant to love us all. You can’t just say you love us. You’ve got to show it. The idea that you would just say: put up and shut up and get on with it now … We don’t just have to accept that from the church.

“It’s just not right. What does that judgment say? They are basically saying: if you don’t want to come in then just go, and don’t come in, because it doesn’t matter.”

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