CAMBRIDGE has decided to put itself in the pillory before it’s even been charged. The Times reports that the university has taken the pre-emptive measure of accusing itself of past wrongs. It has announced a two-year inquiry into its historical links to the slave trade and whether it should pay reparations. 

Two full-time members of staff are ‘to examine financial bequests and other gifts to the university’s departments, libraries and museums with links to the Atlantic slave trade and other forms of coerced labour during the colonial era’. They will see whether Cambridge academics may, through their work, have ‘reinforced and validated race-based thinking’ between the 18th and early 20th centuries. You bet they will.

This, the latest example of the awful rise of virtue-signalling can only be designed to show that the man whose brainchild it is, Stephen Toope, a human rights law scholar from Canada who became vice-chancellor of the university in October 2017, is heroically at the cutting edge of approved liberal opinions. Like his compatriot Mark Carney, he seems entirely careless of running down an institution his host country gave birth to, and which gives him such a well-paid sinecure (his basic salary in 2017-18 was £431,000).

It is only right, Toope believes, that Cambridge ‘should look into its own exposure to the profits of coerced labour during the colonial period’ and ‘uncover how the institution might have gained from slavery and the exploitation of labour’. I have no doubt his new research staff from the University’s Centre for African Studies will find enough examples to empty the university’s coffers. It is not as though they are a historical secret. The early slave trade had many respectable participants, including philanthropic dissenters and Quakers.

Whether they will examine the full history of the six million slaves shipped from Africa up to 1807 when Parliament banned the trade and beyond – to the next 60 years in which Britain took the moral and practical lead in ending this crime against humanity – I am less sure about.

It is unarguable that the British were by far the largest shippers of slaves, carrying more than three million in the period up to 1806/7, with the French and Portuguese their biggest customers and African rulers their eager suppliers. Also true are the following facts:

  • Slavery was universal and immemorial – for example the Arab slave trade preceded, outlasted and easily matched Atlantic slavery for cruelty;
  • Britain and a few neighbouring countries were unusual in not having slavery at home;
    Africans bought by Europeans were already captives or condemned criminals facing death or enslavement (which of course in no way justifies it).
  • What the forever angry mob forget is that Britain’s pioneering campaign to abolish the trade began as early as the 1770s and that over the next century it was the most important humanitarian campaign in English history .

It was Britain that pressed the French to abolish their slave trade. It was Britain that put pressure on the main slave-buying nations of Spain and Portugal to stop the trade. London even asked the Pope for support. It was Britain that persuaded the reluctant ‘Great Powers’ to attach to the 1815 Treaty of Vienna a condemnation of the slave trade.

This was the first such human rights declaration, as the human rights expert Stephen Toope must surely know, and the one that began the long effort to end slaving, against the resistance of the slave-trading and holding nations and their African suppliers that continues to this day. Saudi Arabia legally abolished full-blown slavery only in 1962, and Mauritania in 1981.

The story of that campaign, in which women featured very significantly, is a book in itself. Less well known is where it began. Strangely, it was at the very same university whose tradition and finances Professor Toope seems so happy to rubbish and whose great reputation he seems set on trashing, rather than revering. A genuinely more enlightened forerunner, the Vice Chancellor in 1785, set as the subject for a coveted essay prize: ‘Is it right to make slaves against their will?’

It was won by an undergraduate, one Thomas Clarkson – perhaps the most important student activist in history – who at Cambridge began his lifelong career as propagandist and organiser. Two years later the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was set up. In 1789 the young Tory MP and evangelical Anglican, William Wilberforce, encouraged by his friend William Pitt, the Prime Minister, began a Parliamentary campaign to ban the trade. By 1792 the government had received petitions totalling 390,000 signatures and there was a large-scale boycott of slave-produced sugar.

Campaigning peaked in 1833 with more than 5,000 petitions bearing 1.5million signatures. In response, Parliament emancipated 800,000 slaves in the Empire. Furthermore – memo to Afua Hirsch – from 1808 to 1870 the Royal Navy placed a permanent squadron, at times equal to a sixth of its ships, to intercept slavers off West Africa, exposing crews to yellow fever and gruelling hardship, and at huge taxpayers’ expense. The Navy captured hundreds of slave ships and freed some 160,000 captives. It forcibly entered Brazilian ports to seize or destroy slave ships.

Britain signed 45 treaties with African rulers to stop the traffic at source. Reluctant to give up their income, some threatened to kill their slaves if they could not sell them. In several cases Britain paid them to abandon the traffic. In 1861 it occupied Lagos, deposing the ruler who refused to end the trade. In the process tens of thousands of British troops were sacrificed to tropical disease. I wonder whether Professor Toope will judge their descendants to be suitable claimants for reparations? How is he planning such monies should be shared out, on what basis and on what proof of inheritance? Not, surely, to the descendants of the African tribal chiefs who were also its beneficiaries?

Full acknowledgement is made to Robert Tombs’s England and Its History from which the historical facts in this blog were taken.

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