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Cambridge University launches inquiry into how institution profited from slavery

The University of Cambridge is to launch a two-year inquiry into how it profited from slavery. Credit: PA

Cambridge University has launched an investigation into how the institution benefited from and contributed to slavery.

In a statement today, the university said it hoped to "acknowledge its role during that dark phase of human history" during its two-year investigation.

The inquiry will seek to examine how the university profited from slavery and forced labour during the colonial era through donations, gifts and bequests.

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The extent to which Cambridge scholars promoted racist attitudes which helped shape public and political opinion will also be examined.

Two post-doctoral researchers are to carry out the investigation, looking into the university and wider archives.

It comes amid a wider “decolonise” movement sweeping universities in both Britain and the US in recent years.

Oriel College at Oxford University faced intense pressure to get rid of a statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes in 2016, despite widespread student demands to remove it.

UK student campaigners from the Rhodes Must Fall group argued the row illustrated Britain’s “imperial blind spot”.

The statue at Oxford’s Oriel College of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, which was heavily criticised. Credit: Steve Parsons/PA

Professor Stephen Toope, University of Cambridge vice-chancellor, said: “There is growing public and academic interest in the links between the older British universities and the slave trade, and it is only right that Cambridge should look into its own exposure to the profits of coerced labour during the colonial period.

“We cannot change the past, but nor should we seek to hide from it. I hope this process will help the University understand and acknowledge its role during that dark phase of human history.”

The final report is expected to “recommend appropriate ways for the university to publicly acknowledge such links and their modern impact”, the university said.

Professor Martin Millett, chairing the advisory group overseeing the work, added: “We cannot know at this stage what exactly it will find but it is reasonable to assume that, like many large British institutions during the colonial era, the University will have benefited directly or indirectly from, and contributed to, the practices of the time.”

The findings are expected to be submitted in 2021.