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Court to decide fate of Jesus College memorial to Tobias Rustat, slave-trade investor

25 January 2022


THE removal of memorials to beneficiaries of the slave trade will be a question for the Consistory Court of the diocese of Ely to decide when it hears a petition from Jesus College, Cambridge, at the start of next month.

In May 2021, the College Bursar applied on behalf of the college for a faculty authorising the removal from the west wall of the college chapel a memorial dedicated to Tobias Rustat (died 1694), a benefactor of the college who is said to have invested in the slave trade.

The memorial contains the portrait of Rustat in an oval medallion with two asymmetrically posed cherubs holding up draperies and garlands. The faculty application provoked objections, and many of the objectors became formal parties opponent to the petition.

Last August, both the Chancellor of the diocese of Ely, Chancellor Leonard QC, and the Deputy Chancellor, David Etherington QC, recused themselves from hearing the petition on the grounds that there might be a perceived bias or conflict of interest. The Chancellor of the diocese of Oxford, the Worshipful David Hodge QC, who has no connection with the University of Cambridge or Jesus College, was appointed as Deputy Chancellor of Ely solely for the purpose of determining the petition.

At a preliminary hearing for directions, the college, which will be calling seven witnesses to give evidence, applied to be allowed to include the evidence of an eighth witness, Dr Verene Albertha Shepherd, Professor Emerita of social history at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. She is a descendant of an African born into slavery in the British colonised island of Jamaica in 1829, and later freed when slaves in that colony were emancipated.

The purpose of Professor Shepherd’s evidence was to explain why, based on the history of colonialism, historical figures associated with slavery and the trade in Africans as part of British colonialism, specifically in the Caribbean, should not be celebrated or memorialised, especially in public, and specifically church, spaces.

The college said that Professor Shepherd’s evidence addressed the strength of feeling felt by many about the continued presence of the memorial in the college chapel. It was said that many people now knew about Rustat’s involvement in the slave trade, and that that knowledge could not now be undone.

The parties opponent responded that the college had not only allowed a false narrative to take hold, but that it had fostered it and allowed it to spread without making any attempt to contradict it. They said that the college had deliberately withheld research from the objectors and the wider public. The parties opponent agreed with the college that slavery in all its aspects was wrong, but said that Professor Shepherd’s evidence added nothing to the case.

On being asked by the court what Professor Shepherd added to the body of evidence in the case, the college said that she addressed the effects of slavery on the current generation of those who were descended from its victims, and was able to speak from both a national and international perspective.

The Deputy Chancellor decided to exclude Professor Shepherd’s evidence on the ground that it added nothing material to the evidence of the petitioners’ other witnesses, or to matters that were either common ground or of such general knowledge that the court could take judicial notice of them.

Both slavery and the trade in slaves were “now universally recognised to be evil, utterly abhorrent, and repugnant to all right-thinking people . . . whatever their ethnic origin and ancestry,” the Deputy Chancellor said. They were also “recognised to be entirely contrary to the doctrines, teaching, and practices of the modern Church”. Professor Shepherd’s evidence was therefore “unnecessary and disproportionate”, and would have added to the length and costs of the hearing.

The parties opponent were allowed to call the evidence of an expert historian to respond to the expert evidence of a historian called by the college. But the parties opponent were refused their application for an adjournment of the substantive hearing, which is due to take place in the college chapel for three days from 2 February.

Forthcoming Events

2 July 2022
Bringing Down the Mighty: Church, Theology and Structural Injustice
With Anthony Reddie, Azariah France-Williams, Mariama Ifode-Blease, Luke Larner, Will Moore, Stewart Rapley and Victoria Turner.

4-8 July 2022
HeartEdge Mission Summer School
From HeartEdge and St Augustine’s College of Theology.

More events

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