Wednesday, June 7

Church court rejects Cambridge college bid to move slave trader memorial | cambridge

A Cambridge college has been refused its application to remove a memorial to its 17th-century benefactor Tobias Rustat from the college chapel because of his links to the slave trade.

Jesus College argued that the memorial, in a prominent position on the west wall of the Grade I-listed chapel, should be moved to another site in the college because its presence was having a negative impact on the mission and ministry of the church.

It is accepted that Rustat, a former courtier to King Charles II and one of the college’s most significant benefactors, was involved with the Royal Adventurers and the Royal African Company that trafficked and traded enslaved Africans.

But a church court found that widespread opposition to the memorial was based on “a false narrative” about the scale of the financial rewards Rustat gained from slavery, and ordered that the memorial should remain in the chapel, which is the oldest in Cambridge.

A consistory court – an ecclesiastical body dealing with matters of law relating to the church – held a hearing last month on the application by Jesus College to the diocese of Ely to remove the plaque.

Responding to the judgment – ​​made by the deputy chancellor of the diocese of Ely, David Hodge QC – a spokesperson for Jesus College said: “We are deeply disappointed and shocked by the decision.” The college will now consider whether to seek leave to appeal.

In the meantime, the ruling will be closely examined by the Church of England, which has countless other statues and memorials in church buildings dedicated to prominent historical figures with links to the slave trade.

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In February the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, came out in support of the college’s attempt to move the plaque when, speaking at the C of Es General Synod, he asked: “Why is it so much agony to remove a memorial to slavery? ”

He said the church needed to change its practices, pointing out that Jesus College had as its master a black woman, Sonita Alleyne, who had to look at a memorial to a man who financed slavery “every time she sits in her stall”.

Dismissing the college’s petition, Hodge said the removal of the Rustat memorial would cause “considerable or notable harm to the significance of the chapel as a building of special architectural or historic interest”.

He said no one disputed that slavery and the slave trade were “evil, utterly abhorrent, and repugnant to all right-thinking people”, but opposition to the memorial was the result of a false narrative that Rustat had amassed much of his wealth from the slave trade, which he then used to benefit the college.

The true position, Hodge said, was that Rustat’s investments in the Royal Adventurers brought him no financial returns at all, and he realized his investments in the Royal African Company only in May 1691, 20 years after he had made his gifts to the college.

Hodge acknowledged that for some, Rustat’s willingness to invest in the slave trade at all made his memorial a problem. Quoting LP Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between, he said its opening lines – “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” – did not excuse but could help to explain Rustat’s investments in transatlantic slavery.

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“I would hope that when Rustat’s life and career is fully and properly understood, and viewed as a whole, his memorial will cease to be seen as a monument to a slave trader,” he said.

The college spokesperson said Rustat’s involvement in the slave trade had never been in question and opposition to the memorial was a result of that involvement rather than any false narrative.

“This celebratory memorial to an active participant in the slave trade remains a barrier to worship in our chapel for some members of our community. It was right for us to have submitted this application. We will now carefully consider our next steps,” they said.

A spokesperson for the Church of England’s church buildings council said: “Judgments such as this show that hearing from a wide range of voices is a crucial part of making important decisions.

“The Church of England’s contested heritage guidance doesn’t prescribe solutions or any specific way forward, but presents a range of options and considerations, and encourages balanced, inclusive decision-making which is locally led.”

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