Church court REFUSES bid by Jesus College Cambridge to remove memorial to 17th century benefactor Tobias Rustat over slave trade links as judges say it’s a reminder of ‘the imperfection of human beings’ and ‘none of us is free from sin’

  • Jesus College wanted to remove the stone memorial honouring Tobias Rustat
  • Rustat was courtier of King Charles and had a small investment in slave trade
  • Bosses said memorial was an odious momento to the Transatlantic slave trade
  • But backers said that Rustat’s involvement in slave trade had been ‘exaggerated’
  • An ecclesiastical court has ruled against College, saying memorial should stay 

A Cambridge college’s bid to rip out a 300-year-old memorial to a benefactor with links to the slave trade has been thrown out, in what backers have described as a victory against ‘cancel culture’.

Jesus College claimed the memorial to Tobias Rustat – a courtier of King Charles II – was an odious memento of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and was ‘incompatible with the chapel as an inclusive community and a place of collective wellbeing’.

They wanted the memorial, which is set high on the wall above the altar in the college’s Grade-I listed chapel, removed and replaced in a permanent exhibition space elsewhere.

But the plans sparked accusations that the college was trying to ‘cancel’ Rustat, who was one of Jesus College’s largest benefactors before the 20th century.

Opponents of its removal also argued that Rustat’s links to the Transatlantic Slave Trade had been exaggerated, because he had a relatively small investment in a company that traded slaves and the majority of his wealth came from his work for the king. 

The row, which even drew comment from the Archbishop of Canterbury, ended up before a special ecclesiastical court sitting at Jesus College Chapel.

And a judge has ruled against the college, saying the memorial should remain in place as a reminder of ‘the imperfection of human beings’. 

He also said that through the plaque, Rustat’s undoubted involvement in ‘the abomination’ that was the slave trade could serve as a reminder ‘that none of us is free from all sin’ and would allow those who observed it to ‘question our own lives, as well as Rustat’s’. 

Today’s decision has been backed by the Rustat Memorial Group, which opposed its removal, and by Save Our Statues, a group which campaigns against ‘attacks’ on British history. 

But the College today said it was ‘deeply disappointed’ and ‘shocked’ by the decision’ and it was ‘carefully considering’ its next steps.

Jesus College claimed the memorial to Tobias Rustat (pictured) – a courtier of King Charles II – was an odious memento of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which saw millions of people shipped from Africa to the Americas over 400 years

Bosses of the college also claimed the stone plaque to Rustat (pictured) was ‘incompatible with the chapel as an inclusive community and a place of collective wellbeing’.

But the move sparked accusations that the college was trying to ‘cancel’ Rustat, who was one of Jesus College’s (pictured) largest benefactors before the 20th century

University benefactor and slave trade investor: Life of Tobias Rustat – and his links to Edward Colston

A statue of Tobias Rustat

Tobias Rustat was a 17th century benefactor of the University of Cambridge, as well as a servant to King Charles II.

He created the first fund for the purchase of books at the Cambridge University Library.

Born circa 1606, he trained as an apprentice to a barber-surgeon in his youth before becoming a servant – first to the 2nd Duke of Buckingham and later to the monarch.

He accumulated his wealth during his career as a courtier – but also invested in several trading companies, including the Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading into Africa – commonly known as the Royal African Company (RAC).

The Company had complete control of Britain’s slave trade, as well as its gold and Ivory business, with Africa and the forts on the coast of west Africa.

Later in life, Rustat became a benefactor to the university, focusing mainly on Jesus College, where his father had been a student. He died in 1694. 

A contemporary of Rustat was Edward Colston, who became Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company.

During Colston’s tenure, his ships transported around 80,000 slaves from Africa to the Caribbean and America. Around 20,000 of them, including around 3,000 or more children, died during the journeys.

Colston’s brother Thomas supplied the glass beads that were used to buy the slaves.  Colston used a lot of his wealth, accrued from his extensive slave trading, to build schools and almshouses in his home city.

A statue was erected in his honour as well as other buildings named after him, including Colston Hall. 

But after years of protests by campaigners and boycotts by artists the venue recently agreed to remove all reference of the trader.  In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 sparked by the death of George Floyd in the US, the statue of Colston overlooking the harbour in Bristol was torn down.

Lawyers for the college had argued Rustat had profited heavily from shipping slaves out of west Africa in the late 17th century through his investments with the Royal African Company.

Rustat was a courtier under Charles II and a major benefactor to Cambridge University, but became a target for campaigners due to his involvement with the Royal African Company which operated on the west coast of Africa in the later 17th century under royal charter. 

They accused Rustat of ‘financial and administrative involvement in the trading of enslaved human beings over a substantial period of time’.

But objectors highlighted the move as an example of cancel culture, which could open dangerous floodgates leading to the removal of monuments to many more historical figures. 

The case was heard by a judge specially appointed by the Bishop of Huntingdon because the ornate memorial is housed in a world-renowned Grade-I historic building and an ecclesiastical environment.

Jesus College had urged that ‘any harm caused to the significance of the chapel as a building of special architectural and historic interest by the removal of the Rustat memorial is substantially outweighed by the resulting public benefits, in terms of pastoral wellbeing and opportunities for mission’.

Lawyers for the college highlighted the memorial’s position in the chapel ‘high up on the west wall’, which gave a man linked to the historic slave trade a position of undeserved prominence. 

This created a ‘serious obstacle’ to the college’s wish to preach the Christian mission, they added, although stressing: ‘it does not seek to erase Rustat’s name, or his memory, from the college but merely to relocate his memorial to a more appropriate, secular space, where it can be properly conserved and protected, and become the subject of appropriate educational study and research’.

But others opposed the plans, with historian Professor Lawrence Goldman suggesting that in trying to ‘cancel’ Rustat, the college was attempting to ‘assault carefully selected aspects of its past’ and could lead to further calls for removal of memorials to other historical figures elsewhere.

‘Other figures from the past, equally bad or even worse, will also have to be removed and cancelled, and the disputes will multiply and intensify,’ he told the judge.

‘If the church supports the removal of monuments, it will rightly stand accused of adding to cultural division and social discord.’

But the college denied that Rustat was being ‘cancelled’ since his life would be remembered elsewhere and not ‘erased.’

For 65 past college students fighting the removal, barrister Justin Gau argued that the best solution was to ‘contextualise’ Rustat’s life with a plaque close by the memorial explaining his conflicted background.

He said removing the memorial was like ‘getting rid of an elderly and unpopular relative – though one who has been hugely generous in the past’.

After exhaustive argument and trawling through historical evidence, Deputy Chancellor of the Diocese of Ely, David Hodge QC, ruling on the case, came down in favour of retaining the memorial.

They accused Rustat (pictured: The Rustat plaque) of ‘financial and administrative involvement in the trading of enslaved human beings over a substantial period of time’

For 65 past college students fighting the removal, barrister Justin Gau argued that the best solution was to ‘contextualise’ Rustat’s life with a plaque close by the memorial (pictured) explaining his conflicted background

The Master of Jesus College, Sonita Alleyne, said that the proposal to relocate the monument to an educational exhibition space was ‘part of a process of critical self-reflection on the long-term legacies of enslavement and colonial violence’

TOBIAS RUSTAT, YEOMAN OF THE ROBES

TO KING CHARLES THE SECOND,

WHOM HE SERVED WITH ALL DUTY AND FAITHFULLNESS,

IN HIS ADVERSITY AS WELL AS PROSPERITY.

THE GREATEST PART OF THE ESTATE HE GATHERED

BY GOD’S BLESSING, THE KING’S FAVOUR, AND HIS INDUSTRY,

HE DISPOSED IN HIS LIFETIME IN WORKES OF CHARITY;

AND FOUND THE MORE HE BESTOWED

UPON CHURCHES, HOSPITALLS, UNIVERSITIES AND COLLEGES

AND UPON POOR WIDOWS AND ORPHANS OF ORTHODOX MINISTERS,

THE MORE HE HAD AT THE YEAR’S END.

NEITHER WAS HE UNMINDFUL OF HIS KINDRED & RELATIONS,

IN MAKING THEM PROVISIONS OUT OF WHAT REMAINED.

HE DIED A BACHELOUR

THE 15TH DAY OF MARCH,

IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 1693.

AGED 87 YEARS.

Given the architectural beauty of the chapel, the college would have to present compelling arguments for ripping out the memorial, he explained, which they had failed to do.

While acknowledging the obvious fact of slavery’s ‘evil and abhorrence’ he said the main opposition to the Rustat memorial was based on a ‘false narrative’ that he had amassed most of his fortune from the slave trade.

‘The true position, as set out in the historians’ expert reports and their joint statement, is that Rustat’s investments in the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa (the Royal Adventurers) brought him no financial returns at all; that Rustat only realised his investments in the Royal African Company in May 1691, some 20 years after he had made his gifts to the college, and some five years after the completion of the Rustat memorial and its inscription.

‘Any moneys Rustat did realise as a result of his involvement in the slave trade comprised only a small part of his great wealth, and they made no contribution to his gifts to the college.’

He ‘recognised’ that willing involvement in the slave trade was itself deeply problematic – even if Rustat had made scant profits.

But the judge concluded: ‘However, 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.

‘Certainly, I do not consider that the removal of such a significant piece of contested heritage, representing a significant period in the historical development of the chapel from its medieval beginnings to its Victorian re-ordering, has been sufficiently clearly justified on the basis of considerations of pastoral wellbeing and opportunities for mission in circumstances where these have been founded upon a mistaken understanding of the true facts.’

He was persuaded that the appropriate response to Rustat’s undoubted involvement in ‘the abomination’ that was the slave trade was not to remove his memorial from the college chapel but to retain it in the religious space for which it was always intended.

‘In this way, the Rustat memorial may be employed as an appropriate vehicle to consider the imperfection of human beings and to recognise that none of us is free from all sin; and to question our own lives, as well as Rustat’s, asking whether, by (for example) buying certain clothes or other consumer goods, or eating certain foods, or investing in the companies that produce them, we are ourselves contributing to, or supporting, conditions akin to modern slavery, or to the degradation and impoverishment of our planet.’ 

A spokesman for Jesus College said: ‘We are deeply disappointed and shocked by the decision.

Rustat (pictured: The Rustat memorial) was a courtier under Charles II and a major benefactor to Cambridge University, but became a target for campaigners due to his involvement with the Royal African Company which operated on the west coast of Africa in the later 17th century under royal charter

The row even drew comment from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who asked: ‘Why is it so much agony to remove a memorial to slavery?’ The archbishop added that ‘we need to change our practices’ – making reference to Sonita Alleyne, a black woman and master of Jesus College who has to look at the memorial ‘every time she sits in her stall’.

Save Our Statues, a campaign group fighting against the removal of historic plaques and statues, today backed the decision. ‘As we’ve long argued, a disproportionate emphasis on links to slavery is not ‘more history’, it’s a false distortion of history,’ the group today said on Twitter.

‘Rustat’s involvement in the slave trade has never been in question, and the widespread opposition to the presence of his memorial in the College Chapel is the result of this involvement and not any false narrative apparently created by the College about the sources of Rustat’s wealth.

‘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.’

Meanwhile Save Our Statues, a campaign group fighting against the removal of historic plaques and statues, today backed the decision.

‘As we’ve long argued, a disproportionate emphasis on links to slavery is not ‘more history’, it’s a false distortion of history,’ the group today said on Twitter. 

A spokesman for the Rustat Memorial Group, which opposed its removal, said: ‘We are pleased to read the judgment and hope that all parties can agree that the issues raised by the petition are now resolved. 

‘We wish Jesus College well as it focuses again on today’s challenges in the university.’ 

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